The farther one goes back in history, the more intense the question of record survival becomes. The farther away we look, the dimmer things get, not because there’s anything wrong with our power of sight, but because the crumbs have scattered beyond recovery.
Historians of the ancient and medieval period often lament the lack of sources, blanks in the record. If more books and texts had survived from ancient Greek and ancient Rome, we’d be in a better position to know what happened, what people thought back then and we’d be able to paint a better picture, or simply to fill previously-blank sections of the canvas with much-needed colour and detail. Only a small fraction of the manuscript books made in the Middle Ages in the West have survived, for instance.
But there is a more jovial underside to these jeremiads. Despite the losses we’ve inherited, what has survived is far more than what historians have so far been able to process. There is a lot more out there – in libraries and on the ground (below libraries) – that is simply waiting to be entered into critical dialogue with. For example, most of the poems of the 9th century Carolingian Europe haven’t been studied, many of them haven’t even been edited. Libraries are filled with manuscripts that no-one has ever examined. Medieval court records are only just being shaken out of centuries-old torpor, producing fascinating insights, like the work that has been done on the English pipe rolls and the royal charters.
Loss is deplorable, but there is so much work out there to be done that the ululation can wait.