How a Medieval Romance Hidden in a Bishop’s Cap Is Helping Us Rebuild the Destroyed Libraries of Antiquity

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The scene, without a doubt, is funny. We’re talking about the late 1500s or early 1600s, a Norwegian bishop officiates Sunday mass without suspecting that in his hat, in his miter, there is a rosary of “lovers who chased each other down dark corridors, maidens who frolicked through the fields, and knights who killed each other for nothing“. And I’m not being metaphorical: when I say “in his hat”, I literally mean his hat.

The appearance of the printing press had many positive consequences, but among the bad things it brought about was the fact that handwritten codices fell out of fashion. They were not irreplaceable elements of the cultural heritage of humanity; they were junk: things to throw away, burn a cold night or, in the best of cases, reuse.

In that way, it is relatively common to find ancient manuscripts inside bindings of the first editions of the modern age. Or, as in this case, we may come across a collection of French “romance novels” translated into Norse shaping the latest fashion in episcopal clothing. And, fortunately, on the other hand.

It has been like this, thanks to unexpected discoveries in the most unexpected places, that we have been able to discover literary works, genres and stories that we did not know existed. Fires, poor preservation and intentional destruction caused most of the medieval texts to be lost. This has not only resulted in the fact that there are many things that we do not know, no: it has also implied that there were a lot of things we didn’t even know existed.

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In recent years, historians have tried to compose as accurate a picture as possible of those missing libraries and, for this, they have used biological models of “species never seen before”. That is, the methodological scaffolding that allows paleontologists to “correct the survival bias” in the fossil record: estimate the diversity of species (and the number of individuals of each one) at a given time even if no remains of them have remained.

His idea was to think of each of the works as species, and handwritten document copies of individual works could be treated as sightings of each of them. In this sense, a “lost species” is a work of which no copy remains today. Thus, they compiled the 3,648 medieval documents in six vernacular languages ​​(Dutch, French, Icelandic, Irish, English and German) and estimated that it is a sample of a population that originally would have had 40,614 copies. Namely, that according to the model, only 9% of medieval documents have survived.

If we talk about works, researchers believe that they have survived around 68%; although they did see considerable variation between 38.6% English to 77.3% Icelandic and 81% Irish. There is much to investigate in the use of these models, but it is a very interesting finding. Being able to use our best ecological models to study human historical diversity is a door to inquire into our past as we have never done so far.

Image | freddy kerney

The scene, without a doubt, is funny. We’re talking about the late 1500s or early 1600s, a Norwegian bishop officiates…

The scene, without a doubt, is funny. We’re talking about the late 1500s or early 1600s, a Norwegian bishop officiates…

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