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Pages from the 15th century medieval manuscript the Talbot Shrewsbury Book.       Source: British Library / Public domain

Lost Lovers and Heroes: 90% of Medieval Manuscripts Have Not Survived

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A study comparing the survival of medieval manuscripts and tales from regions around Europe has arrived at some stark conclusions about the preservation of the medieval European past. A vast majority of the manuscripts recording heroic tales and chivalry have been lost. But interestingly, if you wanted to be a hero whose story passed the test of time, your best chance was to come from an island.

The team of international scholars has applied statistical models used in ecology to estimate the survival and loss of precious manuscripts and narratives from across Europe. It found Ireland and Iceland to have the highest manuscript survival rates.

Published in the journal Science, the study helmed by Mike Kestemont (University of Antwerp) and Folgert Karsdorp (KNAW Meertens Institute), is a new way of approaching loss of cultural heritage, reports Phys.org. The findings are compatible with those from earlier research in the area.

Page from the Book of Leinster, 12th century medieval manuscript. (Soerfm / Public Domain )

Page from the Book of Leinster , 12th century medieval manuscript. (Soerfm /  Public Domain  )

Loss of Medieval Manuscripts and the Tales They Told

The research team of international scholars has applied statistical models used in ecology to estimate the survival and loss of precious manuscripts and narratives from across Europe.

The team employed the “unseen species” model used in ecology, where researchers estimate how many rare species are missing based on the surviving numbers, to estimate the loss of medieval narratives about King Arthur , or Sigurd the Dragon Slayer or the legendary ruler Ragnar lóðbrok, for example.

Dr. Katarzyna Anna Kapitan, an Old Norse philologist and Junior Research Fellow at Linacre College, Oxford, explains as quoted on Phys.org:

"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. 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."

The research team that includes scholars from Ireland, Belgium, England, Denmark, the Netherlands and Taiwan found that more than 90 percent of medieval European manuscripts are no longer extant.

Curiously, the study showed that the survival rates of works and manuscripts from different languages differ significantly. The team calculated the survival rates for six medieval languages and observed that there are huge differences in these survival rates within Europe.

Irish-language narratives fared best in this regard whereas English-language ones showed the poorest rates of survival. As much as 81 per cent of Irish medieval romances have made it to the present but only 38 percent of English have. Similarly, while 19 percent of Irish medieval manuscripts are still extant, only 7 percent English ones survive.

The research estimates that over 3,000 ornate medieval Irish-language manuscripts have been lost over time. Just over 300 of these manuscripts telling romantic tales of knights, heroism and chivalry have made it to our times, reports the Irish Examiner .

The Book of Lismore is an exceptional medieval Irish book recently returned to Ireland. (University College Cork)

The Book of Lismore is an exceptional medieval Irish book recently returned to Ireland. ( University College Cork )

Low Prestige of English and Cultural Insularity Affect Manuscript Survival

Why then do certain language traditions fare better than others? Not only did the study look at which languages have given the modern world more tales of medieval valor and chivalry, it also explored why.

Dr Daniel Sawyer, another of the scholars involved in the study said, according to Phys.org,

“We found notably low estimated survival rates for medieval fiction in English. We might blame the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, which did scatter many libraries. But heroic stories in English rarely appear in the library catalogs of monasteries and friaries in the first place.”

Appearance of English hero Saint George in the Book of Hours, 15th century manuscript. (Public Domain)

Appearance of English hero Saint George in the Book of Hours, 15th century manuscript. ( Public Domain )

According to him, the low prestige the English enjoyed in the period might account to some extent for this, however difficult this may be to believe today, when English is now the most widely spoken language in the world!

“Today, English is learned as a second language all over the world, but during the Middle Ages, it had little international significance. After the Norman Conquest in particular, French was important in England as an international language of power and culture, and the English crown owned parts of what is now France. In fact, if we add fiction written in Norman French in England to the evidence in English, the survival rate for English evidence looks more like the rates for other languages. This shows the importance of Norman French to English culture, and suggests heroic stories in Norman French and in English formed a connected tradition.”

The picture from Iceland, on the other hand, is very different with three in four, or 77 percent of, medieval romances living to tell the tale and one in six, or 17 percent of, manuscripts.

Title page of a late manuscript of the Prose Edda. Snorre's Edda is a textbook in poetry attributed to Snorre Sturlason, written around the year 1220., showing Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology. (Public Domain)

Title page of a late manuscript of the Prose Edda. Snorre's Edda is a textbook in  poetry attributed to Snorre Sturlason, written around the year 1220., showing Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology. ( Public Domain )

Explaining the Longevity of Island Sagas

Library fires and recycling of books apart, the “evenness” of cultural production is something that the researchers identify as a contributing factor that has often been overlooked in accounting for the disparity in survival across different languages.

According to Dr Kapitan as quoted by Phys.org, “Our research has revealed interesting similarities between Icelandic and Irish evidence. 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 similarities between Iceland and Ireland may be caused by lasting traditions of copying literary texts by hand, long after the invention of print.”

According to Dr Sawyer, England’s ties with medieval Europe and the lack of insularity could have contributed to the unevenness in the production of its cultural artifacts, thus impacting long-term survival.

Findings apart, the scholars are also excited about the possibilities of collaboration between science and humanities that the methodology used for the study has opened. They hope for wider adoption of such methods, emphasizing that the interdisciplinary collaboration has been very stimulating.

Top image: Pages from the 15th century medieval manuscript the Talbot Shrewsbury Book. Source: British Library / Public domain

By Sahir Pandey

References

Kestemont, M. et al. Forgotten books: The application of unseen species models to the survival of culture . Available at: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abl7655.

McGlynn, M. 2022. Just 300 out of thousands of medieval Irish-language manuscripts still exist . Available at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/arid-40810830.html.

University of Oxford. 2022. 90% of medieval chivalry and heroism manuscripts have been lost . Available at: https://phys.org/news/2022-02-medieval-chivalry-heroism-manuscripts-lost.html.

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