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Students in every country, at all levels of education from the lower echelons of high school to post graduate and research schools are well practised in the writing of essays. These days, essays come in many different formats and structures; from a book review to a comparison essay to an argumentative essay to a dissertation and everything in between. In today’s education system, we often take for granted the fact that the essay is one of the main forms of assignments. We accept the challenge and complete them without ever thinking about the origins of the format. If you are interested in where the essay actually began and who was the first to bring the assignment format into existence, then read on for a brief history of the essay.

The word “essay” was first used by a Frenchman

It is generally accepted that the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne, born in 1533, was the first author to describe his works of writing as essays. Back then, essay was a term that he used to characterise the way that he would attempt to put his various thoughts into writing. From this description, it is easy to see how this attempt to arrange thoughts on a page could turn into the type of essay that we are familiar with today. Eager to share his new form of writing with the world, in 1580, Montaigne compiled his essays into a published collection entitled Essais.  He achieved great success with this, and for the rest of his life, he spent time revising and publishing previously written essays, as well as composing new ones.

Francis Bacon is considered the first English language essayist

In terms of the English language, Francis Bacon’s essays, published in the form of books in 1597, 1612 and 1625, were the first works of English to be officially described as essays. Interestingly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the word ‘essayist’ was recorded by playwright Ben Jonson in 1609.

Asia wrote essays before Europeans

Of course, as with most of recorded history, the claim for the invention of the essay is much older in Asia than it is in Europe. Much like the novel, which was being cultivated in places like Japan much earlier than in England and Europe, essays existed and were known as zuihitsu, a word meaning fragmented ideas. A word somewhat incongruous to the aim of an essay which attempts to bring order to thoughts and ideas. Notable examples of this early form of essay include The Pillow Book court lady SeiShonagon from 1000 A.D. and 1330’s Tsurezuregusa by the famous Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenko. Kenko spoke of his essay writings in a very similar way to Michel de Montaigne, classing them as nonsensical thoughts that were written during idle hours. One more interesting thing to note is that in a stark difference from the overwhelming patriarchy in writing in Europe, Japan was filled with female writers who enjoyed creating essays. However, this rich history of female Asian work has been somewhat erased by Chinese-influenced writing by male writers who were much more revered at the time.

From random to ordered

Though the origins of the essay are very much rooted in authors assembling ‘varied thoughts’ and ‘fragmented ideas’ on the page, over time the essay has become a much more official and rigid form of writing, constructed for students and academics to be able to argue, explain or explore a topic in a defined and recognised fashion. Here is a brief list of some of the most popular essay forms today:

  • Cause and Effect – an essay that is used to argue causal chains that connect a cause to a direct effect.
  • Compare and Contrast – an essay that is used to identify and evaluate the differences between two ideas, objects or concepts e.g. chalk and cheese, Hitler and Stalin, Pride and Prejudice and Emma
  • Descriptive –an essay that required writing that is characterised by all of the sensory details such as sight, smell, sound, touch. Generally intended to appeal to a reader’s emotional response.
  • Argumentative – an essay in which the author takes a stand on one side of an argument, and works to build a case around why exactly their view point is the most persuasive.
  • Reflective – an analytical essay in which the author describes a scene, either real or imagined in as rich detail as possible, with an eye on surmising a learning experience.