In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Autobiography and Life Writing

  • Introduction
  • Original Works

Renaissance and Reformation Autobiography and Life Writing
Elizabeth T. Howe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0520


In its essential meaning autobiography is defined by its constituent parts as the writing (graphia) of an individual life (bios) by himself or herself (auto). Although only officially recognized in the 19th century as a distinct literary genre, over time critics have come to expand both the chronology and the forms taken by those engaged in the study of life-writing. With Saint Augustine’s Confessions generally accepted as the earliest and most enduring example of a work exposing the author’s insights into his own life, subsequent narratives have expanded both the types of autobiographical writing recognized as such as well as the diverse authorship thereof. Works penned by authors as accounts of their own lives expand on Augustine’s initial contribution to include the late medieval story of Peter Abelard and lives written by saints, such as Teresa of Avila, to the works of a representative group of men and women, artists, soldiers, nuns, and housewives alive during the early modern period in Europe and the New World. From the more restrictive definitions of autobiography found in early considerations of the genre, subsequent analysis embraced a diversity of forms of life-writing, from so called ego-documents (a term coined in the early 1950s that included life-writing perceived to be marginal or less than introspective); to memoirs and diaries, by both men and women; as well as poems, letters, testimony before Inquisition tribunals, and even novels, especially those adopting a first-person account often told in picaresque terms. From its earliest, restrictive definition, therefore, autobiography has grown to embrace a wide variety of literary forms written by an equally diverse group of authors drawn from all walks of society.

Original Works

Representative works by the earliest authors of autobiographical writing begin with Saint Augustine (b. 354–d. 430) in his Confessions, which served as the prototype of the genre. Peter Abelard wrote his Historia Calamitatum/Story of My Misfortunes as a lament over certain events in his life. In her Vida/Life Teresa of Avila (b. 1515–d. 1582) acknowledged her acquaintance with Augustine’s work, even as she composed a narrative of her own inner, mystical experiences. In contrast, Benvenuto Cellini (b. 1500–d. 1571) composed a Vita/Autobiography that reads more like a picaresque novel than an example of self-reflection. Michel de Montaigne (b. 1533–d. 1592) spread his life story over a collection of works, from his Essais to his Letters. Spiritual awakening is evident in the poetry and prose of Anne Bradstreet (b. c. 1612–d. 1672) in Puritan New England as it is in Grace Abounding by John Bunyan (b. 1628–d. 1688), a work reflecting the author’s experiences during the turbulent years of Cromwell’s Protectorate and the Restoration in England. Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle (b. 1623?–d. 1673), presents the perspective of an aristocratic married woman of decidedly different means and station in society in the True Relation of her life written as an appendage to the biography she penned of her husband. The prolific writings of the Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (b. 1651–d. 1695), weave her life account through the varied forms of poetry, prose, and theater in the closing years of the 17th century. Samuel Pepys (b. 1633–d. 1703) provided a day-by-day account of his observations and interactions with others in his Diary/Memoir.

  • Abelard, Peter. The Story of My Misfortunes. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1958.

    An account of the author’s perceived misfortunes narrated in both prose and poetry, revealing his inner turmoil. Introduction Ralph Adams Cram.

  • Augustine, Saint. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Translated by Rex Warner. New York: New American Library, 1963.

    The prototype of autobiography in the West is described by James Olney (Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) as the “great Ur-book of life writing” (p. 29). It influenced subsequent works of life-writing throughout the early modern period and beyond.

  • Avila, Saint Teresa of. The Life of Teresa of Jesus. The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Translated and edited by E. Allison Peers. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1960.

    The life of this 16th-century Spanish nun represents one of the first autobiographies by a woman, one who influenced a diverse group of later authors not just of life-writing but of other genres as well.

  • Bradstreet, Anne. The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Edited by Jeannine Hensley. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

    The “Spiritual autobiography” of the poet is contained in “Contemplations” (pp. 204–214) in addition to other poems and prose works detailing the life of this Puritan housewife in colonial New England of the 17th century.

  • Bunyan, John. Grace Abounding with Other Spiritual Autobiographies. Edited by John Stachniewski and Anita Pacheco. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    A spiritual autobiography by the author of Pilgrim’s Progress in which he considers his life in the context of his Calvinist belief in predestination. This edition also offers excerpts from lesser-known British authors of life-writing from the same period.

  • Cavendish, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle. The Life of William Cavendish Duke of Newcastle, to Which is Added the True Relation of My Birth, Breeding, and Life. 2d ed. Edited by C. H. Firth. London: Routledge, 1903.

    Considered the first autobiography penned by a woman in the English language, the True Relation seek to answer the question posed by the author: “why hast this woman writ her own life?”

  • Cellini, Benvenuto. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini Complete. Translated by John Addington Symonds. Las Vegas: Nevada, 2022.

    Symonds avers that Cellini wrote a work that was self-congratulatory about all that he had overcome and accomplished in his life.

  • Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor. The Answer/La Respuesta. 2d critical ed. Edited by Electa Arenal. Translated by Amanda Powell. New York: The Feminist Press, 2009.

    Called the Tenth Muse of the Americas, this prolific 17th-century Mexican nun-writer included her life story within a letter to her erstwhile confessor and friend. This bilingual edition of the Respuesta a Sor Filotea provides the original text of the letter along with a translation.

  • Montaigne, Michel Eyquem. The Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne. Edited and translated by Marvin Lowenthal. Jaffrey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935.

    A compilation and ordering of Montaigne’s Essais, Journey, Letters, and other sources by the editor to create a “portrait of the wisest and perhaps most lovable man of the modern age” (p. xiv). Reissued New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.

  • Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A New and Complete Transcription. Edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews. 11 vols. London: G. Bell, 1970–1983.

    Probably the best-known diary of the early modern period in England. The focus is on the external events in Pepys’s busy life with little or no introspection on his part.

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