The chart below (click to zoom) shows the dates of ten significant written works:
- Plato’s Phaedo
- Euclid’s Elements
- Caesar’s Gallic Wars
- The Gospel of John
- Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy
- Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica
- Beowulf (date of writing is approximate)
- Dante’s Divine Comedy
- Shakespeare’s Hamlet
- Jane Austen’s Persuasion
Each work is indicated by a vertical line, which runs from the date of writing to the date of the oldest surviving complete copy that I am aware of (marked by a dark circle). Open circles show some of the older partial or fragmentary manuscripts (these act as important checks on the reliability of later copies).
Two threshold periods (marked with arrow) are worth remarking on. First, Gutenberg’s printing press – after its invention, we still have at least one first edition for many important works. Second, the invention of Carolingian minuscule – many older works were re-copied into the new, legible script after that time. They were then widely distributed to monasteries around Europe, so that survival from that period has been fairly good. In the Byzantine Empire, Greek minuscule had a similar effect.
The Bible is a special case (I have highlighted one particular gospel on the chart). It was copied so widely (and so early) that many ancient manuscripts survive.