The Birds in the Bush. What can Occupancy Models from Ecology Teach us about the Survival of Medieval Literature?

The study of cultural history is seriously hindered by the century-long loss of material artifacts, such as manuscripts. In all likelihood, the surviving body of medieval literature is heavily biased and can not be considered a reliable sample of the original diversity of literature that once existed. A common claim in book history, for instance, is that illuminated manuscripts had better survival chances than their less adorned counterparts. This claim, however, can be hard to back up with empirical evidence beyond the level of scattered anecdotes. This issue of “survivorship bias” is heavily studied in ecology where a strict distinction is maintained between the ecological processes of interest, and the noisy processes through which we observe these processes. Occupancy models are an interesting family of statistical methods to estimate how observation errors influence the detection of animals in ecological bioregistration campaigns. In this talk, we’ll report on our ongoing efforts in the application of occupancy models to better understand the factors that influenced the survival of medieval manuscripts.

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Digital Humanities Tilburg