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FireMadeFlesh's avatar

Who is your favourite pre-modern writer?

Asked by FireMadeFlesh (16583points) December 14th, 2010

If we define the modern era as beginning around 1630 CE, purely because I don’t want to exclude Renaissance writers from your responses, who would you call your favourite pre-modern writer? Tell us a bit about their works.

(Since there is no definitive date, feel free to stretch the timeline a little).

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41 Answers

Rarebear's avatar

I just finished Gilgamesh and loved it.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Rarebear Its a great book hey? I just wish we had the complete story! Thanks!

ZAGWRITER's avatar

Well, I’ll just go ahead and say the most obvious choice: William Shakespeare. I mean most obvious because it seems to be the most taught in universities. I haven’t come across another writer in this time frame that had courses based solely on their material.

I love Shakespeare for being able to speak about what makes humans tick, and to have the material still be relevant 400 years later. My favorite works of his are King Lear and Richard III. Both are based on strong central characters, who command your attention. Without them, the rest of the play couldn’t happen, the whole thing focuses on them. Does that make sense?

I also love whoever wrote Beowulf. I had the privilege of reading that last year for a class and absolutely loved it.

Winters's avatar

Luo Guanzhong

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@ZAGWRITER Great answer, thanks. King Lear never impressed me that much, especially compared to The Merchant of Venice. Beowulf is a great work too. I love the Old English poetry format that it was written in.

@Winters I’ve never heard of Luo Guanzhong – can you please elaborate?

zenvelo's avatar

Suetonius. Lives of the Caesars is like reading an ancient gossip column.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@zenvelo Thanks, that sounds very interesting.

Winters's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh author of Romance of the Three Kingdoms

ETpro's avatar

That’s a tough question to answer., Each of the ancient Greek, ROman, Chinese, Persian and so on writers built stpeeping stones for others to rise above them one. But it we had to pick just one that’s influenced Western Thought, Aristotle might be the one, although all too often, his thinking deslayed rather than advancing scientific progress.. Shakespeare certainly defined a great deal about human nature and behavior as well. I can’t pick.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Winters Thanks, I’ll look it up.

@ETpro “On the shoulders of giants” – I totally agree. GA!

Blueroses's avatar

Graffiti on the walls of Pompeii

muppetish's avatar

Ovid (The Metamorphoses), Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales), Malory (Le Morte D’Arthur), Spenser (The Faerie Queene), and Shakespeare (more for his plays than his sonnets). I don’t have a definite favourite, but I have loved studying the texts of these writers. Whittling it down to even two choices would be extremely challenging.

absalom's avatar

It is irrefutably Shakespeare. I’ve read a little over half his plays and it will be unfortunate when I finish them.

It’s difficult to choose a favorite play. The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale are among my favorite comedies (or ‘romances’ if you prefer). Among Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear it’s impossible to pick a tragedy I prefer. I could only maybe narrow it down to the latter two. The Merchant of Venice is his best ‘problem play’ and still disturbs me.

I also love Milton for Paradise Lost.

And then there is Cervantes, for Don Quixote and his contribution to the modern novel.

koanhead's avatar

I nominate Laurence Sterne, author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which is arguably the first and possibly the only pre-modern postmodern novel.

Kardamom's avatar

Good gracious! You’re definining modern as anything from 400 years ago! What is your definition of modern? To me, that’s ancient. I’m thinking that modern is anything from the late 1950’s (hence the term modern) onward.

Regardless, I am going to list Charles Dickens as my favorite. I don’t consider him modern by any standards, but I like him anyway and he’s over 100 years old. That’s not modern in any book.

If you mean contemporary, then I would list Fannie Flagg.

ETpro's avatar

@Kardamom When I read the question, before I saw in the details how far back we had to go to escape the modern age of writing, Dickens was going to be my answer as well. His work was powerful enough to transform an age and give a voice to those who society to then had left voiceless.

Sunny2's avatar

I’m partial to Dickens too. He wrote for weekly papers, one chapter a week; so his chapters all end on a note that makes you wonder what will happen next. (It sold papers the following week). His descriptions of characters are so clear that they have lasted as societal types. We all know people today who are like the characters in his books. (What, you don’t know a Bob Cratchit?) You can experience the times he wrote about so that you can visualize the homes and the streets. I disliked my high school sophomore English teacher. She was not well mentally; threw chalk at the students; and was generally uncomfortable to be around; BUT I first read Dickens with her and can forgive all her faults and problems. Hmm. I’ll have to look for her among his characters in the books I haven’t read yet.

absalom's avatar


In most discourses, including those concerned with literature, linguistics, and history, the modern period began after the Middle Ages, sometime around the 16th century and toward the tail-end of the Renaissance.

The Great Vowel Shift constituted the birth of Modern English in 1550. Shakespeare wrote in Modern English, and is considered an early modern writer. Hamlet is seen by many to be the first truly modern representation of humankind and consciousness. Et cetera, et cetera.

