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The Wikipedia page for literary awards lists inauguration dates for international awards, and of those the earliest of those is the Nobel Prize in 1901. However, I don't know about non-international awards, nor does the page for the Nobel Prize indicate it is the first prize in literature. Apparently the oldest prize for British literature is the James Tait Black Memorial Prize from 1919.

So, what is the oldest literary award given on a regular basis (international or not, not necessarily still running)? Was there anything before the Nobel Prize?

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  • This question is somewhat ambiguous to me. Is it about the oldest award that is still in existence (which would apply to the Nobel Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) or the oldest in the sense of "first"?
    – Tsundoku
    Aug 14, 2018 at 9:28
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    Bardic competitions are an ancient part of the traditions of some countries such as Wales, although often focusing on spoken rather than written composition. The National Eisteddfod of Wales claims a tradition back to 1176. Flyting, a form of poetic competition, dates back at least to Anglo-Saxon England (later 1st millennium CE), though without any continuity to the present.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 7 at 12:30

5 Answers 5

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The ancient Greeks gave out awards/prizes for plays at the festival of Dionysia. I think that would probably qualify as the oldest literary award that we have a historical record of.

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  • 2
    Wow, nice. That's a pretty incredibly list of winners. I wonder how that festival influenced the course of Greek poetry.
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 21, 2017 at 21:31
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The French Academy (Académie française) beats the Nobel with several prizes in the lists here, none of which are still running. I've only included the ones I'm sure are for literature (end dates from Wikipedia):

  • Prix Bordin, 1835-1988
  • Prix Botta, 1875-1985
  • Prix Calmann-Levy 1892-1987
  • Prix Estrade-Delcros, 1896-1986
  • Prix Jules Favre, 1886-1989
  • Prix Marcelin Guerin, 1872-1976
  • Prix Maillé-Latour-Landry, 1839-1984
  • Prix Narcisse Michaut, 1892-1989
  • Prix Alfred Née, 1893-1988
  • Prix Jean Reynaud, 1879-1979
  • Prix Saintour, 1889-1989
  • Prix Sobrier-Arnould, 1891-1984
  • Prix Vitet, 1873-1989

These were each given out from annually to once every five years. Descriptions and more information are given on the website, next to each awarded. There are too many for me to list all the descriptions here, and I also don't know French.

I cannot confirm that these are the oldest literary awards in the world. However, they are major awards that predate the Nobel Prize.

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Floral games predate Nobel Prizes, prizes of the French Academy and even the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. They are given in a regular basis - one condition in the question the Poet Laureate doesn't meet.

  • In middle ages, they ran in Toulouse from 1324 to 1484 and in Barcelona from 1393 to about 1500.
  • In 1694 the award was reborn in Toulouse, arriving to present with little interruption.
  • In Barcelona Floral Games were revived in 1859, and arrived to present with some interruption and continuity formally assured in exile during Franco dictatorship.
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Not the oldest, but: there is Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, the modern tradition starting informally with Ben Jonson in 1616, and formally with John Dryden in 1631 and continuing to the present day. (Carol Ann Duffy is the current Poet Laureate, since 2009.)

(Of course throughout history various poets and writers have been appointed as court poets or been given awards by kings for particular works. I wouldn't be surprised to find examples from over 2500 years ago in the Veda and related literature. (Off hand, the story of Yājñavalkya and Janaka's prize of cows comes to mind, though that was for philosophizing, not for literature.))

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How about the Prix Montyon, in France, that started in 1792 and is still going?

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    This is significantly after the highly-voted accepted answer, which points to an award given by the Greeks. For questions about the first X, please do not post a new answer if your X fails to beat the current best. There is another answer with 14-th century European awards, which your award also comes after.
    – bobble
    Mar 5 at 19:59
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    @bobble I will say one problem with the current accepted answer is that the Greek awards were for productions and were not given purely on literary merits. This is substantially different from the other literary awards listed on the Wikipedia. Would we, for example, call an Oscar for best screenwriting a literary award? I doubt anyone who asked about literary awards would be thinking of that. (That said, there are other answers that pre-date this one, too. So it still doesn't count.)
    – cmw
    Mar 5 at 20:41
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    @bobble there are other upvoted answers here that were posted after the accepted answer, so I think this still has merit. I'd like to see some more detail from the OP, but there's nothing essentially wrong with adding other suggestions.
    – Matt Thrower
    Mar 6 at 9:14
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    This is the oldest literary award listed that is still being given. This answer adds something to this question, and I don't think it should be deleted.
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 7 at 11:40

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