Notable Writers from European History

The written word has grown to largely replace the oral traditions in Europe, an understandable development given how quicker and more widespread the transmission of stories can be when written down, even more if printed. Europe has produced many great writers, people who left a mark on culture and whose works are still being read. This list of notable writers is in chronological order.

01
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Homer c.8th/9th Century BCE

Picture 47 of the Ambrosian Iliad, Achilles sacrificing to Zeus for Patroclus' safe return, as seen in Iliad Book 16. 220-252.
Picture 47 of the Ambrosian Iliad, Achilles sacrificing to Zeus for Patroclus' safe return, as seen in Iliad Book 16. 220-252. By Unknown - Unknown, Public Domain, Link

The Iliad and Odyssey are two of the most important epic poems in western history, both having a profound effect on the development of written arts and culture. Traditionally these poems are ascribed to Greek poet Homer, although he may simply have written and shaped works which had been in the oral memory of his ancestors. That said, by writing them down in the manner he did, Homer earnt a place as one of Europe’s greatest poets. Of the man we know little.

02
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Performance of The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles
Performance of The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

A well-educated man from a wealthy family, Sophocles served several roles in Athenian society, including a role as a military commander. He also wrote plays, entering and winning the drama element of the Dionysian festival possibly over 20 times, more than esteemed contemporaries. His field was tragedies, of which only seven full-length pieces survive, including Oedipus the King, referenced by Freud when discovering the Oedipus complex.

03
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The magistrate negotiates with Lysistrata in the 2014 feature film Lysistrata
The magistrate negotiates with Lysistrata in the 2014 feature film Lysistrata. By JamesMacMillan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

An Athenian citizen who wrote during the era of the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes’ work constitutes the greatest surviving body of ancient Greek comedies from one person. Still performed today, his most famous piece is probably Lysistrata, where women go on a sex strike until their husbands make peace. He is also believed to be the only surviving example of what is termed "Old Comedy", different from the more realistic "New Comedy".

04
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Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia
Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia. Jean-Baptiste Wicar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Virgil was regarded as the best of the Roman poets during the Roman era, and this reputation has been maintained. His most famous, albeit unfinished, work is the Aeneid, the story of a Trojan founder of Rome, written during the period of Augustus’ reign. His influence has been felt widely in literature and, as Virgil’s poems were studied in Roman schools, by children.

05
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A bust of Horace
"Horace" (CC BY 2.0) by Matt From London

The son of a freed slave, Horace’s early career saw him commanding units in the army of Brutus, who was defeated by future Roman emperor Augustus. He returned to Rome and found employment as a treasury clerk, before achieving great renown as a poet and satirist of the highest order, even corresponding with Augustus, now emperor, and praising him in some works.

06
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Dante Alighieri 1265 – 1321 CE

Joseph Anton Koch, L'inferno di Dante, 1825
Joseph Anton Koch, L'inferno di Dante, 1825. By Sailko (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A writer, philosopher and political thinker, Dante wrote his most famous work while in exile from his beloved Florence, forced out by his role in the politics of the day. The Divine Comedy has been interpreted by each successive age in a slightly different way, but it has greatly influenced popular depictions of hell, as well as culture, and his decision to write in Italian rather than Latin helped prompt the spread of the former language in the arts.

07
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Scene of the plague in Florence in 1348 described by Boccaccio, by Baldassarre Calamai (1787-1851), oil on canvas, 95x126 cm, Italy
Scene of the plague in Florence in 1348 described by Boccaccio in the Introduction of the Decameron, by Baldassarre Calamai (1787-1851), oil on canvas, 95x126 cm. Italy. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

Boccaccio is best known as the author of the Decameron, an earthy and tragic-comic look at life which, because it was written in vernacular Italian, helped raise the language to the same level of regard as Latin and Greek. Shortly after completing the Decameron he changed to writing in Latin, and less known today is his work in humanist scholarship during the period. Together with Petrarch, he is said to have helped lay the groundwork the Renaissance.

08
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Geoffrey Chaucer c. 1342 / 43 - 1400

Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims, Tabard Inn by Edward Henry Corbould
A scene from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer depicts travelers at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, London. Corbis via Getty Images

Chaucer was a talented administrator who served three kings, but it is for his poetry which he is best known. The Canterbury Tales, a series of stories told by pilgrims en route to Canterbury, and Troilus and Criseyde have been hailed as some of the finest poetry in the English language before Shakespeare, written as they were in the vernacular language of the country rather than Latin.

