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02. The Work of Scribes

John CisneJohn L. Cisne, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, concluded that many more handcopied manuscripts survived the Middles Age than previously believed. He analyzed the endless process of repetition by which scribes reproduced manuscripts, changing them slightly each time they were recopied much like a telephone gossip game, before the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing technology in the mid-fifteenth century. Treating manuscripts as though they were individuals in a population, Cisne applied mathematical models developed for population biologists to the analysis. Like the replication of biological organisms, the manuscripts had to be copied from a parent template. In order to be copied, one had to already exist, and the more copies in existence, the more copies that could be transcribed. Each handcopied text had a probability of “giving birth” (being copied) and a probability of “death” (being destroyed). Looking at certain factors of a manuscript’s survival, one of the texts on which Cisne tested his model was Bebe’s De Temporum Ratione, a standard arithmetic text copied repeatedly between the eighth and sixteenth centuries. Cisne’s discovery could help researchers understand how science and culture survived the Dark Ages.

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