2007-08 BM1: Session 2

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Back to 2007-08 BM1 Introduction to the Critical and Scholarly Discussion of Literature, Part 1


  • Two Questions:
  1. Why should “literature” be defined as the “art” through which “a nation” achieves “self-recognition, self awareness, self definition” - an art through which a “race” “confronts its own aspirations and despairs”, the place where we will find “its conversation with itself”?
  2. Why should “literature” be dealt with in “histories” of literature — under headings of “periods”?

we will not offer answers to these questions (in an attempt to justify the propositions), but we will try to show how these notions developed

Received Notions on Periods in Literary History

  • Mittelalter, Renaissance, Barock, Aufklärung, Sturm und Drang, Klassik, Romantik, Vormärz/Biedermeier, Bürgerlicher Realismus (?), Naturalismus, Expressionismus...
  • Middle Ages, Early Modern Period (Renaissance, Civil War/Interregnum, Restoration, Augustan Age/Classicism, 18th Century, Age of Enlightenment, Age of Sensibility), Modern Period (Romanticism, Victoran era, Modernism, Postmodernism).

Options and tendencies of histories of English literature:

  • to begin the renaissance with Chaucer, i.e. around 1350 - early development together with Italy.
  • to create long periods - like the "Early Modern Period" or the "long 18th century"
  • to create subdivisions under political headings - the "Tudors", the "Restoration", "The Victorian Era" (German histories of literature can hardly do this with periods before 1873).

Periods and their typical features:

  • Middle Ages: Feudal Society, Christian dominance, restricted literacy, manuscripts, no united nation, wars of roses etc., Danish invasions, Norman invasion; medieval literature: either religious (legends of saints, prayer and mystical books...) or courtly (Chaucer, Arthurian literature)
  • Renaissance (c.1500 - c.1650): discovery of antiquity and roman/greek poetry, rejection of medieval period, discovery of the individual (Renaissance man), humanism, boom in drama (Shakespeare embodies it all), religious conflict: English reformation to Civil War, which establishes a puritan republic (1649-1660).
  • Restoration (1660-1700): under the special protection of the court, libetinistic, witty
  • Augustan Age/ Classicism: political stability and boom in poetry (Dryden, Pope as modern equivalents of Virgil, Horace or Ovid) French influence, 'art of poetry' poetics according to classicist rules, absolutist tendencies (england resists) dominance of form, rhetoric, poetic diction.
  • Enlightenment (1660-1790): rationality, age of reason, sciences, philosophy, civil liberties, religious and political tolerance.
  • Sensibility (1720-1780): emotions (stereotypical), reacts to the deficits of enlightenment, sociability
  • Romanticism (1770-1830): reacts to the deficits of enlightenment, radicalises emotions (and expresses them individually), turn to nature, individuality, heroism (outsiderdom), fragment and infinity, escapisms: exotism, medieval / pagan past, initially politically radical, then a conservative turn, -- turn to popular forms, rejection of poetic diction,
  • Victorian Era (1832-1900): period of British imperialism, duplicity of moral standards: an age of strict morals, suppression of sexuality, transgressive literature produced by an avantgarde of authors, aestheticism, strong class division reflected by literature: boom of commercial entertainments esp. melodrama.

Second Thoughts

  • different histories of literature offer different periodisations
  • there is a continuous debate of how to properly understand and define the different periods
  • the debate is marked by a problematic circularity: the period's definition predetermines the proper exploration of materials belonging into the period
  • periods can refer to periods of time (e.g. enlightenment 1660-1790) and to styles and ideas (age of reason) at the same time;
  • the style or idea we identify with a period becomes the central object to be explained at the cost of all other things one could explore when dealing with the same era
  • our systems of periodisation are supported by notions like the contemporaneity of succeeding periods (Kosellek's: "Ungleichzeitigkeit des Gleichzeitigen") - an idea which creates histories of succeeding movements often at odds with the strict chronology of events (Locke's enlightenment does actually precede Handel's baroque music...)
  • periods produce histories of interacting agents - the interaction we speak of is far more than a picture of the confrontations we can find on the map of historical debates (there were no proponents of the enlightenment fighting against those of the baroque movement, one did not think about a "medieval" before 1500).
  • periods give instant final answers: you wonder why something has the qualities it has got - its typical of that period

More complex or differentiated perspectives

  • Most of the periods which we know, have been created in hindsight. Some indications for the history of periodisation is roughly as follows:
  • before 1500: a sense of unbroken continuity with Roman empire and society (no sense of cultural difference), search for legitimation by succession to the Roman empire
  • 1500-1650: introduction of a three phased model: ancient - medieval - modern; exclusion of medieval period, modern period tries to revive ancient models
  • 1650-1750: battle of the ancients and the moderns: sense of difference between the modern and the ancient world.
  • 1750- : discovery of Middle Ages as national past; modernity as the phase of intensified period-formation
  • Periods are a complex battleground
  • used to produce histories in contexts of scholarly and ideological confrontations,
  • used by movements to either identify and position themselves or others as historical agents.

Materials to look into


we need to know about periods and their features we need to ask about when they were "invented" and what purpose their invention could serve

What do we do when we come across periods

  • reflect on what purpose they serve in a given context
  • you may create your own periods!
  • you may prefer to identify and discuss historical developments
  • you can prefer to speak about a decade or about "the early 18th century" to create an open historical space in which you can identify confrontations and developments as they were visible at the time