Although the first instances of coherent Basque phrases and sentences go as far back as the San Millán glosses dating back to about 950AD, the large-scale damage done by periods of great instability and warfare such as the clan wars of the Middle Ages, the Carlist Wars and the Spanish Civil War have meant that very little written material predating the 16th century has survived.
The earliest surviving traces of Basque literary activity go back to the 16th century but significant production does not seem to have set in until the 17th century. Since the end of the Francoist period in Spain, the formation of a standard language and the large scale introduction to Basque into the education system, literary activity has soared and while much of the literature written in Basque remains targeted at the native audience, some Basque authors that have been translated into other languages such as Bernardo Atxaga have achieved global recognition.
The 16th century
A few songs from the 16th century have survived, such as the Song of the Battle of Beotibar that deals with the battle fought in 1321 and a group of verses known as The Burning of Mondragón from the time of the Basque Clan Wars.
Only a few years later in 1545, the first book known to have been put into print is published - a collection of poems by Bernard Etxepare, a priest from Lower Navarre in the Northern Basque Country, by the title Linguæ Vasconum Primitiæ ("Beginnings of the Basque Language"). In this book, Etxepare expresses his hopes that the first publication of a book in Basque will serve to invigorate the language and the culture. His efforts were undoubtedly influenced by wider movements in Europe at the time that encouraged literary production in vernacular languages rather than Latin.
Next is a recently discovered pastoral play by Joan Perez de Lazarraga (1548?—1605) by the name of Silbero, Silbia, Doristeo and Sirena that was produced between 1564 and 1567 in Larrea, Alava and is the earliest surviving play in Basque. With 102 pages (some damaged) it is also the longest early text.
The closing years of the 16th century see another publication, this time from the South, of a collection of proverbs written in the Biscayan dialect called Refranes y sentencias by an unknown author. However, by this time, the centre of Basque literary production had firmly established itself in the Northern, French provinces of Lower Navarre, Labourd and Soule where it would remain for several centuries.
Although dialectal differences are clearly visible in these early texts, it is also clear that the differences in the 16th century were considerably smaller than they are today.
The 17th century
In amongst the trickle of smaller religious works the Counter Reformation movement, which in the Basque Country had its centre in Sare, Soule, produced one of the most notable works of the 17th century. This was a religious publication, the preachings of Pedro Agerre (better known as Axular) but in literary form, published in 1643. Although he was born in Urdax in Navarre and working in Soule, he wrote in Lapurdian which by then had established itself as the most prestigious form of Basque.
Other important authors of this century were
- Dotrina christiana by Estève Materre in 1617, also one of the earliest known learners of Basque
- The works of Silvain Pouvreau, one of the earliest known learners of Basque. His works (some of which were published posthumously) include Giristinoaren Dotrina (Paris, 1656); Filotea (Paris, 1664); Gudu espirituala (Paris, 1665), Andre Dana Maria Privilegiatua (J. Vinson: 1892), Iesusen Imitacionea (1978, Hordago) and an unpublished but important dictionary.
- Arnauld de Oihenart, born 1592 in Mauléon, who was the first Basque layman to write in the language and who produced a large amount of poetry and an important collection of proverbs, the first of which was published in 1657 in Paris. His style of writing is still regarded as one of the highest in the history of Basque literature
- Liburuhauda Ixasoco nabigacionecoa, a book on marine navigation written by Martin de Hoyarzabal and translated by Piarres Detcheverry in 1677
- A book on farming techniques by Mongongo Dessança in 1692
The 20th Century
Some important figures of 20th century Basque literature are Telesforo Monzón, Salbatore Mitxelena, Gabriel Aresti, Nikolas Ormaetxea, Txillardegi (the pen name of José Luis Álvarez Enparantza), Joxe Azurmendi, Ramon Saizarbitoria, Bernardo Atxaga, Unai Elorriaga López de Letona. In addition, there are many Basque writers who have written in Spanish: Blas de Otero, and Gabriel Celaya.
Between 1545 and 1974, 4,000 books were published in the Basque language, whereas between 1974 and 1995 12,500 were published. Modern Basque publishing began with the establishment of Elkar in 1972, a small publishing company based in Bayonne in the French Basque country. After the death of Franco, Elkar established a second publishing operation in San Sebastián in the Spanish Basque country. Although a number of other Basque publishing houses have been subsequently established, Elkar remains the largest.