A World Literature Timeline

Invention of Writing and Earliest Literature [Beginnings to 100 A.D.]

  1. Writing was not invented for the purpose of preserving literature; the earliest written documents contain commercial, administrative, political, and legal information, and were created by the first "advanced" civilizations in an area that Westerners commonly call the Middle East.
  2. The oldest writing was pictographic, meaning that the sign for an object was written to resemble the object itself; later, hieroglyphic and cuneiform scripts were invented to record more complicated information.
  3. Begun in 2700 B.C. and written down about 2000 B.C., the first great heroic narrative of world literature, Gilgamesh, nearly vanished from memory when it was not translated from cuneiform languages into the new alphabets that replaced them.
  4. Though the absence of written signs for vowels can confuse some readers, the consonantal script developed by the Hebrews ushered in a new form of writing that could be composed without special artistic skills and read without advanced training.
  5. With their return to Palestine in 539 B.C., the Hebrews rebuilt the Temple and created the canonical version of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.
  6. As the stories in the Bible expound, unlike polytheistic religions in which gods often battle among themselves for control over humankind, the sole resistance to the Hebrew God is humankind itself.

Ancient Greece [Beginnings to 100 A.D.]

  1. Though the origin of the Hellenes, or ancient Greeks, is unknown, their language clearly belongs to the Indo-European family.
  2. By serving as a basis for education, the Iliad and Odyssey played a role in the development of Greek civilization that is equivalent to the role that the Torah had played in Palestine.
  3. The Greeks who established colonies in Asia adapted their language to the Phoenician writing system, adding signs for vowels to change it from a consonantal to an alphabetic system.
  4. Before its defeat to Sparta, Athens developed democratic institutions to maintain the delicate balance between the freedom of the individual and the demands of the state.
  5. Unlike the Sophists, Socrates proposed a method of teaching that was dialectic rather than didactic; his means of approaching "truth" through questions and answers revolutionized Greek philosophy.
  6. The basis for Homer's Iliad and Odyssey was an immense poetic reserve created by generations of singers who lived before him.
  7. Neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey offers easy answers; questions about the nature of aggression and violence are left unanswered, and questions about human suffering and the waste generated by war are left unresolved.
  8. Greek comedy and tragedy developed out of choral performances in celebration of Dionysus, the god of wine and mystic ecstasy.

Poetry and Thought in China [Beginnings to 100 A.D.]

  1. Chinese civilization first developed in the Yellow River basin.
  2. The Classic of Poetry is a lyric poetry collection that stands at the beginning of the Chinese literary tradition.
  3. The fusion of ethical thought and idealized Chou traditions associated with Confucius were recorded in the Analects by Confucius's disciples following his death.
  4. The Chuang Tzu offers philosophical meditations in a multitude of forms, ranging from jokes and parables to intricate philosophical arguments.
  5. During the period of the Warring States, Ssu-ma Ch'ien produced the popular Historical Records chronicling the lives of ruling families and dynasties in a comprehensive history of China up to the time of Emperor Wu's reign.
  6. The end of ancient China is often linked with the rise of the draconian ruler Ch'in Shih-huang.

India’s Heroic Age [Beginnings to 100 A.D.]

  1. The ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity of India's billion people has given rise to a diverse written and oral literary tradition that evolved over 3,500 years.
  2. The Vedas are the primary scriptures of Hinduism and consist of four books of sacred hymns that are typically chanted by priests at ceremonies marking rites of passage.
  3. The Upanisads argue that the soul is a manifestation of a single divine essence; release comes from understanding the basic unity between the self and the universe.
  4. Two epics that express the core values of Hinduism are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
  5. Dharma is the guiding principle of human conduct and preserves the social, moral, and cosmic integrity of the universe. It refers to sacred duties and righteous conduct, and is related to three other spheres that collectively govern an ideal life: artha (wealth, profit, and political power); kama (love, sensuality); moksa (release, liberation).
  6. The belief that all beings are responsible for their own actions and their own suffering is known as karma.
  7. Because Buddhism was a more egalitarian and populist religion, it initially gained a following among women, artisans, merchants, and individuals to whom the ritualistic and hierarchical nature of Hinduism seemed constraining.
  8. Because Hinduism and its important texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita were able to synthesize tenets and ideas from the other religions, it was able to triumph in India.
  9. The idea that moral and spiritual conquest is superior to conquest by the sword is an enduring motif of the time and one that was publicly endorsed by Emperor Asoka.

The Roman Empire [Beginnings to 100 A.D.]

