Sophie Bushwick in Scientific American:
How is a lost tale of chivalry from medieval Europe like an unknown species of animal? According to a new study, the number of both items can be tallied using exactly the same mathematical model. The findings align with existing estimates of lost literature—and suggest that ecological models can be applied to a surprising variety of social science fields.
Experts know that much fiction from the medieval era (roughly from the beginning of the fifth century A.D. to the end of the 14th century), such as chivalric romances about King Arthur’s court, has disappeared over time. But quantifying that loss is difficult. “One thing we don’t know is … the portion of literature that didn’t survive,” says the new study’s co-author Mike Kestemont, an associate professor in the department of literature at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. Learning about what was lost can teach scholars more about the medieval period, and there are also present-day reasons to value this work, adds co-author Daniel Sawyer, a research fellow in medieval English literature at the University of Oxford. “Thinking about how cultural heritage survives seems like a useful thing to do, because right now—among many other things—that’s one of the important things threatened by things like climate change,” Sawyer says. “In the longer run, we as a species probably need to be thinking about ‘How do we preserve and record what we have?’ And knowing more about what kind of patterns of distribution can help survival of these things is not irrelevant to that.”