Early Modern literature  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Early Modern literature outside of Europe

The history of literature of the Early Modern period (16th, 17th and partly 18th century literature). Early Modern literature succeeds Medieval literature, and in Europe in particular Renaissance literature.

In Europe, the Early Modern period lasts roughly from 1550 to 1750, spanning the Baroque period and ending with the Age of Enlightenment and the wars of the French Revolution.

Contents

Background

The First Rise of the Novel, 1500-1750

history of the novel, 16th century literature 17th century literature

The invention of printing subjected both novels and romances to a first wave of trivialisation and commercialisation. Printed books were expensive, yet something people would buy, just as people still buy expensive things they can barely afford. Alphabetisation, or the rise of literacy, was a slow process when it came to writing skills, but was faster as far as reading skills were concerned. The Protestant Reformation afforded readers of religious pamphlets, newspapers and broadsheets.

The urban population learned to read, but did not aspire to participation in the world of letters. The market of chapbooks developing with the printing press comprised both romances and little histories, tales and fables. Woodcuts were the regular ornament and they were offered without much care. A romance in which the heroic knight had to fight more than ten duels within a few pages could get the same illustration of such a fight again and again if the printers stock of standard illustrations was small. As their stocks grew, printers repeated the same illustrations in other books with similar plots, mixing these illustrations without respect to style. You can open 18th century chapbooks and find illustrations from the early years of printing next to more modern ones.

Romances were reduced to cheap and abrupt plots resembling modern comic books. Neither were the first collections of novels necessarily prestigious projects. They appeared with an enormous variety from folk tales over jests to stories told by Boccaccio and Chaucer, now venerable authors.

A more prestigious market of romances developed in the 16th century, with multi-volume works aiming at an audience which would subscribe to this production. The criticism levelled against romances by Chaucer's pilgrims grew in response both to the trivialisations and to the extended multi-volume "romances". Romances like the Amadis de Gaula led their readers into dream worlds of knighthood and fed them with ideals of a past no one could revitalise, or so the critics complained.

Italian authors like Machiavelli were among those who brought the novel into a new format: while it remained a story of intrigue, ending in a surprising point, the observations were now much finer: how did the protagonists manage their intrigue? How did they keep their secrets, what did they do when others threatened to discover them?

The whole question of novels and romances became critical when Cervantes added his Novelas Exemplares (1613) to the two volumes of his Don Quixote (1605/15). The famous satirical romance was levelled against the Amadis which had made Don Quixote lose his mind. Advocates of the lofty romance would, however, claim that the satirical counterpart of the old heroic romance could hardly teach anything: Don Quixote neither offered a hero to be emulated nor did it satisfy with beautiful speeches; all it could do was to make fun of lofty ideals. The Novelas Exemplares offered an alternative between the heroic and the satiric mode, yet critics were even less sure about what to make of this production. Cervantes told stories of adultry, jealousy and crime. If these stories were to give examples, they gave examples of immoral actions. The advocates of the "novel" responded that their stories taught both with good and with bad examples. The reader could still feel compassion and sympathy with the victims of crimes and intrigues, if evil examples were to be told.

The alternative to dubious novels and satirical romances were better, lofty romances: a production of romances modeled after Heliodorus arrived as a possible answer with excursions into the bucolic world. Honoré d'Urfés L'Astrée (1607-27) became the most famous work of this type. The criticism that these romances had nothing to do with real life was answered through the device of the roman à clef (literally "novel with a key", one that, properly understood, alludes to characters in the real world). John Barclay's Argenis (1625-26) appeared as a political roman à clef. The romances of Madeleine de Scudéry gained greater influence with plots situated in the ancient world and content taken from life. The famous author told stories of her friends in the literary circles of Paris and developed their fates from volume to volume of her serialised production. Readers of taste bought her books, as they offered the finest observation of human motives, characters taken from life, excellent morals regarding how one should and should not behave if one wanted to succeed in public life and in the intimate circles she portrayed.

The novel went its own way: Paul Scarron (himself a hero in the romances of Madeleine de Scudéry) published the first volume of his Roman Comique in 1651 (successive volumes appeared in 1657 and, by another hand, in 1663) with a plea for the development Cervantes had induced in Spain. France should (as he wrote in the famous 21st chapter of his Roman Comique ) imitate the Spanish with little stories like those they called "novels". Scarron himself added numerous of such stories to his own work.

Twenty years later Madame de La Fayette made the next decisive steps with her two novels. The first, her Zayde published in 1670 together with Pierre Daniel Huet's famous Treatise on the Origin of Romances, was a "Spanish History". Her second and more important novel appeared in 1678: La Princesse de Clèves proved that France could actually produce novels of a particularly French taste. The Spanish enjoyed stories of proud Spaniards who fought duels to avenge their reputations. The French had a more refined taste with minute observation of human motives and behaviour. The story was firmly a "novel" and not a "romance": a story of unparalleled female virtue, with a heroine who had had the chance to risk an illicit amour and not only withstood the temptation but made herself more unhappy by confessing her feelings to her husband. The gloom her story created was entirely new and sensational.

The regular novel took another turn. The late 17th century saw the emergence of a European market for scandal, with French books appearing now mostly in the Netherlands (where censorship was liberal) to be re-imported clandestinely back into France. The same production reached the neighbouring markets of Germany and Britain, where it was welcomed both for its French style and its predominantly anti-French politics. The novel flourished on this market as the best genre to purport scandalous news. The authors claimed the stories they had to tell were true, told not for the sake of scandal but only for the moral lessons they gave. To prove this, they fictionalized the names of their characters and told these stories as if they were novels. (The audience played its own game in identifying who was who). Journals of little stories appeared—the Mercure Gallant became the most important. Collections of letters added to the market; these included more of these little stories and led to the development of the epistolary novel in the late 17th century.

In the late 1670s the novel reached the English market. Aphra Behn and William Congreve were among the first modern English authors to adopt the term.

Theatre

Plays for entertainment (as opposed to religious enlightenment) returned to Europe's stages in the early modern period. William Shakespeare is the most notable of the early modern playwrights, but numerous others made important contributions, including Christopher Marlowe, Molière, and Ben Jonson. From the 16th to the 18th century Commedia dell'arte performers improvised in the streets of Italy and France. Some Commedia dell'arte plays were written down. Both the written plays and the improvisation were influential upon literature of the time, particularly upon the work of Molière. Shakespeare, and his associate Robert Armin, drew upon the arts of jesters and strolling players in creating new style comedies. All the parts, even the female ones, were played by men (en travesti) but that would change, first in France and then in England too, by the end of the 17th century.

Opera

The earliest work considered an opera in the sense the work is usually understood dates from around 1597. It is Dafne, (now lost) written by Jacopo Peri for an elite circle of literate Florentine humanists who gathered as the "Camerata".

Cervantes's Don Quixote de la Mancha

Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote de la Mancha has been called "the first novel" by many literary scholars (or the first of the modern European novels). It was published in two parts. The first part was published in 1605 and the second in 1615. It might be viewed as a parody of Le Morte d'Arthur (and other examples of the chivalric romance), in which case the novel form would be the direct result of poking fun at a collection of heroic folk legends. This is fully in keeping with the spirit of the age of enlightenment which began from about this time and delighted in giving a satirical twist to the stories and ideas of the past. It's worth noting that this trend toward satirising previous writings was only made possible by the printing press. Without the invention of mass produced copies of a book it would not be possible to assume the reader will have seen the earlier work and will thus understand the references within the text.




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