Lost Works of the Middle Ages

Only a small fraction of the writings created in the Middle Ages have survived to the present day. Throughout the medieval period manuscripts would be destroyed or recycled, and in more recent centuries this process only worsened as fires, theft and neglect led to more losses. Many great works from the Middle Ages have been lost, with little hope that any copies survive. Here are five lost works that we would love to see again.

The Yongle Encyclopedia

Between the years 1403 and 1408, the Emperor of China oversaw one of the largest academic works in history – an encyclopedia designed to encompass all knowledge. Known as the Yongle Encyclopedia (or more accurately “Great Canon of Yongle”) after the emperor who commissioned it, the project involved 2,169 scholars working for four years covering topics like geography, science, history and art.

When it was finished, the encyclopedia consisted of 11,095 volumes, which in size filled 1400 square feet of space. However, there was no money left to create a printed version, so the manuscript was never sent out to other parts of China. It would survive mostly intact until the 19th century, when British and French troops plundered Beijing in 1860 during the Second Opium War. Further wars and turmoil destroyed much of what remained, and now less than 400 volumes, or 3.5% of the original collection survives.

The Discovery of the Fortunate Islands

Sometime around the year 1360 a Franciscan monk from Oxford gave King Edward III a book he called Inventio Fortunata, or “The Discovery of the Fortunate Islands.” The author claimed to have sailed northwards at least a half dozen times, using an astrolabe to navigate the Arctic.

However, this text soon became lost, and all we have are summaries of what the original said. According to one later writer:

It is said in the book concerning the fortunate discovery [Inventio Fortunate] that at the arctic pole there is a high magnetic rock, thirty-three German miles in circumference. A surging sea surrounds this rock, as if the water were discharged downward from a vase through an opening. Around it are islands, two of which are inhabited.

Although The Discovery of the Fortunate Islands was lost, it would continue to be an important influence for writers and mapmakers hundreds of years later. The 16th-century geographer Gerardus Mercator made this map of the north based on the descriptions originally made in this 14th-century lost work.

Map of the North Pole and Arctic regions by Mercator
Map of the North Pole and Arctic regions by Mercator

The Book of Leoun

Known as the Father of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer is best known for The Canterbury Tales, which was probably never completed by the time he died in the year 1400. At the end of this work he also mentions some of his other writings, including one he calls “the book of the Leoun” – The Book of the Lion.

Michael Delahoyde offers this analysis on what the work could have been, and suggests that it might not have been much of a great loss:

Speculation about the nature of this lost work more or less died out almost 80 years ago. In 1928, Victor Langhans capped a tradition reaching back to the days of Tyrwhitt in the late 1700s by postulating that the Book of the Lion was probably a redaction of Guillaume de Machaut’s “Dit dou lyon,” a courtly love allegory “written in a mode thoroughly compatible with that of Chaucer’s dream poems” and a work broadly circulated, as evidenced by numerous extant manuscripts. Critical consensus, if that is an appropriate term in this realm of complete conjecture, has adopted Langhans’ guess, despite the indication then that the Book of the Lion must have been an early work, composed before the poet outgrew the artificial genre, and one so aesthetically dismal that Chaucer suppressed it and all mention of it until on his deathbed when eleventh-hour guilt over the abomination demanded full bibliographical confession.

The Skjöldunga saga

At the end of the twelfth-century an Old Norse saga was written. Known as the Skjöldunga saga, it contained a history of the legendary kings of Denmark, tracing their lineage to the god Odin. While a few fragments were preserved in other works, most of this saga is lost. It would be of great interest not only to the mythology of Denmark and Norse culture, but perhaps would have shed light on the story of Beowulf, which features some characters that came from the Scylding dynasty that ruled parts of Denmark in the Early Middle Ages.

The Romance of the Devil’s Fart

When the French poet Francois Villon died around the year 1463, in his Testament he explains what he is leaving behind to his adopted father:

I bequeath to him my library,
And the Romance of the Devil’s Fart,
Which master Guy Tabary,
An honest man, copied:
It’s in notebooks under a table,
And although it’s roughly written,
The subject matter is of such note
That it makes up for all shortcomings.

Francois was only in his mid-30s when he died, and he certainly lived an eventful life, including killing a priest, spending time in jail, and getting involved in all sorts of disrespectful business. He was also a student at the University of Paris, and the poetry he wrote is considered to be among the best of late medieval France.

However, no copies of the Romance of the Devil’s Fart have survived, which is disappointing because it might have been a very good tale. In Paris of the early 1450s there was a large stone, probably being used as a boundary marker, which was known as ‘The Devil’s Fart’. Apparently, some university students stole it, and, after it was recovered, it was stolen again. One would like to think the Francois, being the bad boy that he was, was involved in the caper, so his story of these events would be a delightful read.

To learn more, please read The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read, by Stuart Kelly (Random House, 2005) and The Lost Literature of Medieval England, by R.M. Wilson (Methuen & Co.), 1952)

Top Image: Old Books – photo by David Flores / Flickr

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