Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2022 Issue

How Much Medieval Literature Was Lost Forever?

A graph enables estimate of how much Medieval literature has been lost.

How much literature from Medieval times has been lost forever? That's a hard one to answer. You can't very well count it if it is lost. What we can say is there must be a substantial amount. This period predates printing so that “books” weren't being created in large numbers of quantities. They had to be copied by hand. Nor were there many people who could read anyway, and people didn't have personal libraries. They were mostly found in the libraries of religious institutions, and in Europe, that primarily would be the Catholic Church (this being pre-Reformation). Over time, some were thrown out, others destroyed in fires or other cataclysmic events, some were washed to reuse the vellum, others used inside bindings of newer books.

 

Recently, a group of scholars decided to see if they could compute a reasonable estimate of what percent of Medieval texts have survived to this day. There have been some attempts in the past, which have used such methods as looking at Medieval library lists or the titles of books mentioned in other books that can no longer be found. That would provide a list of missing books known to have once existed, but leave a gap for unknown lost books. This most recent attempt was based on using a mathematical formula to make an estimate.

 

The group, spread across several countries, included Mike Kestemont, Folgert Karsdorp, Anne Chao and several others. Ms. Chao is the key here. Back in 1984, she created a formula to be used in estimating the biodiversity of a specific area. If people were sent to an area to count all the different species of animals to be found, large and small, they could not find them all. There might be some species represented by only one animal that was good at hiding and disguise. So she set out to determine from the number found approximately how many in total there were.

 

The formula is rather complex and difficult to explain, especially for someone who doesn't really understand it, so I will refrain from an attempt. You can either trust the people who devised it or not. The nature of the challenge makes it hard to definitively confirm it but it's an honest effort by some very smart people.

 

In attempting to figure out how many literary manuscripts have been lost, the group decided to employ Ms. Chao's old formula for counting missing species. That formula counts not only the number of species found, but how many of each. So applying this approach to old literary works, there are two numbers to count. One is the number of documents, the other the number of unique works. For example, if a library has one copy of Huckleberry Finn, that is one document and one work. If it has three copies of Huckleberry Finn, that is three documents and one work.

 

What you get from this is the graph on this page. It charts works on one axis, documents on the other. In the beginning, as old documents are listed, most are the first copies found, meaning every document represents a unique work. But, as searchers move on to different libraries, some of the documents they find are repeats of works found earlier, so adding more numbers along the documents axis adds progressively fewer new listings along the works axis. Eventually, the graph flattens out, meaning new documents are now virtually all repeats.

 

The red dot represents where we are today. It rests at 799 works, the number found today. Applying Ms. Chao's formula, known as Chao1, the estimated number of works slowly continues to rise as the number of documents found is tallied, until it essentially flattens out. At that point, virtually every document located is a repeat of a work previously found. Now we have the estimated total number of unique works. That number is approximately 1,170. Now all you need is some mathematics even I can understand – division. It is just one simple step to determining the percentage of Medieval literary works which have survived, divide survivors (799) by estimated total number of works (1,170) and you have your answer – 68% of literary works created in Medieval days have survived to today.

 

The scholars took their research one step further and determined survival rates differed substantially by country, with survival being greatest in island nations. Of the six surveyed, Ireland had a survival rate of 81%, Iceland 77%. Germany did well too, around three quarters. France and the Netherlands came in around half, while survival was lowest in England, 38%.


Posted On: 2022-09-01 08:02
User Name: sevinseydi

The low survival rate in England is presumably due to Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries from 1536.
Sevin Seydi


Rare Book Monthly

  • Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Marx, Das Kapital,1867. Dedication copy. Est: € 120,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Latin and French Book of Hours, around 1380. Est: € 25,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis, 1598-1625. Est: € 80,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviary, Latin manuscript, around 1450-75. Est: € 10,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    G. B. Piranesi, Vedute di Roma, 1748-69. Est: € 60,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Schmidt-Rottluff, Arbeiter, 1921. Orig. watercolour on postcard. Est: € 18,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviarium Romanum, Latin manuscript, 1474. Est: € 20,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    C. J. Trew, Plantae selectae, 1750-73. Est: € 28,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    M. Beckmann, Apokalypse, 1943. Est: € 50,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Ulrich von Richenthal, Das Concilium, 1536. Est: € 9,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    I. Kant, Critik der reinen Vernunft, 1781. Est: €12,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) / Die Volks-Illustrierte (VI), 1932-38. Est: €8,000
  • ALDE, May 28: KIPLING (RUDYARD). Le Livre de la Jungle. – Le IIe livre de la Jungle. Paris, Sagittaire, Simon Kra, 1924-1925. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: NOAILLES (ANNA DE). Les Climats. Paris, Société du Livre contemporain, 1924. €50,000 to €60,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MILTON (JOHN). Paradis perdu. Quatrième chant. S.l., Les Bibliophiles de l'Automobile-Club de France, 1974. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LEBEDEV (VLADIMIR). Russian Placards - Placard Russe 1917-1922. Saint-Petersbourg, Sterletz, 1923. €1,000 to €1,200.
    ALDE, May 28: MARDRUS (JOSEPH-CHARLES). Histoire charmante de l'adolescente sucre d'amour. Paris, F.-L. Schmied, 1927. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: TABLEAUX DE PARIS. Paris, Émile-Paul Frères, 1927. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LA FONTAINE (JEAN DE). Les Fables illustrées par Paul Jouve. S.l. [Lausanne], Gonin & Cie, 1929. €4,000 to €5,000.
    ALDE, May 28: SARTRE (JEAN-PAUL). Vingt-deux dessins sur le thème du désir. Paris, Fernand Mourlot, 1961. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: [BRAQUE (GEORGES)]. 13 mai 1962. Alès, PAB, 1962. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MIRÓ (JOAN). Je travaille comme un jardinier. Avant-propos d'Yvon Taillandier. Paris, Société intenationale d'art XXe siècle, 1963. €1,000 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MAGNAN (JEAN-MARIE). Taureaux. Paris, Michèle Trinckvel, 1965. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: PICASSO (PABLO). Dans l'atelier de Picasso. 1960. €15,000 to €20,000.
  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions