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  1. Introduction
  2. The Appearance of Literacy
  3. Literature in the Early West
  4. The Modern Idea of Literature
  5. Contemporary Developments in Literature
  6. Bibliography


Almost all senses of the English word literature and its cognates in other Indo-European languages can eventually be traced back to the act of scratching (on a piece of leather or on clay, stone, wood, wax, pottery, lead, or papyrus). But this primitive act very quickly became associated with superior development: civilization.

The Appearance of Literacy

The word goes back first to the Latin litteratura (writing, grammar) and litteratus, which denote learnedness derived from writing, or literacy, and then to littera, or letter. (The French litterature has the same roots.) It is conjectured that the Greek root of the Latin littera is diphthera, meaning a leather hide prepared for inscription. In his Institutio oratoria, Quintilian (c. 35–c. 100 C.E.) uses the word litteratura as a translation of the Greek grammatike? (Wellek). As such, it represents the art of the letter (gramma), which would denote the ability to read and write and hence the rules or “grammar” governing this ability. But the Greek word for writing, grammata, also means “scratchings”— its Indo-European root, gerebh-, means “to scratch.” The English verb to write derives from the Germanic writan, also meaning “to scratch.” The English word Scripture, like the German Schrift (a Schriftsteller is a literary person), can be traced back to the Latin verb scribere, “to write,” and then to the Indo- European root skeri-, from which come a host of words having to do with cutting. The Indo-European skeri- has a variant form krei-, denoting separation, sifting, and discrimination, from which comes the Greek krinein, meaning “to judge,” and later English words such as critic and criterion. One of the meanings of sker- is excrement, hence something worth knowing how to avoid. One can discover in literature’s philological beginnings nascent forms of nearly the entire family of ideas that would come to be associated with the word literature: letters, writing, literacy, learnedness, discrimination, distinction, criticism, and judgment. Because, almost everywhere, writing and reading— unlike speech, acquired in infancy—were skills that demanded time and effort to acquire, literature, more or less by its nature, had its beginnings among groups that not only were socially empowered to make distinctions (priests, scribes, bards, chiefs) but also were socially distinguished by the very fact of being literate.

As Barry Powell observes, it has long been a puzzle why the narratives generally considered the oldest examples of Western literature, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, have all the structural characteristics of advanced, literate societies yet contain no mention of writing itself. The one reference to “baneful signs”—not yet grammata, or writing—in the story of Bellerophon (Iliad 6.157–211) came to Homer from the Levantine East, as did many other elements of the Homeric epics, and it may suggest that the poet whose version of the Iliad was finally written down did not yet understand what writing was. Literature in any guise came late to the West: the written forms of the Homeric epics date from around the time of the invention of the Greek alphabet, c. 800 B.C.E., while reference to written documents appear regularly in much older narratives from Egypt and the Near East, c. 1800 B.C.E.

The oxymoron oral literature has been used to describe unwritten compositions in story, poetry, or song, transmitted with many variations over time, though the rubric remains mired in much dispute (Lord). People have most likely told stories about themselves, their gods, their heroes, and the creatures, both real and imagined, surrounding them from the beginnings of language, and such storytelling is still an integral part of what is meant by the term literature. But the process by which supposedly oral compositions like Homeric epic poetry came to be written down is unknown. Similarly, while the extant Bible is largely a mix of documents assembled piecemeal from preexisting (and now lost) documents, oral accounts must have been part of many biblical stories. Abraham may have existed as early as 2000 B.C.E., Moses around 1200 B.C.E., but no written account of them survives from before the sixth century B.C.E. Well before the Latin word litteratura existed, Homer’s epics and Hesiod’s Theogony already included what is now recognized as a wide range of genres or modes of writing, from the skillfully entertaining to the legal, philosophical, historical, and religious. If oral traditions that survived into the modern period are any guide, oral performances designed for entertainment employed a range of structural devices and tropes that helped define what came to be called “literary” language. A general consensus arose in the late twentieth century that alphabetic writing made possible whole ways of thinking not available to nonliterate societies (for different approaches, see Ong and Goody). Certainly literacy seems to have facilitated military conquest and administrative authority. But it is hard to know precisely how the psychological or cultural consequences of alphabetic writing in the West, beginning in Mesopotamia, differed from those of writing in China, which had a quite distinct history; or how much of what is called the “literariness” of novels, poems, and plays ultimately derives from preliterate oral performance or perhaps from the innate structure of human consciousness.

