Most Ancient and Medieval Literature Is Long Gone

There's little chance of recovering any of it, but we can estimate how much there was
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 19, 2022 3:55 PM CDT
How Much Ancient Lit Is Lost? Estimates Are Depressing
   (Getty - Shaiith)

(Newser) – For three centuries, the Ptolemaic Dynasty worked to gather all the books ever written into one library in Alexandria, Egypt. Then it all burned down. By one account, the untold thousands of manuscripts smoldered for six months. As Laura Spinney explains in the Guardian, nobody today even knows the library's exact location, much less what was lost. Moreover, it’s just one example of a recurring theme involving the wholesale loss of knowledge and literature, and one recent study substantiates what historians have long suspected: we probably only have a fraction of our forebears’ written works. Applying a statistical method used in ecology known as “unseen species” modeling, a team of European scholars estimated what must have existed (and was subsequently lost) based on what remains today.

Findings suggest some 90% of medieval manuscripts are long gone, including a third of chivalric stories akin to King Arthur. By no means is the issue confined to English or Western culture. The imperial library of China's Han Dynasty also burned to the ground, and fires claimed many other collections, along with the forces of censorship, incompetence, vandalism, and natural decay. Researchers also say it’s not safe to assume only the best, most representative works survived. For example, while Shakespeare remains the dominant force in English literature, he existed in a “rich and varied literary ecosystem” from which hundreds of plays and other works remain lost, many of them every bit as popular and profitable as those by the Bard himself. Read the full piece here. (Read more literature stories.)

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