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Manuscripts as Fossils

Population-biology equations estimate medieval texts' likelihood of survival

By
11:18am, April 5, 2005

Through the ages, innumerable texts have been consumed by fire, war, theft, and other disasters. Each ancient or medieval manuscript in existence today has its own story of survival against the odds, whether the document was tucked away in an obscure monastery for a millennium or stolen by Vikings and passed from collector to collector. Manuscript experts have long puzzled over the question, what fraction of ancient works has survived?

Paleontologist John Cisne of Cornell University brings a fresh approach to this problem. He regards handwritten medieval manuscripts as fossils from an extinct population. Using equations from population biology, he h

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