More than anything, the Renaissance represented a burst of creative energy. Initially taking root in 14th-century Italy, it soon fanned out across Northern Europe. Around 1450, German printer Johannes Gutenberg developed his printing press, allowing widespread publication of written works. Inspired by the possibility of reaching mass audiences, writers in Northern Europe produced new material in every known form. In addition to the birth of the essay, there were landmark works of poetry, drama, fiction and social commentary.

Montaigne: Father of the Essay

Renaissance writers were deeply influenced by humanist thought.
Renaissance writers were deeply influenced by humanist thought.

The Renaissance arose out of humanist philosophy. Humanists believed that individual reason and experience were more reliable than inherited religious traditions. One French nobleman, Michel de Montaigne, helped develop this perspective in a new form he called the essay. In his essays, Montaigne looked inward for universal truths. Between 1571 and 1590, he produced 107 such essays, the most famous being "On Vanity," in which he pondered such weighty topics as death, happiness, self-doubt and knowledge.

Fiction in France and Spain

Francois Rabelais bore a major influence on Renaissance literature in Northern Europe.
Francois Rabelais bore a major influence on Renaissance literature in Northern Europe.

The towering work of Renaissance fiction was undoubtedly Miguel Cervantes' "Don Quixote." In "Renaissance and Reformation," Peggy and Aaron Saari note that "Don Quixote" "was largely responsible for creating the modern novel." This 1605 masterwork follows a senile knight and his dimwitted page through their absurd adventures in Renaissance Spain. Its comedic tone closely mirrors that of Francois Rabelais, a Frenchman whose earlier "Gargantua and Pantagruel" also parodies chivalry and knighthood. In their own ways, both works signified Europe's break with its medieval past.

England: Flower of Renaissance Poetry

Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queene" was a masterwork of English Renaissance poetry.
Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queene" was a masterwork of English Renaissance poetry.

Renaissance verse may have flowered in Italy, but it blossomed in Tudor England. It was here at the end of the 16th century that Edmund Spenser composed "The Faerie Queene," an unfinished epic celebrating the country's mythical past. It was also here that Spenser, along with Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare, helped popularize the sonnet. Indeed, Shakespeare proved himself the master of this 14-line poem that originated in Italy. In all, he wrote 154 of them, bringing the sonnet to its most polished form.

All the World's a Stage: English Renaissance Drama

William Shakespeare was the undisputed master of Northern Renaissance drama.
William Shakespeare was the undisputed master of Northern Renaissance drama.

As with poetry, England led Europe in the creation of drama. The spark began with Christopher Marlowe, the author of "Doctor Faustus," who met an untimely end in a tavern brawl. His contemporary, Shakespeare, was easily the greatest of all Renaissance playwrights. Shakespeare's masterpieces included comedies like "Twelfth Night," tragedies such as "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," and historical plays in the form of "Julius Caesar" and "Richard III." Shakespeare's successor to the stage was Ben Johnson, whose "Volpone" is a biting satire about human greed.

Social Commentary in Northern Writings

The Dutch writer Erasmus produced a voluminous body of social commentary.
The Dutch writer Erasmus produced a voluminous body of social commentary.

Not all Renaissance writings were intended to entertain. Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutchman, wrote widely on education, religion, war and politics. In his "Praise of Folly," for instance, he openly condemned Europe's clergy. His contemporary, Sir Thomas More, wrote the more famous "Utopia," about an imaginary society where poverty and inequality have been eradicated. Both men earned powerful enemies through their writings, but so did many others. The Renaissance was a time of great upheaval, and Europe's writers were at the leading edge of it.