More than 3,000 medieval manuscripts in Irish may have been lost over time

18 Feb 2022

Opening of medieval Irish tale Cath Leithreach Ruibhe. Image: Royal Irish Academy Dublin

A team of international researchers found a new way to estimate manuscript loss numbers by fusing science with humanities.

Long before things could be digitally immortalised in the form of NFTs, manuscripts were written on paper and other ephemeral materials prone to damage or theft. Now, a new study has found a way to quantify what may have been lost over time – estimating that more than 3,000 medieval Irish-language manuscripts have been lost in the mists of antiquity.

Published yesterday (17 February) in the journal Science, an international study combined humanities with science to find a new way of estimating just how many manuscripts from European medieval literature have been lost over time based on the number that survived.

A third of tales of medieval heroism and chivalry, more than 90pc of European manuscripts from the Middle Ages and more than 3,000 medieval Irish-language manuscripts – which rarely feature in international science journals – have been lost according to the study.

The study, carried out by European and Taiwanese scholars, borrowed statistical methods used in the field of ecology in which researchers estimate how many rare species are missing based on the number of surviving species.

It found notable differences in the number of losses between manuscripts in six different European languages.

“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,” commented Prof Mike Kestemont, who teaches computational humanities at the University of Antwerp.

Prose tales in Irish, Icelandic and German have had a survival rate of 80pc, according to the study, while only around half of those written in Dutch, English and French literature are still known. However, only around 300 medieval Irish-language manuscripts exist currently – a mere tenth of the number estimated to have been lost.

Representing Ireland in this international team of researchers was Prof Pádraig Ó Macháin, who teaches modern Irish at University College Cork. Other members of the team were from Belgium, Denmark, England, Taiwan and the Netherlands.

Ó Macháin said that interdisciplinary collaboration between science and humanities brought together ecologists, statisticians and manuscript scholars to use scientific principles to solve a historical problem.

“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,” he commented.

He found the affinity between the island cultures of Ireland and Iceland “particularly remarkable” as the distribution of their tales across many manuscripts was such that stories could still survive in single copies despite the loss of multiple other copies.

While some of the methods used in the study are more commonly seen in ecology, the team believes that they can be applied in a “far wider” range of studies, opening up a whole new line of research in the study of human history.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic