How Much Medieval Literature Is Lost? A wildlife tracking method may have the answer. ‹ Literary Center

February 18, 2022, 3:31 p.m.

We know far more medieval literature than we have access to. In medieval literature, authors constantly referred to the works of others, but some of the referenced works were not found themselves. Before the printing press, it was much easier for a text to be destroyed forever – by being misplaced, destroyed in a literary fire, eaten by insects and other fates. So how much medieval literature actually was here? How many works have been lost over time? Today in Sciencethe researchers attempted to answer this question using a surprising method: they used an ecological technique to estimate how many medieval books were missing from the canon.

Mike Kestemont, a computational text researcher at the University of Antwerp, and his colleagues used the “invisible species” model, which uses a statistical approach to estimate the number of missing species in a field count. Although the model was designed for ecology, “it’s a very general method of bias correction,” said co-author Folgert Karsdorp. Science— the invisible species model was also used to estimate the number of bugs in the computer code.

The researchers examined lists of surviving medieval texts written between 600 and 1450 AD, or 3,648 in total. Using these data, the Invisible Species Model estimated that only 9% of medieval texts from this period have survived – 5% of English vernacular works and 17% and 19% for Icelandic and Irish works. Previous estimates using different models estimated that around 7% of the texts survived. “It has been a joy to see how the rigorous estimation methods originally developed for biodiversity statistics…are increasingly being applied in the social sciences and humanities,” said evolutionary biologist Robert Colwell. Science. Hooray!

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