In Sumeria and Egypt and in China written documents and ways of talking about writing appear earlier. Writing first appears in Sumer c. 3400 B.C.E. with the inscription of shapes into clay for the purpose of counting objects, though the use of smaller objects themselves as tokens is much older. At a certain point, perhaps first via pictures (pictograms) and then via increasingly abstract symbols, phonetic units came to be linked to written ones, and writing came to be considered the legible form of speech. It can be said that the earliest (cuneiform, logographic) literary texts could not actually be “read,” since one still needed aural instruction to be able to pronounce the radically incomplete sequence of signs. The epic story of Gilgamesh survives in several different language families (Sumerian, Semitic, and Indo-European) and scripts (cuneiform and Luwian), the longest version from the seventh century B.C.E., the earliest from perhaps the fourteenth century; the hero-king himself seems to have existed in the third millennium. Chinese script may be even older than the Sumerian and certainly dates from at least the second millennium. In Chinese, unlike the phonetic writing that developed in Sumeria and then in the Greek and Latin alphabet, one finds in the same sign a phonetic element and a nonphonetic element, or semantic “radical.”

Literature in the Early West

The Hellenistic Greeks had a robust sense of the different kinds of writing within the idea of grammata. In book 10 of the Republic, Plato distinguished sharply, for example, between philosophy (dialectic), which he championed, and poetry, which he wanted to ban because of its propensity to settle for superficial views of things and to stir the emotions unnecessarily. Aristotle’s treatises Interpretation (comprising grammar and logic), Rhetoric, and Poetics are some of the earliest examples of criticism. His Poetics is generally considered the founding text of literary interpretation in the West, though the term explicated by Aristotle is not grammata but poie?sis, which means “making” or “creating” as well as “poetry” and “poem.” Nevertheless, the treatise clearly sets out a theory of literary genres and thoroughly anatomizes one of them—tragic drama—to demonstrate its essential structure; its psychological effects on its audience; its bases in Greek culture and myth; its distinctness from history and philosophy as well as from other types of poetry, such as epic and lyric; its ability to give pleasure and to reveal truth; and its relation to fate and the gods. Aristotle’s ideas have remained touchstones throughout the history of literature in the West, and it would be fair to say that the academic study of literature would not be the same without them. They were revived in a dogmatic form by the French in the seventeenth century and are still routinely taught in the twenty-first century.

Romans such as Cicero used the term litteratura to mean both writing itself and learning. It was the early church fathers of the second century, such as Tertullian in De spectaculis, who distinguished between sacred and profane writing—scriptura versus litteratura—within the Christian tradition and who elevated the former above the latter for several centuries. During this period, the profane term literature and its cognates appear to have had little currency. In the British Isles there is a small canon of Anglo-Saxon poetry beginning in the late sixth century. With the exception of Beowulf, a narrative poem assembled from earlier sources in the seventh or eighth century, the development of a major classical genre, such as epic, seems to have been hindered for a time by the dominance of Christianity. In France literacy and learning were revived by the court of Charlemagne (742–814), king of the Franks from 768 until his death and Holy Roman emperor (from 800), but the legend of Charlemagne is handed down in various forms before the epic La chanson de Roland appears in early twelfth-century medieval France. The twelfth-century Poema del Cid, perhaps the most important of early Spanish epics, embellishes in courtly, Christian terms the deeds of a noble, eleventh-century Castilian soldier of fortune.

The patristic Scripture-literature hierarchy was vigorously challenged by Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) in De vulgari eloquentia (1304–1309), a treatise defending “eloquence in the vernacular,” albeit written in Latin and perhaps with Quintilian as a model. Dante argued, first, that profane literature could be read with the same seriousness and interpreted along the same lines as Scripture, and second, that morally serious profane literature could be written not only in Latin, which was then the language of statecraft and high culture throughout Europe, but also in the vernacular, that is, in the commonly spoken regional languages. Such regional languages were assumed at the time not to be governed by the rules of grammar and hence not to be suitable for important matters. Although Dante’s ideas had a negligible influence in his day, his vision of vernacular literature would be realized in the subsequent rise of distinct national cultures following the fragmentation of Roman Catholic hegemony in Europe. Martin Luther’s early sixteenth-century Reformation and perhaps more important, the translation of the Bible into modern languages prepared the ground for the later idea that literature, whether historical, philosophical, or imaginative, embodied distinct national spirits. Still, the study of vernacular literatures would not occur in most European academies until the nineteenth century.

