The written word has grown to largely replace the oral traditions in Europe, an understandable development given how quicker and more widespread the transmission of stories can be when written down, even more if printed. Europe has produced many great writers, people who left a mark on culture and whose works are still being read. This list of notable writers is in chronological order.
Homer c.8th/9th Century BCEThe Ilyiad and Odyssey are two of the most important epic poems in western history, both having a profound effect on the development of written arts and culture. Traditionally these poems are ascribed to Greek poet Homer, although he may simply have written and shaped works which had been in the oral memory of his ancestors. That said, by writing them down in the manner he did Homer earnt a place as one of Europe’s greatest poets. Of the man we know little.
Sophocles 496 – 406 BCEA well educated man from a wealthy family, Sophocles served several roles in Athenian society, including a role as a military commander. He also wrote plays, entering and winning the drama element of the Dionysian festival possibly over 20 times, more than esteemed contemporaries. His field was tragedies, of which only seven full length pieces survive, including Oedipus the King, referenced by Freud when discovering the Oedipus complex.
Aristophanes c. 450 – c. 388 BCEAn Athenian citizen who wrote during the era of the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes’ work constitutes the greatest surviving body of ancient Greek comedies from one person. Still performed today, his most famous piece is probably Lysistrata, where women go on a sex strike until their husbands make peace. He is also believed to be the only surviving example of what is termed "Old Comedy", different from the more realistic "New Comedy".
Virgil 70 – 18 BCEVirgil was regarded as the best of the Roman poets during the Roman era, and this reputation has been maintained. His most famous, albeit unfinished, work is the Aeneid, the story of a Trojan founder of Rome, written during the period of Augustus’ reign. His influence has been felt widely in literature and, as Virgil’s poems were studied in Roman schools, by children.
Horace 65 – 8 BCEThe son of a freed slave, Horace’s early career saw him commanding units in the army of Brutus, who was defeated by future Roman emperor Augustus. He returned to Rome and found employment as a treasury clerk, before achieving great renown as a poet and satirist of the highest order, even corresponding with Augustus, now emperor, and praising him in some works.
Dante Alighieri 1265 – 1321 CEA writer, philosopher and political thinker, Dante wrote his most famous work while in exile from his beloved Florence, forced out by his role in the politics of the day. The Divine Comedy has been interpreted by each successive age in a slightly different way, but it has greatly influenced popular depictions of hell, as well as culture, and his decision to write in Italian rather than Latin helped prompt the spread of the former language in the arts.
Giovanni Boccaccio 1313 – 1375Boccaccio is best known as the author of the Decameron, an earthy and tragic-comic look at life which, because it was written in vernacular Italian, helped raise the language to the same level of regard as Latin and Greek. Shortly after completing the Decameron he changed to writing in Latin, and less known today is his work in humanist scholarship during the period. Together with Petrarch he is said to have helped lay the ground work the Renaissance.
Geoffrey Chaucer c. 1342 / 43 - 1400Chaucer was a talented administrator who served three kings, but it is for his poetry which he is best known. The Canterbury Tales, a series of stories told by pilgrims en route to Canterbury, and Troilus and Criseyde have been hailed as some of the finest poetry in the English language before Shakespeare, written as they were in the vernacular language of the country rather than Latin.
Miguel de Cervantes 1547 – 1616In Cervantes’ early life he enrolled as a soldier and was kept prisoner as a slave for several years until his family raised a ransom. After this he became a civil servant, but money remained a problem. He wrote in many different fields, including novels, play, poems and short stories, creating his masterpiece in Don Quixote. He is now regarded as the main figure in Spanish literature, and Don Quixote has been hailed as the first great novel.
William Shakespeare 1564 – 1616A playwright, poet and actor, Shakespeare’s work, written for the company of a London theatre, has seen him called one of the world’s great dramatists. He enjoyed success in his lifetime but has gone on to ever greater and wider appreciation for works like Hamlet, Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, as well as his sonnets. Perhaps strangely, although we know quite a lot about him, there is a constant current of people who doubt he wrote the works.