In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biography

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works and Digital Sources

Renaissance and Reformation Biography
Sarah Covington
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0532


The genre of biography enjoyed an efflorescence in the early modern period, fostered by the cultural, social, intellectual, and political changes of the time. Building on models from the classical past, the Renaissance biography also forged new directions that would deeply shape all later forms of life writing. From Petrarch onward, humanists forged a new biographical movement with their reading of the ancients, and above all Suetonius, Plutarch, and Diogenes Laertius, who imparted ethical messages by writing of the lives and deeds of antiquity’s heroes. Humanists not only paid homage to this classical past by devoting books to its “illustrious men,” but also elevated their own period and leaders by profiling the lives of their present-day artists, writers, philosophers, and statesmen. Indeed, Petrarch, the biographer of illustrious lives, himself became an illustrious life, becoming incorporated into a number of biographies in the centuries after. Much of this biographical drive could be attributed to the emergence of the kind of individualism famously if controversially described by Jacob Burckhardt and Ernst Cassirer, or to the understanding of the workings of fortuna and virtu in the unfolding of a life. The emergence of psychology and new kind of subjectivity, traced by Charles Taylor and others, also played a role, particularly in 17th-century life writings. One could add that self-fashioning, or in this case the often self-serving fashioning of another’s life, also played a part. Yet individual lives were also incorporated into group biographies that together added up to a larger collective picture. And biographies, as Eric Cochrane and others pointed out, converged with history, in biographically inflected patriotic narratives such as Filippo Villani’s De origine civitatis Florentie (1381–1396). Biographies could also assume a diversity of forms and styles, finding their way into bio-bibliographies (following the model of St. Jerome), genealogies, hagiographies, martyrologies, odes, sermons, dialogues, dictionaries, or prefaces. With the exception of figures such as Margaret Cavendish, few women were allowed the opportunity to publish formal biographies, though their letters were infused with vivid portrayals, and many of them bore the mantle of family biography. Notarial records, state papers, and wills were other sources in which the biographical slipped through, though they will not be treated here. As with autobiography, scholarly interest in biography has also flourished in recent decades, due in part to the rise of cultural history and an interest in narrative, representations, rhetorical strategies, and book history. The following bibliography is not comprehensive, though it covers some of the major texts and scholarship. And much is still to be written about early modern biography, especially with recent turns in the history of emotions, or material culture and the “biography of an object.” The relationship between early modern and modern biographies, or modernity in general, is also worthy of investigation. These possibilities reveal that biography is not simply about a life and the author of that life, but speaks to the changing interests and historical contexts of those who read and study the form in all its guises.


The scholarship on life writing thrived in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, with studies of biography, memoir, travel writing, letters, case histories, obituaries, and many other genres. Academic journals have reflected this growth, beginning with Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, based out of one of the leading biographical centers in the United States, followed by a/b, which is also geared toward scholars of life-writing narratives. Life Writing addresses more recent modes of life writing but is still valuable to the early modernist, while Lifewriting Annual covers articles and offers bibliographies. More recent contributions include the European Journal of Life Writing, which also addresses conceptual approaches to life writing.

  • a/b: Auto/Biography Studies. 1985–.

    Published by the Autobiography Society, this interdisciplinary journal focuses on historical as well as contemporary studies of biography, autobiography, and life narrative generally.

  • Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly. 1978–.

    A quarterly journal published by the Center for Biographical Research at the University of Hawaii, one of the leading centers in the United States for life writing. Articles explore the historical, cultural, and theoretical dimensions of life writing, including biography; book reviews and an annual bibliography are also included in its issues.

  • European Journal of Life Writing. 2012–.

    Published by the European section of the International Auto/Biography Association for the University of Groningen Press, this interdisciplinary journal address all forms of life narratives. The modern period is privileged, but the journal offers a range of articles that address conceptual approaches to the study of biography.

  • Life Writing. 2004–.

    With its focus primarily on modern or contemporary modes of life writing, this journal is nevertheless important to early modernists for its focus on theoretical approaches or contributions to themes such as disability/illness, colonialism, and gender. Centered out of Curtin University in Western Australia and published by Routledge/Taylor and Francis, this quarterly balances scholarly articles with general essays and reviews.

  • Lifewriting Annual: Biographical and Autobiographical Studies. 2006–.

    An annual periodical that provides a range of articles which address life writing in all its forms, as well as a forum that covers theoretical, critical, and scholarly aspects. Known from 1994 to 2005 as Biography and Source Studies, it changed its name and direction after 2005.

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