Oral literature is an ancient human tradition found in “all corners of the world”. Modern archaeology has been unveiling evidence of the human efforts to preserve and transmit arts and knowledge that depended completely or partially on an oral tradition, across various cultures:
The Judeo-Christian Bible reveals its oral traditional roots; medieval European manuscripts are penned by performing scribes; geometric vases from archaic Greece mirror Homer’s oral style. (…) Indeed, if these final decades of the millennium have taught us anything, it must be that oral tradition never was the other we accused it of being; it never was the primitive, preliminary technology of communication we thought it to be. Rather, if the whole truth is told, oral tradition stands out as the single most dominant communicative technology of our species as both a historical fact and, in many areas still, a contemporary reality.
The earliest poetry is believed to have been recited or sung, employed as a way of remembering history, genealogy, and law.
The Hebrew religious text, the Torah, is widely seen as a product of the Persian period (539–333 BC, probably 450–350 BC). This consensus echoes a traditional Jewish view which gives Ezra, the leader of the Jewish community on its return from Babylon, a pivotal role in its promulgation. This represents a major source of Christianity’s Bible, which has had a major influence on Western literature.
The beginning of Roman literature dates to 240 BC, when a Roman audience saw a Latin version of a Greek play. Literature in Latin would flourish for the next six centuries, and includes essays, histories, poems, plays, and other writings.
The Qur’an (610 AD to 632 AD), the main holy book of Islam, had a significant influence on the Arab language, and marked the beginning of Islamic literature. Muslims believe it was transcribed in the Arabic dialect of the Quraysh, the tribe of Muhammad. As Islam spread, the Quran had the effect of unifying and standardizing Arabic.
Theological works in Latin were the dominant form of literature in Europe typically found in libraries during the Middle Ages. Western Vernacular literature includes the Poetic Edda and the sagas, or heroic epics, of Iceland, the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, and the German Song of Hildebrandt. A later form of medieval fiction was the romance, an adventurous and sometimes magical narrative with strong popular appeal.
Controversial, religious, political and instructional literature proliferated during the European Renaissance as a result of the Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press around 1440, while the Medieval romance developed into the novel,
The intricate frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra from Tang dynasty China, the world’s earliest dated printed book, AD 868 (British Library)
Publishing became possible with the invention of writing but became more practical with the invention of printing. Prior to printing, distributed works were copied manually, by scribes.
The Chinese inventor Bi Sheng made movable type of earthenware c. 1045. Then c.1450, Johannes Gutenberg independently invented movable type in Europe. This invention gradually made books less expensive to produce and more widely available.
Early printed books, single sheets, and images created before 1501 in Europe are known as incunables or incunabula. “A man born in 1453, the year of the fall of Constantinople, could look back from his fiftieth year on a lifetime in which about eight million books had been printed, more perhaps than all the scribes of Europe had produced since Constantine founded his city in A.D. 330.”
Eventually, printing enabled other forms of publishing besides books. The history of modern newspaper publishing started in Germany in 1609, with publishing of magazines following in 1663.