Huge losses of Irish manuscripts from medieval times, international study finds

18 Feb 2022

An international team of researchers has found that a third of tales of medieval heroism and chivalry, more than 90% of European manuscripts from the Middle Ages and over 3,000 medieval Irish-language manuscripts have been lost over time.

The findings are published in the leading international research journal, Science. It is rare that Irish-language manuscripts feature in a top international science journal. This research was carried out by an international team of manuscript scholars on survival rates of medieval texts and manuscripts using models developed in ecology studies. Representing Ireland on this team is Pádraig Ó Macháin, Professor of Modern Irish at University College Cork (UCC).

Scholars from Belgium, Denmark, England, Ireland, the Netherlands and Taiwan examined European medieval manuscripts and calculated the scale of the lost literature using methods more commonly found in ecology, where researchers estimate how many rare species are missing based on the surviving numbers. The team calculated the survival rates for six medieval language areas separately and observed that there are huge differences in these survival rates within Europe.

Over 3,000 Irish medieval manuscripts lost

Just over 300 medieval Irish-language manuscripts exist currently and today's study suggests that over 3,000 Irish medieval manuscripts have been lost over time.

The study shows 80% of prose tales in Irish, Icelandic and German survive, whereas for Dutch, English and French literature fewer than 50% of works are still known. The Irish member of the team, Professor of Modern Irish at University College Cork, Pádraig Ó Macháin states:

“This is an exciting collaboration between science and the humanities, between ecologists, statisticians and manuscript scholars. Ireland endured huge losses of its medieval manuscripts over the centuries, but this is the first attempt at quantifying those losses, at comparing them to trends in other countries, and at estimating how those losses affected the loss of individual texts – prose tales in this instance. Such was the distribution of these tales across many manuscripts that stories could still survive in single copies despite the loss of multiple other copies. In this regard, the affinity between the island cultures of Ireland and Iceland is particularly remarkable.”

One of the lead authors, Professor Mike Kestemont, Professor of Computational Humanities at the University of Antwerp, says, “We suspected ecologists' statistical methods to predict numbers of rare species could also be used to estimate numbers of lost literary works and we were right.”

The team believes its work opens up a new line of research in the study of human cultures of the past. There is nothing specific to ecology or medieval literature about the method used. Its applicability is far wider, and it could be used across the heritage sciences. For the present it is hoped to continue the research in order to learn more about lost books and writings.

Article: 'Forgotten books: The application of unseen species models to the survival of culture' in Science, Vol 375, Issue 6582 (17 Feb 2022), pp765-769

Department of Modern Irish

Roinn na Nua-Ghaeilge

Áras Uí Rathaille, UCC