Croatian medieval literature, unique in being produced in three languages (Latin, Old Slavonic and the vernacular) and three scripts (Roman, Glagolitic and Cyrillic) developed from the 8th to 16th century in the form of poetry, verse dialogue and representations of valuable literary works, mostly based on liturgical and religious themes. Towards the end of the 15th century, new poetic standards began to be accepted: themes, forms and types which characterised Renaissance literature, in accordance with Italian literary developments. The basis for this was the literary output of the Croatian Latinists, through whom humanism was introduced. Outstanding writers included the poets Ilija Crijević (Aelius Lampridius Cervinus) and Jan Panonac (Jannus Pannonius), who had a fine understanding of linguistic and literary traditions.
In the first decades of the 16th century, Croatian literature fitted perfectly in Renaissance European trends, particularly in Dalmatia, where several creative circles formed: in Split (Marko Marulić), Šibenik (Juraj Šižgorić), Dubrovnik (Šiško Menčetić, Džore Držić, Mavro Vetranović, Nikola Nalješković, Marin Držić, Dinko Ranjina, Dominko Zlatarić), Hvar (Hanibal Lucić, Petar Hektorović, Mikša Pelegrinović, Martin Benetović) and Zadar (Petar Zoranić, Barne Karnarutić). Marko Marulić was there at the inception, selecting many medieval themes, but adapting them in new forms and under the influence of lay ‘modern devotion’ (devotio moderna), and creating works for which he was acclaimed as a prominent representative of European Christian humanism and the Renaissance epic (the moralist essay De institutione bene vivendi, and the epics Davidias and Judita). Along with the dominant lyrical, Petrarchan expression of the period, Zoranić’s Planine stands apart as the first original Croatian novel; also important are Hektorović’s Ribanje i ribarsko prigovaranje, a fishing eclogue written in the form of an epistle, and the dramatic works of Marin Držić, particularly the comedies Novela od Stanca, Dundo Maroje and Skup.
In the second half of the 16th century, the Renaissance gradually waned. Protestantism only touched the edges of Croatian literature, although Croatia produced one of the most eminent Protestant writers and ideologues of the day, Matija Vlačić Ilirik, whose Clavis Scripturae sacrae/Key to Holy Scripture/ was the most famous biblical lexicon of the time. Baroque literature of the 17th and early 18th centuries remained centred around Dubrovnik, and the greatest name to appear was Ivan Gundulić (a religious poem, Tears of the Prodigal Son, the pastoral Dubravka and the epic poem Osman), though Ivan Vunić Vučić (a collection of poetry called Plandovanja), Junije Palmotić (a drama called Pavlimir) and Ignjat Đurđević (a religious poem called Uzdasi Mandeljene pokornice) were also prominent. Authors writing in the Kajkavian dialect included chronicler Antun Vramec and religious writer Juraj Habdelić, while the works of Petar Zrinski (Adrianskoga mora sirena, a translation from Hungarian of poems by his brother Nikola), Fran Krsto Frankapan (the lyrical collection Gartlic za čas kratiti) and Pavao Vitezović Ritter (the poem Odiljenje sigetsko) also testify to the high level of literary culture in continental Croatia.
During the 18th century Enlightenment, Filip Grabovac (Cvit razgovora naroda i jezika iliričkoga aliti arvackoga, a book of poetry and prose), Andrija Kačić Miošić (a book of poetry and verse called Razgovor ugodni naroda slovinskoga) and Matija Antun Reljković (the poem Satir iliti divji čovik) led the field. Active in the Kajkavian-speaking area at the turn of the 19th century was comedy writer Tituš Brezovački (Matijaš grabancijaš dijak, Diogeneš), and, in the mid-19th century, religious writer Ignjat Kristijanović, an ardent advocate for Kajkavian as the literary language. The revivalist Illyrian Movement, headed by Ljudevit Gaj in the first half of the 19th century, powerfully affected political and cultural life. The most important factor for Croatian literature at that time was the creation of a uniform Croatian language, laying the foundations for the continuity of creativity. Political circumstances meant its basic characteristic was a nationalist component, and eminent writers included Ivan Mažuranić (the poem Smrt Smail-age Čengića), Stanko Vraz (a collection of poems entitled Đulabije) and Petar Preradović . The transition from Romanticism to Realism was reflected most clearly in the works of August Šenoa (the novels Seljačka buna and Zlatarovo zlato), which influenced the cultural life of the age to such an extent that the 1865–81 period is called the Age of Šenoa.
The realist period was important for the overall shaping of Croatian literature, as writers and themes from all Croatian regions were represented and criticism as a literary genre was established (Jakša Čedomil, Franjo Marković). It was also the golden age of the novel, represented by Ante Kovačić (U registraturi), Ksaver Šandor Gjalski (U noći), Josip Kozarac (Mrtvi kapitali), and Vjenceslav Novak, the ‘Croatian Balzac’ (Posljednji Stipančići). Silvije Strahimir Kranjčević (Trzaji) was the greatest poet of the 19th century and a bridge towards the Modern era in poetry, as the stylistically heterogeneous period at the turn of the 20th century was named, drawing its basic aesthetic views and stimuli from Central European literary centres and French literature. Alongside the poetry of Milan Begović (Knjiga Boccadoro; his works in prose produced between the two world wars are representative of Modernism, especially the novel Giga Barićeva), Antun Gustav Matoš and Vladimir Vidrić, the dialect poetry of Dragutin Domjanić, Fran Galović and Vladimir Nazor reached anthological proportions.
The Modern era also gave Croatian literature valuable dramatic contributions, primarily the works of Ivo Vojnović (Dubrovačka trilogija) and Josip Kosor (Požar strasti). The prose of Milutin Cihlar Nehajev most successfully conveyed the decadent mental state of the modern Croatian intellectual (the novel Bijeg). Janko Polić Kamov stood out as an avant-gardist before the actual arrival of the avant-garde, an innovator in terms of themes, ideas and linguistic style, who in the decades which followed achieved the status of a legend (Ištipana hartija, a collection of poems; the novel Isušena kaljuža). The works of Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić (the novel Čudnovate zgode šegrta Hlapića and the collection of stories Priče iz davnine) were translated into over 40 languages (in English they are The Brave Adventures of Lapitch/or the Shoemaker’s Boy/and Croatian Tales of Long Ago). She was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The novels of Marija Jurić Zagorka (Grička vještica) were also translated into many languages and played an important role in the continuity of Croatian historical novels.
Modernism, which in Croatian literary history comes after the Modern era, was expressed mostly in poetry and prose, and particularly in the essayist creations of Matoš and the work of Miroslav Krleža, Antun Branko Šimić, Tin Ujević and others in the 1920s. It prevailed until the turn of the 1960s and later, with the arrival of generations gathering mostly around different literary magazines (known as the krugovaši, razlogovci, borgesovci, offovci, etc.). The central role in literary life after the First World War, not only as a result of his writing, but also because of his wider public involvement, was held by Miroslav Krleža, the author of one of the most diverse opuses, in terms of themes and genres, and one of the most copious in terms of output (Balade Petrice Kerempuha, a collection of poems in Kajkavian, the drama Gospoda Glembajevi, the novel Povratak Filipa Latinovcza, essays, memoirs and travelogues).
Krleža shares the modernist throne with Tin Ujević, in whose opus the best Croatian and European traditions are reflected (Ojađeno zvono). Alongside them is A. B. Šimić (Preobraženja), who is credited with popularising free verse and the finally bringing Croatian poetry into alignment with European literary trends. The popularity of Dragutin Tadijanović, a poet of homeland and intimism, was clear from the great number of editions and translations of his works (Srebrne svirale), while wider circles of readers were attracted to the musical poetry of the neo-romantic Dobriša Cesarić, which breathes spontaneity and simplicity (Voćka poslije kiše). Belonging to this generation of poets were also impressionist Gustav Krklec (Izlet u nebo) and Nikola Šop, a poet of a unique poetics with considerable phenomenological complexity (Isus i moja sjena). Realistic narration was successfully revived in the short stories of Ivan Goran Kovačić (Dani gnjeva), whose long poem Jama stood out for the universality of its message during a time of war. From the Catholic milieu in Bosnia came Ivo Andrić, who later worked within the scope of Serbian literature (the novels Na Drini ćuprija, Travnička hronika).
