I recently read the Annals by Tacitus. Although I am definitely pleased with it, I feel like the best parts are missing. It got me thinking about the history of books in general.

I read on another forum that monks did not feel it necessary to copy those books, but that does not make sense. If they were to leave out the bad parts, I feel they would have dropped the end of Tiberius's last years. It almost seems that someone took the good books to show off and failed to put them back. Wiki has the history of them, but I am still interested in the process of how books where copied and lost.

Why were so many books rediscovered in the Renaissance? Why (for example The Annals) some books lost while others (for example Cyropaedia) are found complete? What was the pre-Renaissance book trade like?

Thanks in advance

  • 1
    Wikipedia has a section on the rediscovery of Annals manuscripts during the Renaissance. Please review that and, if it doesn't answer your question, explain what you find missing and narrow your question down to that.
    – Semaphore
    Sep 6, 2015 at 18:57
  • It answered my question that I asked, but not the one I really wanted to know. Is this better?
    – lost
    Sep 6, 2015 at 19:10
  • The third paragraph is a drastically different question, but very intriguing -to my limited understanding of the subject it seems like a good enough question. However, you should ask about the Annals and the general process of the transmission of classical works (i.e. your 1st and 2nd paragraphs) separately. Good luck.
    – Semaphore
    Sep 6, 2015 at 19:13
  • Thank you @Semaphore. It is people like you that make this possible.
    – lost
    Sep 6, 2015 at 19:29

2 Answers 2


This really contains many questions.

  1. Where did they go? Most likely they were destroyed by fire, water, deterioration with time, or just trashed. Texts must be periodically copied to survive for long time.

  2. Some monks in some places did "feel necessary" to copy them, others at different places and times did not. Because this was "pagan literature". The attitude to the pagan literature among Christians (and Muslims) varied, depending on place and time. A book has to be copied MANY times to survive 2 millenia.

  3. Why were so many books discovered during the Renaissance? Because interest to these books resurrected, a DEMAND appeared. Then they started to search and publish the surviving copies, and translating what was previously translated into Arabic. What they found they published. Publishing with a printer press, of course produces much more copies than copying by hand. What they did not find, and did not publish, mostly disappeared. Something was found later and published. (Why and how the interest resurrected is a topic of another long discussion).

  4. What was the pre-Renaissance book trade? There was no books in the modern sense: printing was invented in 16s century, at the time of late Renaissance. Before that there were manuscripts. They were very expensive. This was a kind of "luxury item". Very few learned people were interested in them. They collected and exchanged them, and copied them on a relatively small scale. Most people, including rich and learned ones had other priorities.

Sometimes, in some places, manuscript were copied on a large scale (in antiquity, in the places like Alexandria library, and few other places). These collections did not survive.

As an illustration, let me give just one example. The work of Archimedes which is considered his best (of those surviving) by the present generation, was found as a single copy in a Christian Orthodox storage in Istanbul after WWI. For those who "preserved" it, it was not worth the parchment it was written on. They erased it, and wrote their religious text over it. These religious texts are of little interest to us, and the erased text was read with difficulty using modern scientific methods. Many other pagan books were "preserved" this way: because some ancient copies were written on expensive parchment, and they did not erase them very carefully.

I suppose I answered all questions.


Currently we experience a transition. From printed paper books to electronic formats. Most printed books will soon become antiquarian items. Certainly those of interest to sufficiently many people will be copied to electronic formats. Others will not be. Some of these (others) will be destroyed, because our libraries do not have "enough" storage space, others will rot in the basements. At some later time, the interests of people may change. And books destroyed by the present generation will be searched and copied again, and some parts will be lost etc.


In most cases, the books were not "rediscovered", they simply received a much larger audience through printing. To take Tacitus as an example, the manuscript was enormous and existed in a single copy which was printed in 1515 by Filippo Beroaldo (the younger). Once it was printed, the book received a wide readership. Previously if you wanted to read it, you would have to make a pilgrimmage to the monastery that held it, maybe make a donation and stay there while you read it. The same was true of many other manuscripts. There were extensive catalogs that circulated in medieval times which would describe the holdings of monasteries and libraries. If you wanted to read ancient Roman or Greek books, you needed to refer to these catalogs then travel to the place in question. Once printing became possible this necessity greatly decreased and the works became more widely known.

Note that the old way of doing things has not gone away. Many manuscripts and old books have never been printed (or reprinted), so the only way to read them is to visit the library that holds them. For example, recently I wanted to read some old Boston newspapers from the 1830s. The only way to do this was to notify the library 24 hours ahead of time, make a reservation in the reading room, go there at the appointed time, then the curator leers over your shoulder while you read the precious newspaper.

  • Thank you. Wiki.
    – lost
    Sep 6, 2015 at 19:45

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