  1. With its military victories in North Africa, Spain, Greece, and Asia Minor, the social, cultural, and economic life of Rome changed profoundly.
  2. After the fall of the Roman empire, the concept of a world-state was appropriated by the medieval Church, which ruled from the same center, Rome, and laid claim to a spiritual authority as great as the secular authority it succeeded.
  3. Literature in Latin began with a translation of the Greek Odyssey and continued to be modeled after Greek sources until it became Christian.
  4. The lyric poems that Catullus wrote about his love affair with the married woman he called Lesbia range in tone from passionate to despairing to almost obscene.
  5. Left unfinished at the time of his death, Virgil's Aeneid combines the themes of the Homeric epics: the wanderer in search of a home from the Iliad, and the hero at war from the Odyssey.
  6. Ovid's extraordinary subtlety and psychological depth make his poetry second only to Virgil's for its influence on Western poets and writers of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and beyond.
  7. Probably written by Petronius, and probably written during the principate of Nero, the Satyricon is a satirical work about the pragmatism and materialism of the Roman empire that would soon be supplanted by Christianity.

Roman Empire -> Christian Europe [100 A.D. to 1500]

  1. The life of the Hebrew prophet Jesus ended in the agony of the crucifixion by a Roman governor, but his teachings were written down in the Greek language and became the sacred texts of the Christian church.
  2. The teachings of Jesus were revolutionary in terms of Greek and Roman feeling, as well as the Hebrew religious tradition.
  3. Until Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, declaring tolerance for all religions, in 313, the Christian church was often persecuted by imperial authorities, particularly under the rule of emperors Nero, Marcus Aurelius, and Diocletian.
  4. The four Gospels were collected with other documents to form the New Testament, which Pope Damasus had translated from Greek to Latin by the scholar Jerome in 393–405.
  5. In his Confessions, Augustine sets down the story of his early life for the benefit of others, combining the intellectual tradition of the ancient world and the religious feeling that would come to be characteristic of the Middle Ages.

India’s Classical Age [100 A.D. to 1500]

  1. During the rule of the Guptas in ancient India, great achievements were made in mathematics, logic, astronomy, literature, and the fine arts.
  2. Classical Sanskrit literature deals extensively with courtly culture and life. Aiming to evoke aesthetic responses, many of the works admitted into the literary canon were poetic works written and performed by learned poets (kavi) who were under the patronage of kings. A highly stylized form of poetry, kavya literature consists of four main genres—the court epic, short lyric, narrative, and drama.
  3. In contrast to the elegant and formal works of the kavya genre are two important collections of tales that have influenced tales around the world—the Pañcatantra and the Kathasaritsagara.
  4. Women in classical literature are rarely portrayed as one-dimensional characters who are victims of circumstance.
  5. The kavya tradition is concerned with the universe and ideals. Heroes and heroines are rarely individuals; rather, they represent "universal" types.

China’s Middle Period [100 A.D. to 1500]

  1. The "middle period" of Chinese literature occupies a central place in that nation's cultural history; to many it is the era during which Chinese thought and letters achieved its highest form.
  2. During China's "middle period," Confucianism declined in importance; Taoism and Buddhism in fact began to acquire a more important status. With an emphasis on personal salvation, they offered an alternative to the Confucian ideals of social and ethical collective interests.
  3. Because of the way that it was integrated into life during this period, the T'ang Dynasty is often considered a period when poetry flourished.
  4. Thanks to the development of printing, the vernacular traditions emphasizing storytelling have coexisted and evolved along with classical literature up to present times.

Islam [100 A.D. to 1500]

  1. God's revelations were first received around 610 by the prophet Muhammad, whose followers later collected them into the Koran, which became the basis for a new religion and community known today as Islam.
  2. Though most of the pre-Islamic literature of Arabia was written in verse, prose became a popular vehicle for the dissemination of religious learning.
  3. As its title "the Recitation" suggests, the Koran was made to be heard and recited; because it is literally the word of God, Muslims do not accept the Koran in translation from Arabic.
  4. Although Persian literature borrowed from Arabic literary styles, it also created and enhanced new poetic styles, including the ruba'i (quatrain), ghazal (erotic lyric), and masnavi (narrative poem).
  5. More widely known than any other work in Arabic, the Thousand and One Nights is generally excluded from the canon of classical Arabic literature due to its extravagant and improbable fabrications in prose, a form that was expected to be more serious and substantial than verse.

