Ohen the great library of Alexandria caught fire, the books are said to have taken six months to burn. We cannot know if this is true. The exact purpose of the library and its very existence have been the subject of speculation for over 2,000 years. For two millennia, we have been haunted by the idea that what has been passed down to us might not be representative of the vast body of literature and knowledge that humans have created. This is a fear that has only been confirmed by new methods of estimating the extent of losses.
The latest attempt was led by academics Mike Kestemont and Folgert Karsdorp. The Ptolemies who created the Library of Alexandria had a suitably pharaonic vision: to bring together all the books that had ever been written under one roof. Kestemont and Karsdorp had a more modest goal: to estimate the survival rate of manuscripts created in different parts of Europe during the Middle Ages.
Using a statistical method borrowed from ecology, called “invisible species” modeling, they extrapolated from what survived to assess what didn’t – working backwards from the distribution of manuscripts we have today in order to estimate what must have existed in the past. .
The numbers they published in Science magazine earlier this year aren’t easy to read, but they do support numbers obtained by other methods. Researchers have concluded that 90% of medieval manuscripts preserving chivalric and heroic tales – those relating to King Arthur, for example, or Sigurd (also known as Siegfried) – have disappeared. Of the stories themselves, about a third have been completely lost, meaning that no manuscripts preserving them remain.
The study also addressed the question of the representativeness of surviving stories and manuscripts. Irish and Icelandic medieval narrative fiction seems to have survived much better than its English counterparts. One reason could be that the practice of copying texts by hand has persisted much longer in Iceland and Ireland than in England, which means that any given medieval tale is preserved in more manuscript copies – and so protected, to some extent, against unavoidable loss.
The causes of loss were manifold, ranging from fires and other disasters, to the degradation or recycling of the material on which the texts were written, to censorship, incompetence and corruption. Throughout history, probably the most destructive of these forces has been fire – and not just in the Western world.
Michael Friedrich, a sinologist at the University of Hamburg in Germany, notes that China’s Han dynasty imperial library was largely destroyed by fire in the first century CE, during a time of internal strife. When a later dynasty attempted to send another Imperial Library by channel to its new capital, most of the ships sank.
The largest book repositories have always tended to form in centers of power, sometimes lending that power legitimacy, making them obvious targets during political upheaval, or simply collateral damage when regimes change. As the Italian literary historian Luciano Canfora wrote in the 1980s in The Vanished Library, the result is that “what has come down to us does not come from the great centers but from ‘marginal’ places, such as convents, and scattered private copies. ”.
There is yet another problem: the volume of the texts. With regard to Indian and Buddhist traditions, for example, the number of ancient manuscripts which have survived but have not yet been studied has been estimated at around 10 million, although Friedrich claims to have seen estimates as high as 30 million. There are simply not enough academics with the right expertise, including the necessary language skills, to do the job.
It is tempting to think that after the advent of movable-type printing, which occurred in Europe in the 15th century (and centuries earlier in China), literary erosion may have slowed , simply because producing copies has become easier. But David McInnis of the University of Melbourne says that’s not necessarily true. For one thing, accidents continued to happen, such as when rioters vandalized London’s Cockpit Theater in 1617, starting a fire in which all of the theater’s manuals were burned.
On the other hand, not everything that happened on stage happened on the page. When plays were printed, it tended to be done cheaply with a single print run of around 500 copies, and these copies were often read in pieces – literally. As a result, says McInnis, we are probably missing the first edition of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, since the first known edition is described as a revision. All that remains of another play we know the great man wrote, Love’s Labour’s Won, is its title.
McInnis estimates that the 543 plays that survive from 1576, when the first public theaters opened in London, to 1642, when the Puritans closed them, represent a fraction of all those produced. Another 744 that certainly existed were lost, and hundreds more were probably written to fill the calendar of the repertoire, of which no trace remains. Some plays have been translated into German and performed on the Continent by itinerant English actors, including works by Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. At least one play written for the English theater, whose authorship is unknown, survives only in German – The Comedy of Queen Esther and Haughty Haman – and there may be others.
Unfortunately, there is no consolation that the pieces that survive are necessarily the best, or at least the most popular. McInnis analyzed the figures based on the meticulous accounting of a London impresario in the 1590s, Philip Henslowe, and came to the following conclusion: “The lost pieces performed at least as well, and generally better, than the pieces who survived. They are definitely not inferior, they were good money makers, and they were lost for various reasons not attributable to quality.
In fact, literary historians tend to avoid the question of quality altogether. The problem is that our criteria for judging literary talent have been shaped by the texts that have come down to us. Daniel Sawyer of Oxford University says there were certainly top-notch medieval writers in English whose works have not survived, but wonders if we would be equipped to judge these works, if they were to surface now. For English speakers, says Sawyer, one writer casts a gigantic shadow over others: Shakespeare. Not only has he left his mark all over our language, but he is the standard against which all other writers are compared.
Yet, during his lifetime, Shakespeare responded to a rich and varied literary ecosystem. His contemporaries also recognized other great names, including a poet named Thomas Watson whose praised plays have almost all been lost (only one survives, his version of Sophocles’ Antigone written in Latin). Who knows how we would judge that Shakespeare – whom a contemporary described as “Watson’s heir” – had survived the whole swathe of English literature of his time, or the times before and after him. Who could be the giants of world literature, if we knew exactly what those 30 million Indian manuscripts contained, or if the millions more that were burned or moldy survived. Greatness can sometimes be less a property of great minds than an accident of history.
Shakespeare and Lost Plays: Reimagining Drama in Early Modern England by David McInnis (Cambridge, £29.99)
The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt (Vintage, £12.99)
The Woman Who Discovered Printing by TH Barrett (Yale, £17)