In a fourteenth-century Scottish version of the lives of the saints, the word lateratour is used to mean essentially what its Latin root had meant for Quintilian and Cicero: familiarity with books, including the polite learning and elite cultural status associated with literacy. In 1513 Henry Bradshaw wrote in verse of “the comyn people symple and neclygent, / Whiche without lytterature and good informacyon / Ben lyke to Brute beestes” (vol. 2, p. 4). Something of Bradshaw’s “good informacyon” persists in one of the secondary modern meanings of the term literature, which allows the term to denote the totality of written material on a given subject, as when one speaks of the literature on a particular medical treatment, or the literature on child development. In the part of the sixteenth-century school curriculum called the trivium, designed to teach both spoken and written Latin, grammar was intimately related to rhetoric and logic: to have “literature” was to write both persuasively and rationally. This academic synthesis, based on the study of Latin and Greek, persisted into the nineteenth century and also governed the early study of vernacular languages. Theater, both in the Elizabethan London of Shakespeare and in the fashionable seventeenth-century Paris of Corneille and Racine, supplied early intimations of the idea of literature in its primary modern sense: imaginative writing pursued as a vocation and for profit. It is in this context that in 1635 Cardinal Richelieu founded the Academie Francais, an essentially literary academy, for which Charles Perrault proposed in 1666 a section devoted to “belles lettres,” to include grammar, eloquence, and taste. By 1710 the phrase “belles lettres” is used by Jonathan Swift in an issue of the Tatler magazine to denote a profession on a par with history and politics. On the whole, literature bears its traditional, inclusive meaning through most of the eighteenth century, as exemplified by Voltaire’s definition of litterature in his Dictionnaire philosophique (1764–1772)—“a knowledge of the works of taste, a smattering of history, poetry, eloquence, and criticism”—though by this time one can sense the semantic gravitation of the word toward its emerging and narrower modern meaning (Wellek). Not until the late eighteenth century, however, was the word literature actually used more narrowly to designate imaginative writing per se, that is, the genres of poetry, fictional narrative, and drama.

The Modern Idea of Literature

In 1777 Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) was invited to compose critical essays for an edition of English poets, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342–1400), then being prepared by London booksellers. Once the anthology—which was shortened to begin with the early seventeenth-century poet Abraham Cowley—was complete, Johnson’s fifty-two introductions were published separately as Lives of the English Poets (1779–1781). In his portrait of John Milton, Johnson still used literature in the classical sense of learning or erudition, observing that the great poet “had probably more than common literature, as his son addresses him in one of his most elaborate Latin poems” (vol. 1, p. 85). But when introducing Cowley, Johnson gave the term a significance that would become central by the early twentieth century. Johnson described Thomas Sprat, Cowley’s biographer, as “an author whose pregnancy of imagination and elegance of language have deservedly set him high in the ranks of literature” (vol. 1, p. 1). By the early nineteenth century, a period marked by the prominence of the entrepreneurial author-publisher Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), the idea that literature refers primarily to a particular kind of writing—imaginative—also meant that the word could signify a particular professional occupation. Isaac Disraeli (1766–1848), father of Benjamin Disraeli, used the word in this new, narrower sense when he wrote in 1823, “Literature, with us, exists independent of patronage or association” (vol. 2, p. 407). The primary modern meaning of literature—autonomous, professional, imaginative writing designed for a market economy—had emerged.

At almost the same time that literature was beginning to signify primarily the imaginative genres of poetry, fiction, and drama, two complementary semantic changes were occurring. The first is that the word was being used to designate the total body of writing defined by national (or at least linguistic) origin. Thus Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) published a book called Uber die neuere deutsche Litteratur (On the more recent German literature) in 1767, and L’abbe Antoine Sabatier de Castres published a book called Les trois siecles de notre litterature (Three centuries of our literature) in 1772, which became Les trois siecles de la litterature francaise (Three centuries of French literature) in subsequent editions. In 1836 Robert Chambers (1802–1871) produced A History of English Language and Literature. Such texts both contributed and responded to a political sensibility in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that had begun to categorize cultural artifacts in national terms. By the late nineteenth century this way of looking at literature, and especially imaginative literature, would be normalized. The study of modern literature (as opposed to Greek and Latin) came to be used in the schools to standardize linguistic usage; to elevate the culture of populations with little access to classical learning; to produce social integration across the divisions of economic class; and to provide a basis for a national collective consciousness (Weber).

