Press release Meertens Institute

'A third of all medieval European chivalry narratives were lost’

18 February 2021

An international, interdisciplinary team of scientists, led by researchers from the Meertens Institute in Amsterdam and the University of Antwerp, discovered that no less than a third of all medieval European chivalry narratives have been lost in the course of centuries. For their calculations, the team used ecology models for counting rare species. They are now reporting in the renowned scientific journal Science.

Researchers studying older phases of culture are faced by a tricky problem: the past can be studied only on the basis of surviving objects, but the actual number of objects that existed is far greater. This can create a distorted picture of the actual culture in earlier societies. A similar problem arises in ecology: it is seldom possible to observe all the plant and animal species that live in an area. ‘That's why we thought it would be a fascinating idea to apply statistical methods often used in ecology to lost literary works’, says Folgert Karsdorp, researcher at the Academy's Meertens Institute. ‘Literary works can be seen as species in ecology, and the surviving manuscripts, in which those works are written down, are treated as observations of a species.’

Using this method, the research team – consisting of scholars from twelve research institutes – calculated that 32% of all medieval chivalry and other heroic narratives have been lost over the centuries. It is estimated that the loss of medieval manuscripts is even higher, i.e. more than 90%.

Read the full report on the website of the Meertens Institute (in Dutch).

Meertens Institute

The Meertens Institute is an Academy research institute. It studies and documents the Dutch language and Dutch culture, focusing mainly in the phenomena that shape everyday life in our society. The institute’s collections are a key component of the Netherlands’ humanities research infrastructure.

The Meertens Institute is located in Amsterdam (Oudezijds Achterburgwal 185, 1012 DK Amsterdam).

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