The Renaissance was a time of rebirth and renewal. Just like arts and science, literature too experienced a rejuvenation. Writers began to experiment with different styles and genres and explored new themes and ideas.

The revival of texts from antiquity was key to the development of literature during this period. Classic works such as Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid were reinterpreted and adapted to reflect the values of the Renaissance.

So what did Renaissance writers write about?

In this article, we’ll review 7 literary themes, topics or genres that were common during the Renaissance. We’ll also see how literature evolved in different European countries during the Renaissance.


What Did Renaissance Writers Write About?

As we discussed in the introduction, literature flourished during the Renaissance as writers found the freedom to explore new ideas, invent new genres and express their ideas.

The Printing Revolution further enabled the spread of ideas and works, so much so that within 50 years of Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press, there were as many as 20 million volumes of books in circulation in Europe.

So, what did Renaissance writers write about?

Here are 7 five important themes or genres that were commonly covered by writers during the Renaissance:

  1. Romance and Chivalric Literature
  2. Poetry (Epic and Prose)
  3. Tragedy
  4. Satire
  5. Allegory
  6. Religious Works
  7. Comedy

Let’s look closely at each of these.

#1. Romance and Chivalric Literature

Much like in modern times, stories of chivalrous knights and romance were also popular in the Renaissance. During this period, chivalric tales like Amadis of Gaul, written by Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, and Orlando Furioso by Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto were popular.

Writers such as Giovanni Boccaccio, Edmund Spenser and Miguel de Cervantes wrote about courtly love stories, chivalry and heroism. These works often contained fantastical elements, such as knights and ladies in distress, dragons and giants.

These stories often involved grand adventures as knights embarked on quests to prove their loyalty and courage and often depicted love stories.

One of the most enduring stories of this genre is Don Quixote de la Mancha, written in 1605 by Miguel de Cervantes. It tells the story of an aging nobleman who, inspired by the stories of chivalric heroes he has read about, sets out to become a knight-errant himself.

#2. Poetry

One of the ways that Renaissance writers found their voice was in the form of poetry. Epic poems were written during this period by poets such as Edmund Spenser and Torquato Tasso.

Spenser is best known for his epic poem The Faerie Queene, which is an allegorical work that celebrates Queen Elizabeth I.

Likewise, Tasso is most known for his epic poem Jerusalem Delivered or Gerusalemme liberata in Italian, which tells the (imaginative) story of the First Crusade and the Siege of Jerusalem.

Another type of poetry was the sonnet, which reached its peak during this period. William Shakespeare is the most well-known sonnet writer of the Renaissance, with his collection entitled “Sonnets”.

Other notable figures such as Petrarch and Wyatt also composed sonnets that were widely admired.

#3. Tragedy

Tragedy was another popular genre during the Renaissance. Writers such as Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd wrote tragedies that explored topics such as revenge and ambition.

The most famous tragedy of the Renaissance is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which tells the story of a prince who seeks revenge for his father’s murder. It is an exploration of the human condition, of what it means to be alive.

Other tragedies include Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, both of which explore the consequences of making a deal with the devil.

#4. Satire

Satire was an important genre during the Renaissance. Satirical works ridiculed the accepted beliefs and customs of society, often in a humorous way.

The most well-known writers of satire from the Renaissance are Boccaccio and Rabelais. Giovanni Boccaccio, a Renaissance Humanist from Florence, is most known for his Decameron, which is a collection of 100 novellas or short stories.

The French writer Francois Rabelais, also a Renaissance Humanist, wrote Gargantua and Pantagruel, which tells the story of two giants and their misadventures.

#5. Allegory

Allegory is a literary device that is used to convey an abstract concept in a concrete way. The most famous example of this is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which is an allegorical tale about the journey of Christian and Evangelist in search of salvation.

As we saw earlier in this article, another example of an Allegory is Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which is an allegorical work celebrating Queen Elizabeth I. It tells the story of a knight who embarks on a quest to find the Faerie Queene and prove himself worthy of her love.

Renaissance writers often used allegory as a way to explore complex concepts in a more accessible way.

#6. Religious Works

Despite the humanistic trends of the Renaissance, religious works were still popular during this period. Writers such as Thomas More and John Calvin wrote extensively about religion and their religious beliefs.

Thomas More is best known for his work Utopia, a work of fiction that explores what an ideal society would look like. John Calvin wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion, an influential work that outlined his views on predestination and divine grace.

#7. Comedy

Finally, comedy was another popular genre during the Renaissance. Plays such as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing explore themes of love, deception, and confusion in a humorous way.

Comedy was also a way for writers to critique the politics and customs of the time. For example, Ben Jonson wrote plays such as The Alchemist and Volpone that satirized corruption and greed.


To Wrap Up …

So, what did Renaissance writers write about? As it turns out – Plenty!

They wrote on a broad range of topics from poetry and tragedy to allegory and comedy. They explored deep themes such as what it means to be alive and what an ideal society looks like.

It is clear that the Renaissance was a period of great creativity and exploration. These works continue to be studied and admired today, centuries after they were written.