Experts generally agree that a significant amount of the fiction produced in Europe during the medieval era – from around 600 to 1450 AD – has been lost over the years. But no one is quite sure how much was produced in the first place.
We have a better idea now, and it's all thanks to statistical methods more commonly used in ecological science. Using the "unseen species" model, which is routinely employed by ecologists to estimate wildlife diversity, an international team of researchers calculated that out of an estimated 40,614 medieval manuscripts, approximately 90 percent no longer survive.
However, these numbers refer to the loss of physical documents, not the stories preserved in them. More encouragingly, when looking at the literary works themselves, the researchers found that 68 percent have likely survived, which is how we can still enjoy works such as the Viking sagas and the chivalrous tales of King Arthur’s court.
When ecological modeling meets medieval literature:
- The researchers looked at 3,648 manuscripts written in English, French, German, Dutch, Icelandic, and Irish.
- Medieval English literature had a particularly low survival rate, with just 7 percent of manuscripts and 38 percent of works surviving to the present day. For a work of literature to be considered completely lost, all existing copies of it must be destroyed, the researchers explained.
- The study demonstrates how ecological models might be applied to other fields. In paleontology and archaeology, for example, the number of known fossils, coins, and pottery could be used to estimate how many artifacts remain undiscovered.