Every historian has had that moment, when they realise that the their perfect text existed once, but has since been irrecoverably lost. Here is a top five list of the texts, lost to time, I’d most like to get my hands on…
1. More of Sappho’s Poetry.
Not much is known of Sappho beyond her glowing reputation in the classical age. Plato admired her as one of the muses, and Plutarch said her work was like “sweet-voiced songs healing love.” Unfortunately, only one of her poems has survived in its entirety, the rest are only fragments. Two new poems, nearly fully complete have perhaps recently been discovered, so there is hope for more! Her poems predominately focus on the subject of love, with both men and women, which is why in the 19th-century the terms ‘sapphic’ and ‘lesbian’ (she was from the island of Lesbos) became associated with female homosexuality. Discovering more of her poems would open up further discussions about gender, sexuality and the nature of poetic love in the 7th century BCE.
Sappho, fragment 3
excerpt from “To Constantia, Singing”
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
My brain is wild, my breath comes quick,—
The blood is listening in my frame,
And thronging shadows, fast and thick,
Fall on my overflowing eyes:
My heart is quivering like a flame;
As morning dew, that in the sunbeam dies,
I am dissolved in these consuming ecstasies.
2. Cicero’s De Republica
The great orator and statesman Cicero wrote a text to answer Plato’s Republic – and it’s gone. Or most of it is. If that doesn’t have the air of a tragedy about it, I don’t know what does. Cicero, as well as a number of other writers up until the 5th century CE, quote parts of it, but after this point it seems to have disappeared. Beyond these quotations, it exists only in a manuscript which had been erased and written over with a text from Augustine in the 7th century. Fortunately, in the 19th century it was rediscovered, and much of it recovered from the palimpsest. However, we’re still missing much of the opening of the first book, the conclusion of the second, and large parts of 3, 4 and 5. What we do have represents the first and maybe only attempt by a Roman written to assess republican government and imperialism, and it combines the Platonic vision with Cicero’s call to public service. It is also the last known Roman literary or philosophical work written before the outbreak of Caesar’s civil war, and the end of Roman republicanism.
Book 1: ‘Are we so well informed about the things that concern our homes and the commonwealth that we are asking questions about what is going on in the sky?
3. Thomas More’s lectures on Augustine’s City of God.
Before writing Utopia, or entering the service of Henry VIII, or dying for his refusal to recognise Henry as head of the church, a twenty-three year-old Thomas More gave a series of lectures on Augustine’s City of God in the church of St Lawrence Jewry (which still stands in Guildhall today). More was fresh out of Oxford, where he had first encountered the teaching of Renaissance humanism and the London Inns of Court, where he studied the principles of English law. He had yet to decide the path of his life, and had options within academia, law, the church and court. These lectures would tell us much about the development of his thought, his views on politics, religion, history. But no one appears to have written them down. Not even More. He had a habit of speaking ex tempore, and may have even done so in the case of such lectures. If he did not, any notes are lost and will probably never be recovered.
‘[More] lectured publicly in London, in the Church of St Lawrence, on St Augustine’s De Civitate Dei. He did not treat this great work from the theological point of view, but from the standpoint of history and philosophy…’ – Thomas Stapleton, Life of Sir Thomas More (1588).
4. Anne Boleyn’s love letters to Henry VIII
Henry’s letters to Anne are heartbreakingly beautiful; they are enough to convince anyone that, despite the tragedy that followed, during their courtship, Henry loved her dearly. His letters survived, probably stolen from Anne or retrieved after her death. But it seems probable that Henry burned those from Anne, either shortly after receiving them, or after her fall in 1536. The absence of Anne’s letters to Henry has allowed historians to paint her during this time as ambitious temptress, willing to play upon Henry’s love and libido for her own ends. If we had these lost letters, we might be able to form a different picture of the women Henry calls his ‘darling’.
‘In turning over in my mind the contents of your last letters, I have put myself into great agony, not knowing how to interpret them, whether to my disadvantage, as you show in some places, or to my advantage, as I understand them in some others, beseeching you earnestly to let me know expressly your whole mind as to the love between us two.’ – Henry, c. May 1527.
5. Adam Smith’s lost manuscripts.
By July 11, 1790, Adam Smith knew he was dying. Fearing the posthumous publication of any of his unfinished manuscripts, he asked his two executors to burn whatever wasn’t fit for publication. This almost certainly included two long works, which would have rivalled his Wealth of Nations in scope and significance: one on the ‘History of Law and Government’, another on ‘the different branches of Literature’. Smith’s Wealth of Nations helped to form the foundation of progressive liberal views of economics, if we had seen his ‘History’, would we perhaps think differently about things?
“The materials of both [the treatises on history and on rhetoric and literature] are in a great measure collected, and some Part of both is put into a tollerable good order. But the indolence of old age, tho’ I struggle violently against it, I feel coming fast upon me, and whether I shall ever be able to finish either is extremely uncertain.” – Adam Smith