Formation of Western Literature [100 A.D. to 1500]

  1. Contrary to popular belief, the medieval period cannot be characterized as entirely barbaric. During this period, national literatures in the vernacular appeared.
  2. Due to their disparate influences, literature and culture in medieval Europe were very diverse, drawing from different, often conflicting sources.
  3. Composed around 850, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf speaks about the warring lifestyle of the Germanic and Scandinavian groups that conquered the Roman empire.
  4. Not only does the Song of Roland set the foundation for the French literary tradition, but it also establishes the narrative about the foundation of France itself.
  5. Writing in the twelfth century, Marie de France helped establish the major forms and themes of vernacular literature, especially for what we now call romances, novelistic narrative's that deal with adventure and love.
  6. The thirteenth-century story Thorstein the Staff-Struck is a short example of the Icelandic saga tradition that speak's about the lives of men and women who lived in Iceland and Norway between the ninth and eleventh centuries.
  7. Beginning in Provence around 1100, the love lyric spread to Sicily, Italy, France, Germany, and eventually England.
  8. The Divine Comedy offers Dante's controversial political and religious beliefs within a formal and cosmological framework that evoke's the three-in-one of the Christian Trinity: God the Father; God the Son; and God the Holy Spirit.
  9. Best known for his Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio was one of the many medieval writers who contributed to the revival of classical literary traditions that would come to fruition in the Italian Renaissance and later spread to other parts of Europe.
  10. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight revives the "native" Anglo-Saxon tradition first seen in Beowulf that had apparently been submerged between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries following the Norman Conquest.
  11. Although Chaucer's Canterbury Tales does not appear to be overtly political, it was written during a period of considerable political and religious turmoil that would eventually give rise to the Protestant Reformation.
  12. Anonymously written plays such as Everyman focused on morality or were dramatic enactments of homilies and sermons.

Golden Age of Japanese Culture [100 A.D. to 1500]

  1. Although Japanese poetry, drama, literature and other writings of the Golden Age elaborate on a wide range of philosophical, aesthetic, religious, and political topics, and while literature and culture have flourished in Japan for over a thousand years, many misconceptions about Japanese literature persist.
  2. One of the earliest monuments of Japanese literature, the Man'yoshu (The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), appears to have been intended as an anthology of poetry anthologies.
  3. The Kokinshu combines great poems of the past with great poems of the present; it also integrates short poems into longer narrative sequences, thereby becoming more than a mere collection of poems.
  4. Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji, arguably the first significant novel in world literature, was written in the early eleventh century.
  5. The Pillow Book is a seemingly unstructured collection of personal observations, random thoughts, and perceptions that entered the mind of the author.
  6. Not only did the Tale of the Heike help to create the samurai ideal, it has served as an inspiration for more writers in more genres than any other single work of Japanese literature.
  7. Although Shintoism, the native religion emphasizing the protective powers of supernaturalism, enjoyed widespread popularity, Buddhism began to play an increasingly important role in premodern Japan, most notably in the arenas of literature and drama.
  8. No (translated as "talent" or "skill"), Japan's classical theater, is a serious and stylized art form that is produced without most of the artifices of Western theater such as props and scenery.

Mystical Poetry of India [100 A.D. to 1500]

  1. The literary genre of India's medieval era, lyric poetry, was associated with bhakti, or mystical devotion to God.
  2. Bhakti is a populist literary form that is usually composed by poet-saints of all castes and both genders in their native tongues.
  3. Each poem positions the devotee and God in a particular relationship, but the most popular relationship is that of erotic love between a male god and a female devotee.
  4. Bhakti poetry is composed in many different regional languages and elegizes Siva, Krishna, and other important Hindu deities.
  5. The emotive quality of the poems, their ability to provide social critique and the representation of love that crosses boundaries between the secular and sacred have made Krishna poetry appealing and accessible to many groups.

Africa [1500-1650]

  1. The founding of the Mali empire is attributed to Son-Jara Keita, whose life and exploits are the subject of the Son-Jara, the national epic of the Manding people.
  2. The rise of ancient Mali in the thirteenth century is closely associated with the spread of Islam into the region, which had begun in the seventh century.
  3. The principal custodians of the oral tradition are professional bards, known among the Manding as dyeli or belein-tigui.
  4. The epic of Son-Jara developed by accretion, which together with its oral transmission may account for its three distinct generic layers.
  5. The ideological function of the epic is the construction of a Manding common identity under a founding hero.