The second semantic change in the word literature is a reflection of the idea of “aesthetics” in the eighteenth century. Since antiquity, claims had been made that the arts, including poetry and drama, were rational and rule governed, quite despite their aura of divine inspiration. Both Aristotle and Horace, in different ways, made these claims. On the whole, so did neoclassical French critics of the seventeenth century such as Nicolas Boileau. With the third earl of Shaftesbury, and especially the version of his ideas found in Francis Hutcheson’s Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1726), English moral philosophy based on the sentiments began to translate the older idea of “good taste” in terms of a specific, subjective “aesthetic intuition” present in both the “genius” of artistic creation and the perception of beauty. For Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, the sensation of the beautiful became nothing less than the path by which all the traditional antinomies of philosophy—subject versus object, innate ideas versus empirical learning, necessity versus contingency, reason versus passion—can be overcome. In Germany, with Alexander Baumgarten (1714–1762) and especially Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and his Critique of Judgment, the project emerges of a specific science or philosophy of beauty that emphasizes the disinterested and universal nature of the human response to beauty (Cassirer, pp. 275–360). The Greek word aesthesis, which had covered a range of meanings, including sensation, perception, feeling, knowledge, and consciousness, came to be aesthetics, used exclusively to refer to our response to beauty. In the 1790s Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) wrote his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, which outlines a project for making the education of the aesthetic sensibility the central component of a wholesale moral and political reform of humanity. Along with the other arts, literature became a part of that project, though often the term poetry or poetics (as in Aristotle’s treatise) was still used to denote the artfulness of literature. For Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), lecturing on aesthetics in the 1820s, art evolves in human history from more material to less material forms, from architecture to sculpture to poetry, as it approaches the ideal of reason. But this means that poetry becomes the most elevated Romantic art form only by virtue of becoming pure sound: poetry is the least burdened by matter, that is, by written letters. It is as if the putative oral basis of literary art had for Hegel returned to become its highest form.

Along with the nationalizing of imaginative literature in the nineteenth century—a development that was the dominant institutional form of literary studies in the twentieth-century academy—two complementary ideas arose. The first is the idea of Weltliteratur (world literature) used by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) when commenting in 1827 on his translation of Torquato Tasso (1544–1595). It is a vague but visionary term suggested by the ideal of universal humanity promulgated during the French Revolution and embodied more ambiguously by Napoleon’s subsequent attempt to “liberate” Europe, Asia, and the Middle East by force. The second is the notion of “comparative literature,” which began to be used in the early nineteenth century, perhaps in imitation of concurrent scholarly movements, such as “comparative anatomy,” “comparative philology,” and other comparative enterprises in history, philosophy, and anthropology. Abel-Francois Villemain gave a course of lectures at the Sorbonne in the 1820s in which he used the term litterature comparee, and two German journals appeared later. Zeitschrift fur vergleichende Literatur (Journal of comparative literature), edited by Hugo von Meltzl de Lomnitz, was published between 1877 and 1888, and Zeitschrift fur vergleichende Literaturgeschichte (Journal of comparative literary history), founded in 1866 by Max Koch, was published until 1910.

Contemporary Developments in Literature

In some ways, “world” literature predates the nationalizing of literary traditions, since the classical and medieval period is quite polyglot and multicultural. But world literature and comparative literature were given new life in the late twentieth century by the awareness of the historical power of European imperialism and the rise of postcolonial literatures in India, Africa, South America, Asia, and the Middle East and later by the emphasis on globalization as a cultural phenomenon. The fate of specifically national imaginative literatures hangs in the balance. At the same time, two other critical perspectives on literature served to challenge once again what the term means. On the one hand, the Romantic idea of literature as the vehicle of aesthetic sensibility was called into question to emphasize the political function of the literary text, especially in terms of class, gender, and race. On the other hand, the idea that imaginative literature represents a kind of writing qualitatively distinct from philosophical writing or historical writing was also radically questioned. The paradoxical result is that the word literature at the beginning of the twenty-first century in many ways has begun to recover some of the inclusive significance that was lost when it was narrowed to fit nationalist and aesthetic sensibilities during the Enlightenment. Literature once again refuses to be confined to national borders or to be defined by the imaginative and the aesthetic. With the arrival in the 1990s of electronic literature, produced and consumed with the help of computers, the traditional medium of literature in print or manuscript—the book—acquired a potentially powerful rival. The root idea of literature as writing, that is, the scratching (or printing or typing) of marks into an impressionable material, may well be superseded by the flash of digital impulses across video screens.


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