Movements & Periods in World Literature

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby
Despite speaking completely different languages and having different cultures, many literatures around the world have progressed through similar movements and periods of development.

A Tradition of Literature

As long as people have been writing, there has been literature. In this lesson, we will introduce some of the major periods of literature around the world. We'll focus largely on the Western tradition, but we'll also make some broad generalizations about the non-Western world as well.

Ancient and Classics

Some of humanity's first writings are of ancient literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh dates from thousands of years ago. Later, the birth of Western literature would occur with the writings of Homer, to be complimented by later Greek and Roman writers.

Medieval and Renaissance

The Middle Ages may have saw a decline in the number of literate people, but that did not mean that literature disappeared. Beowulf, The Song of Roland, and The Canterbury Tales were written during this period from 600-1300 AD. With the arrival of the Renaissance, some of literature's great minds made their appearances, from Shakespeare to Milton.

Enlightenment and Romantic

A great deal of Enlightenment literature focused on the necessities of life, from the practical advice of Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanack, to attempts to share knowledge in pre-Revolutionary France. As a counterpoint to this approach of writing to inform, the Romantics emerged. Their topics ranged widely, from Frankenstein to the Transcendentalist writings of Walden and Civil Disobedience. While the Enlightenment had ended around 1800 with the collapse of the French Republic into an Empire, Romanticism would last until the last years of the pre-Civil War era.

Victorian and Realism

At about the same time as the Romantics, the Victorians challenged the ideals of their restrictive time. Most famous among the Victorian authors are Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, but names from the Bronte sisters to Lord Tennyson make this a prime time for English literature. At about the same time, Realism and Existentialism took off, which moved more philosophical writings directly into the sphere of literature. Russian authors like Dostoyevsky and Chekhov thrived during this period.

Literature since 1900

For much of the first half of the 20th century, Modernism was the dominant trend in literature. Joseph Conrad and Franz Kafka approached the era by continuing their existentialist questions, but from a more modernist perspective. At the same time, American literature entered a golden period, with regional writers like Faulkner doing some of their best work, while Hemingway made a name for his typically American style. Following the period was the Beat Generation, a time in which pop culture was heavily influenced by the writings of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey, among others.

Non-Western Literature

Of course, all of that is literature of only a narrow part of the world, specifically Western Europe and North America. What about the rest of the world? While it is admittedly Euro-centric to do so, a number of literature experts group the world's literature into three broad categories: Pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial.


By far the broadest of these to really categorize is pre-colonial literature. After all, it includes a vast area of eras that would rival any of the ones we discussed earlier. Take the Middle East, for example. Not only does this overlap with the earliest writings of the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, but this includes Hebrew literature, Persian literature, and Aramaic literature. That is not even counting the pre-Islamic period of wine poetry, or Islamic literature that followed.

Religion plays a role in dividing other regions as well. Take South Asia, for example. Pre-colonial literature is largely divided into periods based on not only the local politics, but also on its proximity to the arrival of the Vedas.

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