The Renaissance [1500-1650]

  1. During the Renaissance, notions of Europe's and of humankind's centrality in the world were challenged and partially discredited by advances in scientific theory, a rediscovery of Greco-Roman culture, and the so-called discovery of the Americas.
  2. The Renaissance reached its peak at different times in different cultures, beginning in Italy with the visual arts and, nearly two centuries later, working its way as far as England, where its achievements are most recognized in drama.
  3. An interest in the nature of this life rather than in the life to come is of central importance in the works of Petrarch and Erasmus.
  4. The Renaissance tendency toward perfection is well illustrated by Machiavelli's ideal prince and Castiglione's ideal courtier, but is also illustrated in the reworking of older literary traditions such as in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso.
  5. French rulers and aristocrats adopted the artistic, literary, and social values of the more sophisticated Italian city-states such as Castiglione's Urbino.
  6. Spain's major contributions to Renaissance literature can be traced to Cervantes and Lope de Vega.
  7. Works from the English tradition, including Paradise Lost, Hamlet, and Othello, question the values of the Renaissance.

Native America and Europe in the New World [1500-1650]

  1. On November 8, 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and a battalion of four hundred soldiers entered and seized Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital of the emperor Montezuma.
  2. Although contact with the Europeans devastated the cultures of the Native American groups, efforts were also made to preserve Aztec verbal arts.
  3. Though many Aztec and Mayan works were translated into European languages, they were not made available in native languages for fear of encouraging native religious practices.
  4. Much of the literary work in Native American cultures belongs to three basic genres of the oral tradition—song, narrative, and oratory.
  5. How is it possible for "outsiders" to appreciate fully the complexity of literary works that are inextricably linked to indigenous cultural practices and mores?

Vernacular Literature in China [1650-1800]

  1. When the Mongol (Yüan) armies overran northern China and the southern Sung dynasties, they established themselves as a dynasty, abolishing governmental principles derived from Confucian teachings.
  2. Often building on works of classical literature, vernacular literature (dealing with sex, violence, satire, and humor) became known for its ability to elaborate creatively on plots of earlier works by filling in details or perhaps even by articulating what had been omitted.
  3. Under the Ch'ing Dynasty, and especially during the period known as the "literary inquisition," classical Chinese writing suffered a devastating blow.
  4. China's autonomy and cultural self-confidence were decimated in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when European colonial powers began to exert control over China's economy.

Ottoman Empire [1650-1800]

  1. On the tenth night of Muharram in 1040 (August 19, 1630), Evliya «elebi dreamed that the Prophet Muhammad appeared to him and encouraged him to pursue his wanderlust.
  2. Sometimes traveling in an official capacity and sometimes traveling as a private individual, Evliya «elebi recorded his observations in a vivid anecdotal style.
  3. After the destruction of the Saljuqid state in the thirteenth century, the Ottomans established themselves as an independent dynasty in northwestern Anatolia, from which they expanded into Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and the Balkans.
  4. Under Mehmed II the Conqueror, the Ottomans established an architectural style that symbolized their imperial ambitions, a new legal code, and a policy of imperial expansion. They continued and enriched Arabic and Persian literary traditions.

Enlightenment in Europe [1650-1800]

  1. In the midst of the massive—and often cataclysmic—social changes that violently reshaped Europe during the eighteenth century, philosophers and other thinkers championed reason and the power of the human mind, contributing to the somewhat misleading appellation of this prerevolutionary period as an "Age of Enlightenment."
  2. Because literature was produced by a small cultural elite, it tended to address limited audiences of the authors' social peers, who would not necessarily notice the class- and race-specific values that served as a basis for proper conduct and actions outlined in poems, novels, and belles lettres.
  3. The notion of a permanent, divinely ordained, natural order offered comfort to those aware of the flaws in the actual social order.
  4. Reliance on convention as a mode of social and literary control expresses the constant efforts to achieve an ever-elusive stability in the eighteenth century.
  5. By exercising their right to criticize their fellow men and women, satirists evoked a rhetorical ascendancy that was obtained by an implicit alliance with literary and moral tradition.
  6. Though she outwardly declared her humility and religious subordination, Sor (Sister) Juana InÈs de la Cruz managed to advance claims for women's rights in a more profound and far-reaching way than anyone had achieved in the past.

Popular Arts in Pre-Modern Japan [1650-1800]

  1. To sustain peace, the Tokugawa shoguns expelled Portuguese traders and Christian missionaries, who tended to play one feudal baron against another in order to subvert local power, and prohibited any Japanese from traveling abroad.
  2. During this period of peace and stability, the role of samurai retainers in maintaining shogunal authority shifted from warriors to bureaucrats.
  3. Often indifferent to tradition, this new merchant class developed a culture of its own, reflecting the fast pace of urban life in woodblock prints, short stories, novels, poetry, and plays.
  4. Ihara Saikaku is known as a founder of new, popular "realistic" literature, writing about the foibles of the merchant class in urban Osaka.
  5. Cultivating the persona of the lonely wayfarer, Matsuo Basho's austere existence was the antithesis to Saikaku's prosperity.
  6. Ueda Akinari is known for his successful insinuation of the supernatural into everyday life and his keen understanding of the irrational implications of erotic attachment.