Dickens was certainly an important author. He is pre-Modernism, but not pre-modern, and so he doesn’t really fit with the question.

Sorry to be pedantic. Though it’s a little inaccurate to say so, I suppose you could think of pre-modern literature as that which occurred during the Renaissance and earlier, if that helps. We tend to think of modern as being somewhat synonymous with contemporary, but that’s not always true in academic discourses.

absalom's avatar


A good match if she immolated herself.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@muppetish I love Le Morte D’Arthur, but I am yet to read the others you mention. Thanks!

@absalom Is Paradise Lost difficult to read? I’ve never read more than a few lines.

@Kardamom and @Sunny2 I’ve never read Dickens, but he is certainly part of the modern era. The reason I defined the modern era as I did is that authors who wrote earlier than the 1600s lived in a very different society to ours. I wanted to open up the discussion to all the texts that come from ancient cultures which the average person generally doesn’t give much thought to. For the record, of all the books I have read for leisure, close to half were written before 1600. Those more recent than that are mostly fictionalisations of events that occurred before 1600.

Seelix's avatar

Francesco Petrarca (or, as I like to call him, Frankie the Rock – nice mob name, no?). His Canzoniere is some of the most beautiful poetry I’ve ever read.

And I can’t ignore Dante Alighieri. La Divina Commedia, especially Inferno, is some great reading.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

Euclid. The foundation of modern mathematics, and one of the best-selling books of all time. When you come to realize how much was known at this time in history, you wonder how it could have taken us so long to get to where we are. The Dark Ages were dark indeed, and they’re not completely over with.

Rarebear's avatar

Well, if someone is allowed to write Charles Dickens, I’ll say Jane Austin. Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books (and this from a science fiction geek who reads almost exclusively books about science, or books with space ships and laser beams).

Kardamom's avatar

I guess I was getting the terms Modern and Modernism mixed up. I had never heard the term Modern used for something that old, but then again, I wasn’t an English lit major. Thanks for the info regarding that. What exactly would literature that was produced in the 1950’s onward be called (the architecture and art is usally called mid-century modern)?

Seek's avatar

I am absolutely in love with Giovanni Boccaccio. I read The Decameron for the first time in my junior year of high school. When, in Senior year, we were assigned The Canterbury Tales, I actually groaned with boredom comparing the two. To this day I do not understand why Chaucer’s unfinished story receives so much more attention and credit than Boccaccio’s beautiful tale – which was written and completed long before Chaucer began Canterbury.

I suppose it’s because Chaucer was English, and Boccaccio Italian.

I’m also very fond of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (The Lady of Shallot, to say the least) as well as Sir Edmund Spencer (The Faerie Queene), Guilliaume De Lorris and Jean De Lume (The Romance of the Rose), and St. Augustine (Confessions and The City of God)

Blueroses's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr I am so with you on The Decameron. I also picked it up in high school and read it on my own initiative. The stories are timeless and entertaining.

crisw's avatar


“I just finished Gilgamesh and loved it.”

Coming in on this a little late, but have you heard this?

Rarebear's avatar

@crisw Oh, that’s great. I’ll download the album off of itunes.
I love this line: “Brad Pitt would have looked like a turd beside him.”

crisw's avatar


I love the diversion into evolutionary psychology.

littlebeck30's avatar

Cormac MacCarthy, author of The Road, No Country for Old Men, and All the Pretty Horses.
His writing style is dark, disturbing, educated, gripping, and unique.

submariner's avatar

Aristotle, but I don’t think that’s the kind of writing you (OP) are interested in.

I must echo rarebear and give a big thumbs up to the Gilgamesh epic. I picked up a copy of it in a used bookstore but didn’t get around to reading it until after my dog died. That was fortuitous in two directions, because the epic helped me deal with my loss, and because my loss helped me understand the epic. She was my Enkidu! :’-(

I saw My Dog Tulip tonight, and I’ve also had a bottle of wine, so forgive me if I’m a bit maudlin.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@submariner Aristotle is definitely among the authors worthy to be on this list. I have only read the Politics, but it is enough to glimpse his genius. Thanks for your answer.

absalom's avatar


Just now seeing this again – to answer your question: Paradise Lost is not particularly difficult to read. There is a sophisticated poetics at work (chiastic lines come to mind) but it presents no surface difficulty while reading.

I’m always kind of surprised by Milton’s readability. Even his prose (of which I’ve only read ‘Areopagitica’ – highly recommend it though) is very clear.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@absalom Thanks, I’ll give it a go some time!

Imadethisupwithnoforethought's avatar

Marcus Aurelius.

‘If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.’

ETpro's avatar

@Imadethisupwithnoforethought No can do. I don’t have free will. I could have it, but I decided not to.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Imadethisupwithnoforethought Thanks. He was certainly a genius! Meditations is so calmly rational, it relaxes the mind to read it.

Aesthetic_Mess's avatar

I like the Greek writers: Sophocles, Homer, Euripedes, etc.

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