The European Novel Analysis

The Middle Ages to the Renaissance

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

During the Middle Ages, verse and prose works in the heroic, realistic/satiric, and pastoral modes continued to be written, thus nourishing the soil that produced the long fictions of the Renaissance that modern critics most frequently call the first novels. The dominant heroic form of the early Middle Ages, the lives of Christian saints and martyrs, blended the influences of Vergil with those of the Gospels and the letters of Paul to create a Christian heroic type that would flourish in the later Middle Ages in the epics of Roland, the Cid, and Arthur. The saints’ lives also carried forward the Roman satiric mode, primarily in the form of tricks played by the saints on the always greedy, pompous, pagan soldiers and magistrates. In the later medieval period, such satire was most often directed at corrupt clerics and wealthy burghers, with pranks being pulled on them by such masterful imps as the German Tyll Eulenspiegel. The French fabliaux of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries contain many stories of this type, besides satires in which the trick is a sexual one played by a lusty youth with the wife of a rich, gout-ridden old merchant. Geoffrey Chaucer worked marvelous variations on these themes in The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), andGiovanni Boccaccio worked the same vein in his Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620), both collections providing continuing inspiration for later writers of fiction.

Of incalculable effect on the eventual rise of the intellectual novel, or novel of sensibility, was the introspective devotional literature of the Middle Ages, its greatest example being the Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620) of Saint Augustine. Using autobiographical narrative in the service of ethical and religious speculation, the Confessions, like the greatest novels, grant high dignity and importance to the individual life. The Confessions also brought to Western literature that intimacy of tone and truthfulness of thought and feeling that are the essence of the modern intellectual novel.

The invention of movable type and the influence of the Humanists

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Perhaps the single most important event in the development of the modern novel was Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in 1450. Without the technology to produce thousands of copies, each several hundred pages in length, the novel as it is known today, sprawling in scope of time and place, dependent on a diverse reading public, is inconceivable. In terms of the historical development of the genre, this invention also occasioned the amazing speed with which the influence of major works moved from country to country after about 1500, as works written in one vernacular were translated and made available for other readers only a few years after their first printing. As a result, one sees continual enrichment by foreign sources of the distinctive national traditions.

The clearest example of this multicultural influence is that of the Dutch-born Desiderius Erasmus, whose Moriae encomium (1509; The Praise of Folly, 1941) and Colloquia familiaria (1518) affected satiric fiction throughout Western Europe from as early as the 1530’s. The Praise of Folly raises to the level of Christian type the anticlerical trickster of the Eulenspiegel tales and the fabliaux. Colloquia familiaria, originally intended as a speaking and writing manual for students of Latin, includes clever dialogues and realistic stories that continued to reappear in new garb throughout the century, in such works as those of William...

(The entire section is 484 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Bell, Michael. The Sentiment of Reality: Truth of Feeling in the European Novel. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1983. Focuses on the emotional truth of European fiction. Includes useful bibliography and index.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books, 1953. Focuses on works written in Latin from the fifth century until the blossoming of the Renaissance in Europe. Examines the rhetorical, stylistic, and metaphoric techniques used by poets, chroniclers, and romancers that influenced works traditionally considered the earliest novels and novellas.

Dunn, Peter N. Spanish Picaresque Fiction: A New Literary History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. Traces the development of the picaresque novel in Spain, from sixteenth century versions such as Lazarillo de Tormes through seventeenth century tales written by Miguel de Cervantes and others. Explains distinctive qualities of the genre and demonstrates how these are continued in novels as the tradition of realistic fiction develops.

Gutiérrez, Helen Turner. The Reception of the Picaresque in the French, English, and German Traditions. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. Explores the ways in which a common tradition was adapted in various European countries to meet...

(The entire section is 568 words.)