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A technique borrowed from ecology hints at hundreds of lost medieval legends

King Arthur’s lasting renown is one for the books. But a statistical spotlight now shines on medieval European literature’s round table of lost and forgotten stories.

An international team used a mathematical formula borrowed from ecology to estimate the extent to which medieval adventure and romance tales, and documents on which they were written, have been lost over the years. Only about 9 percent of these documents may have survived till modern times, the researchers found.

These findings indicate that simple statistical principles can be used to gauge losses of a range of past cultural items, such as specific types of stone tools or ancient coins, literature professor Mike Kestemont of the University of Antwerp in Belgium and his colleagues report in the Feb. 18 Science.

Their approach represents a simple but powerful tool for studying culture, says anthropologist Alex Bentley of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who did not participate in the study. “It’s like walking into an abandoned Amazon book warehouse decades later and estimating the total number of book titles based on the numbers of surviving single and double copies that you find.”

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