PerspectiveHistory of Science

"How Science Survived"--Medieval Manuscripts as Fossils

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Science  25 Feb 2005:
Vol. 307, Issue 5713, pp. 1208-1209
DOI: 10.1126/science.1109679

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Ancient texts often survived from Antiquity through the Middle Ages in the form of copies made by dedicated monks before the arrival of the printing press in the 15th century A.D.; some of these texts are still in existence today. But how can we estimate the numbers of texts that survived or went extinct and consequently the amount of knowledge that we have inherited from the past? As biologist Gilman and historian Glaze discuss in their fascinating Perspective, a new study by Cisne helps to solve the problem by linking the paleodemography of ancient and medieval texts to population dynamics. By considering a series of extant medieval scientific manuscripts as "fossils" of early textual populations and applying models from population biology, Cisne calculates the size and age-distributions of certain scientific texts.