09
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Statues of Cervantes, Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, low angle view
Statues of Cervantes, Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, Plaza de Espana, Madrid, Spain. Guy Vanderelst / Getty Images

In Cervantes’ early life he enrolled as a soldier and was kept prisoner as a slave for several years until his family raised a ransom. After this, he became a civil servant, but money remained a problem. He wrote in many different fields, including novels, play, poems and short stories, creating his masterpiece in Don Quixote. He is now regarded as the main figure in Spanish literature, and Don Quixote has been hailed as the first great novel.

10
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Play Reading
Circa 1600, Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) reading Hamlet to his family. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

A playwright, poet, and actor, Shakespeare’s work, written for the company of a London theatre, has seen him called one of the world’s great dramatists. He enjoyed success in his lifetime but has gone on to ever greater and wider appreciation for works like Hamlet, Macbeth, or Romeo and Juliet, as well as his sonnets. Perhaps strangely, although we know quite a lot about him, there is a constant current of people who doubt he wrote the works.

11
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Voltaire 1694 - 1778

Voltaire. Portrait of the French writer and philosopher. Born as François-Marie Arouet.
Culture Club / Getty Images

Voltaire was the pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet, one of the greatest French writers. He worked in many forms, imparting wit, critique and satire against the religious and political system which saw him become hugely famous during his one lifetime. His most known works are Candide and his letters, which encompass enlightenment thought. During his life he spoke on many non-literary subjects like science and philosophy; critics have even blamed him for the French Revolution.

12
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Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm 1785 – 1863 / 1786 - 1859

Germany, Hesse, Hanau, Brothers Grimm monument in front of Neustadt town hall
Germany, Hesse, Hanau, Brothers Grimm monument in front of Neustadt town hall. Westend61 / Getty Images

Known collectively as “The Brothers Grimm”, Jacob and Wilhelm are remembered today for their collection of folk tales, which helped start the study of folklore. However, their work in linguistics and philology, during which they compiled a dictionary of the German language, coupled with their folk tales, helped forge the idea of a modern “German” national identity.

13
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Victor Hugo 1802 – 1885

Illustration for Les Miserables and Quatre Vingt-Treize.
Illustration for Les Miserables and Quatre Vingt-Treize, 1850. Culture Club / Getty Images

Best known abroad for his 1862 novel Les Misérables, thanks in part to a modern musical, Hugo is remembered in France as a great poet, one of the nation’s most important Romantic era writers and as a symbol of French republicanism. The latter was thanks to Hugo’s activity in public life, in which he supported liberalism and the republic, as the period he spread in exile and opposition during the Second Empire under Napoleon III.

14
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Fyodor Dostoyevsky 1821 – 1881

A monument to Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Tolbolsk, Siberia, where he was once imprisioned.
A monument to Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Tolbolsk, Siberia, where he was once imprisioned. Alexander Aksakov / Getty Images

Having been hailed as great by a vicious critic for his first novella, Dostoyevsky’s career took a difficult turn when he joined a group of intellectuals discussing socialism. He was arrested and put through a mock execution, complete with last rights, then imprisoned in Siberia. When free, he wrote works such as Crime and Punishment, examples of his superb grasp of psychology. He is considered an all time great novelist.

15
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Russian author Leo Tolstoy taking a winter walk, 1900s. Artist: Sophia Tolstaya
Russian author Leo Tolstoy taking a winter walk, 1900s. Found in the collection of the State Museum of Tolstoy's Estate at Yasnaya Polyana. Heritage Images/Getty Images

Born to wealthy aristocratic parents who died while he was still young, Tolstoy began his career in writing before serving in the Crimean War. After he this turned to a mixture of teaching and writing, creating what have been labeled two of the great novels in literature: War and Peace, set during the Napoleonic Wars and Anna Karenina. During his lifetime, and ever since he has been considered a master of human observation.

16
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Émile Zola 1840 – 1902

DREYFUS AFFAIR : 'J'ACCUSE?!' BY EMILE ZOLA
Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

Although famed as a great novelist and critic, French author Zola is known primarily in historical circles for an open letter he wrote. Entitled “J’accuse” and printed on the front page of a newspaper, it was an attack on the upper ranks of the French military for their anti-Semitism and corruption of justice in falsely condemning a Jewish officer called Alfred Dreyfus to prison. Charged with libel, Zola fled to England but returned to France after the government fell. Dreyfus was eventually exonerated.