CACSSS Researcher co-authors paper for Science on the ‘ecological’ survival of rare manuscripts and texts

‘Forgotten books: the application of unseen species models to the survival of culture’ (Mike Kestemont,  Folgert Karsdorp,  Elisabeth De Bruijn, Matthew Driscoll, Katarzyna A. Kapitan, Pádraig Ó Macháin, Daniel Sawyer, Remco Sleiderink,  Anne Chao), Science 375/6582 (17/2/2022) 765–9

Science the world leading journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has published a paper with Prof. Pádraig Ó Macháin, Professor of Modern Irish, UCC as co-author. The paper, published on 18 February, is authored by an international research-group announcing the findings of research into the lost manuscripts and texts of medieval Europe. The research involved the application to manuscript and textual survival of an ecological formula relating to the survival of rare species.

Since 2020, the research-group led by Prof. Mike Kestemont of the University of Antwerp, has been examining the question of the loss of texts and manuscripts in the vernacular traditions of the Netherlands, Germany, France, England, Iceland and Ireland. At the core of this codicological and textual study has been the application of an ecological species-survival model and formula, known as the Chao1 Estimator, developed in 1984 by the Taiwanese statistician Prof. Anne Chao, one of the co-authors of the paper. The Estimator is a formulaic application that uses information of rare species that are detected once or twice to estimate the number of undetected species. Prof. Chao also linked her work to Good-Turing frequency theory, first developed to calculate undetected code-elements by Alan Turing, the Bletchley Park cryptographer.

The manuscripts research project applied Prof. Chao’s estimator to the survival of narrative texts in the literatures of the countries represented. Before this, in the Irish context, estimating the extent of the loss of Gaelic manuscripts seemed a futile exercise. But because the figures that emerge from this study show, for Ireland, a significant survival of narrative texts despite a survival rate of less than 20% for the manuscripts that contained them, it now becomes possible to extrapolate from the data to posit an estimate for the loss of vernacular Gaelic manuscripts before the year 1600. Having established the viability of the application of Chao1 to manuscript and textual survival, it is hoped as the project progresses to refine the data at present emerging, to extend the research to include other genres, and also to add to the countries and traditions involved in this work.

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