Less than 10% of European medieval literature has survived the centuries - study

Events such as library fires and bans of many kinds of books have contributed to the shortage of literature published in the Middle Ages. 

 Medieval illuminated manuscript (photo credit: FLICKR)
Medieval illuminated manuscript
(photo credit: FLICKR)

Less than a tenth of medieval literature and manuscripts from the European Middle Ages have survived to the present day, Oxford University researchers have concluded in a new study.

The study, published in Science on Thursday, relied on research models usually used in ecology which were found to be useful in this study and supplied results that make sense in relation to what is known from history.

Reconstruction of history can be difficult due to the material that has been lost over time for a variety of reasons. In Ecology, this problem is overcome through a series of statistical models that account for the unseen species. The study showed that applying the unseen species models to manuscripts of medieval European literature can help create an estimate of the original amount of literature that existed at the time and thereby, how much was lost throughout history.

The chivalric romance was one of the most popular genres in Medieval Europe. One example of such a narrative that has survived to this day is the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table of which many versions and tales were produced both focusing on King Arthur himself and on his knights, such as Sir Lancelot. 

While some of the literature was circulated orally, much of it was put into physical texts. Before printing was invented, handwritten manuscripts on parchment or Codice paper were the main method of storing text. The surviving manuscripts are now unique material artifacts and act as the main evidence of medieval literature. 

 Illuminated Manuscript, Book of Hours, St. George, Walters Manuscript. (credit: FLICKR) Illuminated Manuscript, Book of Hours, St. George, Walters Manuscript. (credit: FLICKR)

Not many manuscripts survived, however, having been subjected to decay or destructive incidents like fire. Another reason manuscripts were lost is that sometimes, they were recycled for everyday use because of the parchment's durability. Another factor is that in some places such as France, there was an abundance of literature, but it was less distributed, raising the chances of loss. On the other hand, places like Ireland had less diversity of literature that was more broadly distributed. Those that do survive are usually incomplete due to damage or lost pages.

The study made a distinction between material documents (the physical manuscripts) and immaterial works (the stories and text). An immaterial work is considered lost when no known copies of it have survived. While many works are indeed lost, for some, there exists the possibility that they have not yet been recovered for any number of reasons.

"We estimate that more than 90 percent of medieval manuscripts preserving chivalric and heroic narratives have been lost. This corresponds roughly to the scale of loss that book historians had estimated using different approaches," said philologist and Junior Research Fellow at Oxford Dr. Katarzyna Anna Kapitan.

"Moreover, we were able to estimate that some 32 percent of chivalric and heroic works from the Middle Ages have been lost over the centuries," she continued, referring to two of the most central genres of the time.

The researchers applied the unseen species models to their data on surviving literature from the medieval European literature in order to estimate the percentage of Irish, Icelandic, Dutch, English, French and German literature, both individually and overall, and came to the conclusion of a survival rate of approximately 7% in total, which fits in with what is known of book history.

The results also showed that Irish and Icelandic literature were the best preserved with an estimated 19.2% survival rate in Ireland and slightly less in Iceland.

"Our research has revealed interesting similarities between Icelandic and Irish evidence," said Kapitan. "Icelandic and Irish literatures both have high survival rates for medieval works and manuscripts, and also very similar 'evenness profiles.' This means the average number of manuscripts that preserve medieval works is more evenly distributed than in other traditions we examined."

The higher survival rates in the island nations of Ireland and Iceland are in keeping with unseen species models on islands where the diversity of species is lower, but the survival percentages tend to be higher because of the islands' isolation from the mainland.

The researchers concluded that applying the same research models to other disciplines can also be useful in other heritage sciences.

"This shows how trans-disciplinary research lets us step beyond anecdotal case studies of single scribes or texts, and allows large comparisons across different places, traditions, and languages," said Kapitan.