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More Medieval Manuscripts Lost to Time Than Originally Believed

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

Using ecological modeling, researchers now believe that far more books have been destroyed over the centuries than originally thought… particularly those written in English.

By Dinah Gray

Many of us know the plays by Shakespeare, tales about Queen Elizabeth and her powerful father Henry VIII, or legends of King Arthur and his chivalric Knights. We’ve seen museum artifacts that showcase the culture, religion, society, and lifestyle of the Middle Ages. But recently, researchers have estimated that nearly 32% of medieval tales, and 90% of stories of chivalry and heroism, have been lost over time.

Such tales of chivalry, heroism, and romance are what modern history lovers use to define and understand the Middle Ages. This begs the question: how do we know what’s missing if we never had them to prove their existence in the first place?

Researchers used what’s referred to as the “unseen species model” to estimate how many books probably existed in the past. Factors such as documented records of library fires that destroyed massive amounts of historical literature, paired with estimations of natural degradation and the lack of preservation techniques throughout history, are also considered.

The loss of manuscripts has also been impacted by key historical events. For example, Henry VIII’s quest to separate from the Roman Catholic Church as he sought a divorce from Catherine of Aragon led to the dissolution of many of England's monasteries. As a result, many of these monasteries were destroyed, along with the manuscripts inside them.

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent…”
—Author Barbara Tuchman

Another possible factor in the loss of medieval manuscripts is attributed to the dominating languages of the period. For example, researchers estimate that nearly 19% of medieval Irish manuscripts that were typically written in Gaelic have survived over the centuries, compared to only 7% of those manuscripts written in English.

Although it’s possible that the dearth of existing medieval English literature may be due to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, according to researchers, it is more likely due to the lack of respect our ancestors had of the English language, compared to Norman French.


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