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 poiēsis, 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 Académie Français, 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 littérature 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.
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