After the Second World War, several prose writers gained repute as their works characterised the literature of the second half of the 20th century: in the first place, Petar Šegedin (the trilogy Djeca božja, Osamljenici and Crni smiješak), Vladan Desnica (the novel/essay Proljeća Ivana Galeba) and in particular Ranko Marinković (Ruke, a collection of short stories; the novel Kiklop). Marijan Matković was one of the most productive Croatian playwrights and a close follower of Krleža (the dramatic cycle Igra oko smrti), while Radovan Ivšić was the most prominent representative of surrealism in Croatian literature (the grotesque farce Kralj Gordogan). Among the most important chapters in contemporary Croatian poetry are the opuses of Jure Kaštelan (Pijetao na krovu) and Vesna Parun (Crna maslina), the most widely translated Croatian poetess. The novel Mirisi, zlato i tamjan by Slobodan Novak is regularly cited as one of the best Croatian novels ever written, particularly as an example of existentialist literature.
Some authors left their homeland in the context of political and ideological circumstances after the Second World War, but continued writing abroad (so-called émigré literature) among whom the most prominent were the poets Vinko Nikolić, Viktor Vida and Boris Maruna. The generation which gathered around the magazine Krugovi in the 1950s (Slobodan Novak, Slavko Mihalić, Ivan Slamnig, Antun Šoljan and others) advocated aesthetic pluralism, confronting the poetics of socialist realism, while adherents of the magazine Razlog in the 1960s strove for intellectual and theoretically aware poetic utterance (Danijel Dragojević, Zvonimir Mrkonjić, Nikica Petrak, Tonči Petrasov Marović, etc.).
The term blue jeans prose by Aleksandar Flaker refers to the central stream in fiction writing from the 1950s to the early 1970s which includes novels by Ivan Slamnig, Antun Šoljan, Alojz Majetić and Zvonimir Majdak.
In the last third of the 20th century, in keeping with European trends, Croatian literature was also marked by a pluralism of poetic expressions that are deemed to belong, in terms of type, to the postmodern era. Gripped by the imperatives of reception, fiction for the most part adopted the characteristics of popular literature and thus triggered the rise of genre fiction in particular (fantasy and crime novels, the category known as women’s writing, autobiographical narration, historiographic metafiction). A contemporary, postmodern sensibility was evinced by fiction that assimilated the characteristics of the poetics of Jorge Luis Borges (Goran Tribuson, Pavao Pavličić) as well as by so-called ‘blue jeans prose’ (Alojz Majetić, Zvonimir Majdak) and (new)historical novels (Ivan Aralica, Nedjeljko Fabrio). In the 1980s, the magazine Quorum gathered together a large number of younger authors (Damir Miloš, Delimir Rešicki, Branko Čegec, Anka Žagar) and stimulated intermediality. In the 1990s, exiled writers attracted attention abroad, especially the fiction and essay writers Dubravka Ugrešić, for whom, after she left Croatia, exile became one of her crucial literary themes (the novel Ministarstvo boli), and Slavenka Drakulić, whose works are characterised by a high degree of feminism and political involvement (the novel Kao da me nema). The plays of Slobodan Šnajder are mostly performed in German-speaking countries (Utjeha sjevernih mora). The plays of Ivo Brešan (Nečastivi na filozofskom fakultetu) and Miro Gavran (Čehov je Tolstoju rekao zbogom) have also achieved international success. The most recent writing for the theatre (Mate Matišić, Ivana Sajko) places emphasis on multimedia, anthropology and psychoanalysis.
Among the generation of Croatian prose writers who emerged in the 1990s, one of the most esteemed is Miljenko Jergović (Sarajevski Marlboro). The literary scene in the ‘noughties’ has been marked by a series of new prose writers, poets, playwrights and authors whose work appears in New Media, partly because of the crisis in publishing.