Lost Literature: Why Most English Texts Didn’t Survive the Middle Ages | History Hit

Lost Literature: Why Most English Texts Didn’t Survive the Middle Ages

An 11th-century Beowulf manuscript.
Image Credit: British Library via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Everyone knows at least one version of the story of King Arthur. The most widespread idea of a king based at Camelot who oversaw knights seated at a round table comes from the 12th century. Gerald of Wales completed his History of the Kings of England around 1138, and pulled together existing tales to give us the son of Uther Pendragon, advised by the wizard Merlin, who is the Once and Future King.

To medieval consumers of this booming fascination with narrative fiction (who were exclusively the wealthy and educated), King Arthur was like the Marvel Cinematic universe, sprawling off in myriad directions. Beowulf was their Geralt of Rivia.

In many ways, we are lucky that important manuscripts have survived from the middle ages for us to gaze on in awe today. If they hadn’t, so many stories would have been lost forever. But it has long been suspected that only a fraction of what was created between the 6th and 15th centuries still survives, and a 2022 study by international researchers and Oxford University experts has added weight to that idea.

Here’s why countless English manuscripts may have been lost during the middle ages.

A gap in knowledge - both of stories and artefacts - provides a frustrating block when looking into the past. But, a new report, based on the use of statistics, is hoping to shine a light on some of these hidden mysteries. This week Matt is joined by Dr Katarzyna Anna Kapitan from the University of Oxford who talks Matt through her fascinating research, from finding out that medieval romance manuscripts were recycled into Bishop's mitres to the masses of Icelandic manuscripts discovered preserved across Europe.
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Missing medieval manuscripts

Before the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, books were copied by hand. It was a painstaking, time-consuming task that was most often undertaken by monks, though professional copyists began to appear in the later middle ages.

Some stories might exist in only one manuscript, and if that was lost to fire, water, insect damage, or even used to reinforce a bishop’s hat, as one 13th century manuscript was, then the tale within could be gone forever.

The study has used a system called the ‘unseen species model’, borrowed from wildlife studies and applied to medieval manuscripts. Co-author Folgert Karsdorp describes it as “a very general method of bias correction”, used to establish the number of species that are present but unseen by an observer. It has been applied to computer code to estimate the number of bugs. The point is that the system isn’t reliant on only estimating animal species.

Traditional estimates have suggested that only around 7% of medieval texts have survived, and the study bears that out, coming to a figure of 9%.

‘Chivalry’ by Frank Bernard Dicksee, 1885.

Image Credit: Art Renewal Center via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Regional differences

One interesting aspect of the results was the difference in survival rates depending on the language of the text. For example, the model suggests only 5% of texts in English survive.

Irish and Icelandic manuscripts, on the other hand, are thought to have survived in greater numbers. This might hint at the disconnection of those island nations from continental affairs in which England became enwrapped after the Conquest.

Dr. Katarzyna Anna Kapitan, an Old Norse philologist and Junior Research Fellow at Oxford’s Linacre College, said, “we know today around three out of four medieval Icelandic romances and adventure tales (or 77%), but only one out of six medieval manuscripts preserving these works (17%)”.

Explaining the missing English manuscripts

The Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, which came about as a result of his break with Rome in the 1530s, might be considered a possible cause of the loss of so many books in English. The contents of monastic libraries were seized and redistributed into private collections that were perhaps less well cared for.

However, it is unlikely that many chivalric romance stories were amongst monastic collections, so this does not adequately explain the losses.

The lack of surviving English language manuscripts might reflect the unfashionable nature of vernacular English in the wake of the Norman Conquest, as well as the prevalence of Latin. The Conquest of 1066 saw Norman French become the language of power in England, and those interested in books were exclusively the powerful.

Manuscripts in French do not survive at a much higher rate than those in English, but are much more widespread across Europe. For much of the rest of the medieval period, until the invention of movable type and the printing press, England’s politics and culture remained bound up with France in particular.

A painting of King Arthur holding a crown above his head

‘King Arthur’ by Charles Ernest Butler, 1903.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Charles Ernest Butler

King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have won timeless fame as the epitome of English chivalry and medieval romantic fiction. Beowulf is considered a jewel in the crown of early English literature, yet survival rates for these sorts of manuscripts are shockingly low. Every once in a while, an example will be discovered lurking in an unexpected cupboard or hidden inside another manuscript.

However, it is clear that we have lost more than we will ever find. What legendary tales did our medieval ancestors enjoy that we will never read or hear? What might be lost in another millennium from now?

Matt Lewis

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