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late 14c., from Latin literatura/litteratura "learning, a writing, grammar," originally "writing formed with letters," from litera/littera "letter" (see letter (n.1)). Originally "book learning" (it replaced Old English boccræft), the meaning "literary production or work" is first attested 1779 in Johnson's "Lives of the English Poets" (he didn't include this definition in his dictionary, however); that of "body of writings from a period or people" is first recorded 1812.
Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree. [Ezra Pound, "ABC of Reading"]Meaning "the whole of the writing on a particular subject" is from 1860; sense of "printed matter generally" is from 1895. The Latin word also is the source of Spanish literatura, Italian letteratura, German Literatur.
a body of written works. The name has traditionally been applied to those imaginative works of poetry and prose distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the perceived aesthetic excellence of their execution. Literature may be classified according to a variety of systems, including language, national origin, historical period, genre, and subject matter.