The Origins of The Novel
From the Sacred to the Novel
The Birth of the Novel
Today the novel, as well as other forms of creative writing, is in danger from religious fanatics.
Recently a French magazine has been attacked and writers and artists killed by Muslim terrorists. The cry went out and still goes out. I am Charlie!
Back in 1988 Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death by crazed Muslims over his novel The Satanic Verses. the sentence, as far as I know, has yet to be carried out but it is a black mark against those religious nutters. People in both Britain and Australia bought the book in protest.
It is good then to remember that religious fanaticism was one thing that had to be battled in order to gain the kind of reading public in which the novel as we know it could flourish.
Strangely enough, the novel, as we understand the novel, hasn't been around for very long.
Was there writing of fiction as well as fact before the novel? Yes, there was but it was geared for a world in which most people couldn't read or write.
For centuries books were very expensive items that only the well to do or the rich could afford to have in their possession.
For centuries, too, only certain members of society were expected to be able to read and write.
In 17th Century Spain a slave could be killed for daring to even try to learn how to read and write.
In some cultures writing was connected to religion to the point where putting down words and ideas on papyrus, parchment , etc was seen as a religious act.
There were even cultures that came to believe that reading should be limited for the religious health of society in general. For the novel to emerge then the times had to be right.
In Ancient Egypt the act of writing was sacred because words of a specific type said in a specific way were required to send the pharaoh after death on his great and hazardous journey to the afterlife.
Of course scribes were called upon to write about the mundane matters of running the twin kingdoms and keeping them safe from invasion.
This writing involving day to day commerce, however, was less formal than the examples of hieroglyphics that can be found on ancient temples and in the valley of the kings and thus less sacred.
Even so, not everyone was expected to be able to read and write in Ancient Egypt though everyone could accept the sacred nature of the hieroglyphics.
In Ancient Greece and then in Rome writing kept some of its sacred nature but, thanks to the play, was shared by more people. There was a god connection to the plays of Ancient Greece.
There were also plays that, in honoring a god or the gods, told stories about the Greeks and their struggles with one another and with also with would-be invaders.
Comedies emerged because, like the Greeks, their gods were not all serious all the time.
It was also discovered that. through biting comedy, truths that might otherwise be hidden can fully emerge.
Greek playwrights wrote down their plays and we still have some of them but, in Ancient Greece, very few people could actually read.
Poetry flourished. The epic poem in particular became popular.
Tales such as Heracles (Hercules) battling the hydra were first told and retold in poetry, song, and theatrical performance.
The Ancient Greeks were also big on the idea of libraries where people who could read could go freely to check out scrolls.
Alexander the Great took the notion of libraries with him on his conquests.
Hence the original library of Alexandria is still talked about. Mind you, the one recently built appears to have been constructed with many of the ideas and ideals of those that had gone before it.
Possibly more people could read in Roman times as the Roman Empire expanded and constant communication between provinces became more and more a necessity.
The epic poem and other forms of poetry did well at this time. The play was also popular.
During the Middle Ages great populations in Europe remained illiterate. Monks were mostly in charge of making books and the books took a great deal of time to make.The materials they were made from were also expensive.
What's more, the question arose as to whether there was a necessity for any other book besides the Bible to be in circulation.
Some monasteries kept ancient texts that were in Latin and Greek. Other monasteries were for burning anything written that could not be related in some way to the Bible.
There is a library in Rome said to hold books that were considered, at one time or another, to be against the teachings of the Catholic Church.
At times science struggled to progress thanks to religious belief. Self expression at this period in time could be hazardous to your health. To put your thoughts and ideas into writing was even more hazardous.
It was because the general public was illiterate that the Medieval upper classes in Europe adopted the symbols of animals both real and imagined in heraldry. In a tournament you could tell one knight from another by, not only his colors, but also by his representative markings and symbols.
When Europeans came to know how to manufacture paper a leap forward was made in both writing and reading. It was suddenly much cheaper to produce books.
Around the same time there was another leap forward. Movable type was developed by Johannes Gutenberg around 1439 in what is now Germany, making the printing press practical for printing words as well as pictures.
Now books with plenty of words no longer had to be hand written. Now they could be mass produced via the printing press. This also lead to pamphlets being printed which pointed the way to the first newspapers.
The common language of the people began to become also the written language. Italian flourished and so did English.
Anglo-Saxon style English had done well before the Norman conquest of England as both a spoken and written language but now a new, vibrant English was making a strong comeback.
Within this new English were new as well as already commonly used French words plus words from elsewhere in the world.
England in becoming a nautical nation was spreading English abroad and. at the same time, adopting new foods and new ideas from abroad making the language more sophisticated.
By the end of the Middle Ages a strong, vibrant middle class had developed throughout much of Europe. It wasn't yet enough to allow the novel to come to pass or to flourish but more and more people were both reading and writing.
There were playwrights such as William Shakespeare who were aware of the great changes taking place in their life times.
A scientific age was dawning and with it new words or old words used in new ways to describe the fresh discoveries.
New lands were discovered. First the Americas were plundered for gold and then settled. It was the English and then the Scots that seemed most interested in doing the settling.
There's a story that Catholic Europe wanted gold for the papacy in order to build a golden temple to God before the end of the world came. Apparently the end of the world was due so the gold was a matter of urgency. Protestant England, however, hadn't bought into this.
More and more libraries came into existence. There were coffee houses in Europe where pamphlets and then newspapers could be purchased and read by anyone. The monopoly on reading and writing had been broken.
It was the rise of the middle class as well as the misery of the lower class that led to the French revolution.
Without a sense of personal justice and without some knowledge of law and custom that could be passed on to everyone, the American Revolution might well have fizzled out. "No taxation without representation' was the catch cry and there is no point in having a catch cry unless it can be quickly circulated among the people. This is where paper and print came into their own.
Seeing print in 1719, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe was, if not the first novel in English, close to being the first. It is the story of a shipwrecked white man and a native who made a home for themselves on an island. It may have been based on a true story but it was and is regarded as fiction.
Robinson Crusoe was longer than we consider a short story to be and it definitely wasn't an epic poem.
Certainly by the second decade of the 18th Century there was enough of a reading public in Britain as well as other places to justify the expense of such a work going to press. Hence by the second decade of the 18th Century the English novel was born.
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