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biography

The Origins of Biography

Among the most ancient biographies are the narrative carvings and hieroglyphic inscriptions on Egyptian tombs and temples (c.1300 B.C.), and the cuneiform inscriptions on Assyrian palace walls (c.720 B.C.) or Persian rock faces (c.520 B.C.). All these records proclaimed the deeds of kings, although accuracy often gave way to glorification. Among the first biographies of ordinary men, the Dialogues of Plato (4th cent. B.C.) and the Gospels of the New Testament (1st and 2d cent. A.D.) reveal their respective subjects by letting each speak for himself. Even these early achievements of biography, however, lack critical balance.

Equilibrium was established by Plutarch in The Parallel Lives (2d cent. A.D.). His method was comparative, e.g., Theseus is matched with Romulus; Demosthenes with Cicero. In his conclusions, he evaluates the connection between the moral standards and worldly achievements of each. St. Augustine turned the same critical judgment on himself in his Confessions (4th cent.), comparing his character and conduct before and after his conversion to Christianity.

During the Middle Ages credibility continued to be sacrificed to credulity. In the hagiographies, or lives of the saints, human flaws and actual events were bypassed in favor of saintly traits and miracles. Yet the few secular biographies produced in that era, Einhard's Life of Charlemagne (9th cent.), Eadmer's Life of St. Anselm (12th cent.), Jean de Joinville's Memoirs of St. Louis IX (13th cent.), and Jean Froissart's Chroniques (15th cent.), redeem the genre with their lively depiction of personalities and events.

With the Renaissance came rekindled interest in worldly power and self-assertion. Benvenuto Cellini's Autobiography (16th cent.), recounting his escapades and artistic achievements, is a monument to the ego. Saint-Simon's Memoirs (late 17th cent.) describe Louis XIV and his court at Versailles and record the effect of the monarch's absolute power on the daily lives of others. In England, Samuel Pepys's Diary, John Evelyn's Diary, Izaak Walton's Lives and John Aubrey's Lives of Eminent Men (all mid-17th cent.) introduced informality and intimacy to their treatments. Each wrote about contemporaries who were their friends or acquaintances.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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