Revolution and Romanticism in Europe and America [1800-1900]

  1. Emerging in the late eighteenth century and extending until the late nineteenth century, Romanticism broke with earlier models of thinking that were guided by rationalism and empiricism.
  2. After the American and French revolutions, faith in social institutions declined considerably; no longer were systems that were organized around hierarchy and the separation of classes considered superior.
  3. As manufacturing and industrialization developed, resulting in a decline in the agricultural economy, a "middle class" began to emerge in England and other parts of Europe.
  4. Breaking with the Christian belief that the self is essentially "evil" and fallible, Romantic poets and authors often explored the "good" inherent in human beings.
  5. As the middle class rose to ascendancy in the nineteenth century, new approaches to science, biology, class, and race began to shake middle-class society's values.
  6. Imagination was seen as a way for the soul to link with the eternal.
  7. The new thematic emphases of poetry—belief in the virtues of nature, the "primitive," and the past—engendered a form of alienation that was described in the "social protest" poetry of Romantic poets.

Urdu Lyric Poetry in Northern India [1800-1900]

  1. The most popular lyric genre of Urdu, a hybrid language developed from the interaction of Hindi and Persian, is the ghazal.
  2. Derived from the Arabic praise poem (qasidah), ghazal reflects on love—human, divine, and spiritual.
  3. Formal and thematic conventions are important to the ghazal tradition.
  4. Mirza Asadullah Khan, or Ghalib (Conqueror) as he is more commonly known, is considered the most important poet associated with this tradition.

Realism, Naturalism, and Symbolism in Europe [1800-1900]

  1. Nourished by the political and social aspirations of the middle class, nationalism and colonialism came to dominate the nineteenth century in Europe.
  2. Though its first literary use was in Germany at the turn of the nineteenth century, the term realism did not become a commonly accepted literary and artistic slogan until French critics began to use it in the 1850s.
  3. Though the realist program made innumerable subjects available to art, it narrowed the themes and methods of literature.
  4. Contrary to what they might think, realist writers did not make a complete break with past literary conventions, nor did they follow "to the letter" the theories and slogans they propounded.
  5. As prose looked outward at the world around it, poetry looked inward at its very construction as language.
  6. Inspired by Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil, Symbolism's manifesto appeared in 1886, thereby not including the great midcentury poems by Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and MallarmÈ.

The 20th Century: European Modernisms [1900s]

  1. In the twentieth century, modernization was used in tandem with colonization as a means to legitimize the often forced adoption of Western concepts of "progress" in different parts of the world. As such, modernization also became a stimulus for movements that rejected "progress" in favor of "tradition."
  2. European writers and thinkers looked beyond models of scientific rationalism for means of expressing knowledge of the world and lived experience that could not be apprehended by intellect alone.
  3. Literary and linguistic systems were seen as games in which "pieces" (words) and "rules" (grammar, syntax, and other conventions) were combined with playfulness and sometimes with pathos to emphasize the instabilities of language.
  4. The twentieth century is sometimes called a "century of isms" as different groups of European artists and intellectuals attempted to give expression to contemporary history and subjectivity.
  5. Western modernism is too conceptually limited to describe much of the cultural productions of older nations in North America such as the Navajo, Zuni, and Inuit.

Decolonization [1900s]

  1. With the spread of Western colonialism from Europe and North America to Asia, Africa, and South America also came the spread of its by-product; Western modernism.
  2. Though early criticisms were leveled at former colonial subjects who wrote in the colonizer's language since such writing was considered to reflect "impoverished" experiences, more recent evaluations point to the ways that the writings of former colonial subjects have enriched European languages.
  3. Though social-realist movements varied considerably within Chinese, Indian, and Soviet contexts, in general they denounced the bourgeois and colonialist values expounded in Western art and literature.
  4. Though English-language literatures are well known outside India, literatures in regional languages such as Kannada, Urdu, Sindhi, Bengali, Hindi, and Tamil represent other aspects of Indian life.
  5. The literary traditions of the diverse countries that the West calls "the Middle East" reflect the multiple histories and cultural traditions of the region.
  6. In addition to experiences of Western colonialism in Africa, African writers also address issues related to the slave trade and to the African diaspora.
  7. The generally political nature of magical realism in South American writing was often missed by earlier generations of Western readers, who were too amazed by the imaginative creativity of magical realism.


{*This timeline was found at: http://www.wwnorton.com/nawol/welcome.htm}