Since writing about book binding and some of the oldest books in the world, it got me thinking about who the first authors were, when were people considered authors, and when did it become a recognised profession?
The earliest author, as considered and still debated by historians, is a woman called Enheduanna. She was a high priestess in the Sumerian city-state of Ur during the reign of her father, Sargon of Akkad during 2334 – 2279 B.C. A number of works in Sumerian literature appear to feature Enheduanna as the first person narrator, but works that have been attributed to her, were written by scribes six centuries after she lived. However, Enheduanna probably wasn’t considered an author during the time she was alive, even if she did write several works.
The Bible is Perhaps the most important and the best-selling book of all time. Both the Old and New Testament were finished by the end of the 2nd Century and were written by many authors over a period of 1,500 years. Moses supposedly wrote portions of scripture, and others were named with their ‘books’ or ‘Gospels’. However, scholars believe that the Gospels and books of the New Testament were not actually written by the people to whom they are attributed, and it is quite possible this is true for the Old Testament too. It appears that Bible writers came from all walks of life during different time periods and with different governments. You can find lists of Old and New Testament authors online, but again it is unlikely that any of these authors were considered authors professionally during their lifetime.
Before the invention of mechanical printing, and of course the Gutenberg Press, books were handmade. During the 4th Century, medieval books were made by scribes copying text by hand from original editions. Cassiodorus made copying biblical texts a compulsory tasks for monks. A monastic scribe would work for at least six hours a day, with the best scribes working even more hours. Scribes were not necessarily authors in their own right but we can definitely call them writers, and thanks to their hard work, a lot of ancient texts were saved and passed on.
Greek and Latin mythical and literary classics were the first texts predominantly copied, but during the 6th Century this shifted to Christian texts due to the rise of the Christian Religion. This saw a decline in Greek and Latin texts until the Carolingian Revival when Emperor Charlemagne pushed for more texts to be copied, restarting the copying of Greek and Latin classics.
The emergence of universities in Europe saw a demand for more books, particularly Bibles and books of law. When the printing press was invented, there were suddenly between eight and twenty-four million new books available in just a few decades. Classical and religious books were produced at first, but around 1484 scientific illustrations and books on Botany were produced. Arguably both an author and a publisher, humanist scholar Erasmus used the new print medium to promote his own ideas by the beginning of the 16th Century. Not everyone was thrilled with the arrival of the printing press, Filippo de Strata wrote ‘the printing press is a whore’ and called for printing to be banned. Others just simply preferred hand-written books, like Vespasian da Bisticci and Federico da Montefeltro, not only because they were beautiful, but also because of their value.
The authors of these Classical texts I keep mentioning, were generally Greek and Roman philosophers or other important people like Sun Tzu, a Chinese military leader who is believed to be the author of ‘The Art Of War’. There was also the Greek physician and botanist, Pedanius Dioscorides, who authored Vienna Dioscorides, a work which lists the medical properties of 383 herbs and 200 plants. The Book of Kells was believed to have been written by Irish Columbian Monks, and of course the Bible had many authors, but it is unlikely that any of these authors were considered professional authors during their lifetimes.
The earliest people who could be considered authors by profession were probably poets, like Homer, who was a Greek Poet and wrote ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’, two epic poems that were the foundations for Greek literature. These ancient poems would have been performed to audiences rather than read. Dante’s Divine Comedy, completed in 1320, inspired generations of poets and Dante himself is considered one of Italy’s greatest poets. Lots of artists, scientists and engineers, wrote books about their work, but were never solely authors by profession. Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra is considered one of the greatest Spanish writers, he wrote Don Quixote, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615. There was also William Shakespeare, an English playwright but definitely a writer and author, who lived between 1564 – 1616. The first folio of Shakespeare’s work was published in 1623.
It’s not until the 18th Century where more people seem to be recognised as authors, with French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot, who wrote plays and novels, and is most famous for his ‘L’Encyclopedie…’ though this was written and completed by more than 150 writers. During this time, Samuel Johnson was an English writer and critic who authored ‘Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language’, and Laurence Sterne, an Irish-born novelist, authored ‘Tristram Shandy’.
Towards the later end of the 18th Century, Thomas Paine rose to fame as a writer and wrote ‘The Rights of Man’, it was a publishing success, selling around 200,000 copies. In it’s day it horrified the authorities and was banned. William Blake lived during this time and wrote poetry, but most of his works went unrecognized until after his death in 1827.
During the 19th Century, Charles Dickens, a famous English novelist wrote many fictional works. His life-long career as a novelist began in 1836 and lasted until the day he died in 1870. Another writer was Harriet Beecher Stowe, she was an American abolitionist who wrote ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, she went on to write 30 books, including novels and memoirs. Walt Whitman, another poet, was an influential voice in American Literature, his book of twelve poems ‘Leaves of Grass’ was published in 1855.
Until the end of the 17th Century, books for children were written mainly for instruction and religious teachings, like Venerable Bede’s 7th Century text on natural science and later the first encyclopaedia written by Anselm for children. Manuals for good conduct were written for children during the 15th and 16th Centuries. Though the first serious children’s author was possibly Charles Perrault who wrote ‘Mother Goose’ for his own children. John Newberry appears to be the first author and bookseller who wrote entertaining children’s book with his ‘Little Pretty Pocket-Book ‘ in 1744. Fairy tales and folktales became increasingly popular, with Grimm’s fairy tales being published in 1812, however you can argue that maybe some of these stories in their original forms aren’t so suitable for children. Lewis Carroll could be considered the most important children’s writer who wrote specifically for entertaining children with his story ‘Alice In Wonderland’ published in 1865.
So the answer to who were the first authors is a complicated one. Storytelling has been around for centuries, and most stories were passed down through generations through word-of-mouth. Some poets wrote down their poetry and some people wrote stories but they were never published or mass produced in the way books are today. Other’s wrote works about their lives and livelihoods but were not necessarily considered authors. The printing press definitely caused a shift that saw people being able to mass produce their writings and spread them to a wider audience quickly. So it’s not really surprising that being an author as a profession, certainly during one’s lifetime was really only possible after this invention. Of course you either had to have your own printing press or convince someone who had one to publish your works.