A technique borrowed from ecology reveals the losses of medieval literature

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King Arthur’s enduring fame is one for the books. But a statistical spotlight now shines on the round table of lost and forgotten stories of medieval European literature.

An international team has used a mathematical formula borrowed from ecology to estimate how far medieval adventures and love tales, and the documents on which they were written, have been lost over the years. Only about 9% of these records would have survived into modern times, the researchers found.

These findings indicate that simple statistical principles can be used to assess the losses of a range of past cultural items, such as specific types of stone tools or ancient coins, reports literature professor Mike Kestemont of the University of Antwerp in Belgium and colleagues in the February 18 report Science.

Their approach represents a simple but powerful tool for studying culture, says anthropologist Alex Bentley of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, who was not involved in the study. “It’s like walking into an abandoned Amazon book warehouse decades later and estimating the total number of book titles based on the number of surviving single and double copies you find.”

Much medieval European literature, which dates approximately from the 600s to 1450s, has been lost, and many surviving manuscripts are fragmentary. Durable parchment documents were often recycled into small boxes or for other practical uses. This has left scholars uncertain as to whether the surviving tales and documents are representative of what once existed.

The Kestemont team turned to a formula developed by environmental statistician and study co-author Anne Chao of National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. Chao’s statistical technique takes into account species that are not detected by researchers during field surveys of biological diversity. More generally, his approach can be used to estimate the number of unobserved events of any type that accompany relatively frequent observed events of the same type.

So, for example, this formula could be used to estimate the number of undiscovered archaeological sites in an early state society where larger settlements were easier to find than smaller ones.

a fragment of an old Dutch manuscript, with a colored image in the middle
This recently discovered fragment of a Dutch manuscript decorated with stories about Alexander the Great is one of many that have helped scholars estimate how many medieval European tales have been lost.CC-BY Suzanne Reitz, Den Arnamagnæanske Samling (Copenhagen)

In the new study, medieval literary histories from Europe were treated as species, and surviving manuscript copies of these tales were treated as observations of a species. Counting one- and two-copy literary works – the equivalent of tallying the species sighted once or twice in a survey – has allowed researchers to estimate how many literary histories have been lost because none of the records that have preserved has survived. This method also estimated how many documents originally existed for stories that have surviving manuscripts.

Kestemont’s group estimate that around 799 literary tales survive today out of what would have been an original total of around 1,170 stories, at least for the six languages ​​studied. The 3,648 surviving written accounts of these tales come from an estimated original total of about 40,614 records, according to the researchers.

More than three quarters of medieval literary histories in German, Irish and Icelandic have survived in at least one written record, the team suggests. This figure fell to around half for Dutch and French tales and to around 38% for works in English.

Manuscript versions of these medieval adventures and love stories—often created by individuals from the general population who avidly consumed fictional literature—performed poorly on every level. Survival rates for these materials range from around 4.9% for English sons to 19.2% for Irish tales, the researchers report.

Literary records on the islands of Ireland and Iceland have survived relatively well, at least in part because there were enough written copies of different stories, the team says. This made it harder for disasters, such as library fires, to erase all copies of specific stories. By contrast, copies of many medieval French stories were rare and therefore more likely to disappear over time.

The French-speaking Normans conquered England in 1066, which may have led to greater neglect and recycling of manuscripts written in English, the researchers suggest.

Chao’s method can help unveil cultural diversity in past societies, Bentley says. For example, villages around 7,000 years old in one part of Germany produced around 40 different styles of pottery. An analysis of the number of styles found on one and two pots, respectively, could be used to estimate the total number of styles of pottery that once circulated in this region.

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