Estimating the Loss of Medieval Literature with an Unseen Species Model from Ecodiversity

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Mike Kestemont and Folgert Karsdorp

:classical_building: Affiliation: Department of Literature, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium; Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Meertens Institute, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Title: Estimating the Loss of Medieval Literature with an Unseen Species Model from Ecodiversity

Abstract: The century-long loss of documents is one of the major impediments to the study of historic literature. Here we focus on Middle Dutch chivalric epics (ca. 1200-1450), a genre for which little archival records exist that shed light on the survival rates of works and documents. We cast the quantitative estimation of these survival rates as a variant of the unseen species problem from ecodiversity. We apply an established non-parametric method (Chao1) and compare it to a number of common alternatives on simulated data. Finally, we discuss the implications of our results for conventional philology: our numbers suggest that the losses sustained on the level of works may be more dramatic than previously imagined, whereas those at the document-level align surprisingly well with existing estimates in book history, although these were based on completely different data sources.

:newspaper: Full paper



Thanks for the exciting talk! Indeed, there should be lots of applications of this method. The possibly relevant research that I’ve mentioned is this: Candia et al. 2019. The universal decay of collective memory and attention


That’s a great reference; many thanks! (I’m always amazed by how well you know the literature, @oleg_sobchuk! What’s your secret? :slight_smile: )


Haha, thanks @mike.kestemont ! I guess, I am a librarian at heart – collecting, cataloguing… :smile:


The notion of collective memory by Assman is fascinating, and still not properly operationalized in historical research. There is some work that combined neuropsychology to study processes of memory and trauma in history, in a volume by Assman et al. “Communicative and Cultural Memory”

Together with @knielbo and Jianbo Gao, we attempted to connect the notion of cultural memory to persistency in newspaper discourse:

There’s still much more to explore in this direction.