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How Many Manuscripts Have Been Destroyed?

Destruction From the Beginning

Even before the time of Erasmus, a vast number of early manuscripts were destroyed. in the early persecutions of the Church. There were already ten major periods of persecution of Christians before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. One of the most ruthless of these persecutions was that of Diocletian in the early 4th century.

Diocletian Persecution

The reign of the emperor Diocletian (284−305 AD) marked the final widespread persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. The most intense period of violence came after Diocletian issued an edict enforcing adherence to the traditional religious practices of Rome. On February 23, 303 AD, Diocletian ordered that the newly built Christian church at Nicomedia be razed, its scriptures burned, and its treasures seized. It was the day they would terminate Christianity. The next day, Diocletian's first "Edict against the Christians" was published. The edict ordered the destruction of Christian scriptures, liturgical books, and places of worship across the empire.

Eusebius, Church historian of the era, recorded that many "Scriptures" were burned during the Diocletian persecution. He writes in Church History (VIII:2):

"All these things were fulfilled in us, when we saw with our own eyes the houses of prayer thrown down to the very foundations, and the Divine and Sacred Scriptures committed to the flames in the midst of the market-places..."

The persecution varied in intensity across the empire; weakest in Britain, French Gaule, Latin Gallia (comprising modern-day France and parts of Belgium, western Germany, and northern Italy), where only the first edict was applied, and strongest in the Eastern provinces. Certain schisms, like those of the Donatists in North Africa and the Meletians in Egypt, persisted long after the persecutions. Almost every Christian manuscript in Egypt was destroyed.

The Fall of Constantinople

The most terrifying event for fifteenth century Europe was the fall of Constantinople (formerly known as Byzantium). On 28 May 1453 Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II captured this lingering fragment of the "Christian" successor to the Roman Empire. The loss of Constantinople caused great terror among Christians. The Pope called it "the Shame of Christendom".

Constantinople had become a great centre of learning, and in it were copies (perhaps even originals) of manuscripts long since lost from the Western Empire. Constantinople had been thoroughly Greek, using a Greek Bible for a thousand years, so there were also men competent in the language. The city’s fall in 1453 moved such men to leave the ruin of Byzantium, bringing with them a literary, linguistic and cultural legacy. Although many manuscripts were rescued, a great number were lost.

Erasmus was born just 13 years after the fall of Constantinople, and when the dust settled, no scholar of such eminence, was better placed in history to witness the legacy of this historic event. When Erasmus travelled to Italy, he witnessed firsthand, much of the remnant of Constantinople scholarship.

The Reformation

Erasmus lived in an age just prior to the most turbulent times the Christian world has known. By the start of the Reformation many of the most sacred manuscripts (extant at that time), had been brought into Europe. Just prior the the Reformation Erasmus had access to everything Europe had to offer. By the end, countless Greek manuscripts were destroyed as a direct result of the Reformation's severity.

War, Wars and more Wars

The Napoleonic War of 1803–1815, saw the ransacking of many religious institutions, monasteries, universities and churches throughout Europe. In 1809 Napoleon took Codex Vaticanus from the Vatican library and brought the manuscript to Paris as a victory trophy. During that time, in Paris, scholars examined it together with other manuscripts from the Vatican, but did not perceive the need of a new and full collation as the codex was seen as being of little worth other than its antiquity. In 1815 the codex was returned to the Vatican Library.

It is estimated that over a million religious books and manuscripts from antiquity where destroyed in WWI alone. The countless libraries containing ancient manuscripts, destroyed during WWII is a tragedy in itself. If we add to this the texts lost due to natural disaster, fire, theft and looting; you start to get a sense of what has been lost.

Manuscripts Destroyed Since the Time of Erasmus

The table below is not definitive, but it does give you a good sense of the thousands of manuscripts and volumes lost since the time of Erasmus. All these institutions contained valuable religious documents, many of them were very rare and irreplaceable.

With there being so many manuscripts, that Erasmus was able to see, that we cannot see today (because they no longer exist), the question must be asked: Is textual-criticism relevant today?


Laureate Head of Diocletian



Name of Library City Country Date of
or Cause
Reason and/or Account of Destruction
Madrassah Library Granada Crown of Castile 1499 Cardinal Cisneros The library was attacked by troops of the perpetrator in late 1499, the books were taken to the Plaza Bib-Rambla, where they were burned in public.
Bibliotheca Corviniana Ofen Ottoman Empire 1526 Troops of the Ottoman Empire Library was destroyed by Ottomans.
Glasney College Penryn, Cornwall England 1548 Royal officials The smashing and looting of the Cornish colleges at Glasney and Crantock brought an end to the formal scholarship which had helped to sustain the Cornish language and the Cornish cultural identity.
Raglan Library Raglan Castle Wales 1646 Parliamentary Army The Earl of Worcester's library was burnt during the English Civil War by forces under the command of Thomas Fairfax.
Guildhall Library London England 1666 Great Fire of London The Great Fire of London destroyed 436 acres of central London. The fire badly damaged the Guildhall and burnt down the library which held many manuscripts and the original working papers for the King James Bible.
University of Copenhagen Library Copenhagen Denmark 1728-10-01 Fire The collections of the University Library go back to 1482, three years after the foundation of the University of Copenhagen in 1479. Almost all of the c.35,000 books and manuscripts in the University Library were consumed by flames during the fire of Copenhagen
Royal Library of Portugal Ribeira Palace Lisbon 1755-11-01 Natural disaster Great Lisbon earthquake
Library of Congress Washington, D.C. United States 1814 Troops of the British Army The library was destroyed during the War of 1812 when British forces set fire to the U.S. Capitol during the Burning of Washington.
University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, Alabama United States 1865-05-04 Troops of the Union Army During the American Civil War, Union troops destroyed most buildings on the University of Alabama campus, including its library of approximately 7,000 volumes.
Birmingham Central Library Birmingham England 1879-01-11 Fire A fire broke out behind a wooden partition serving as a temporary wall during building operations. The fire caused extensive damage, with only 1,000 volumes saved from a stock of 50,000.
Library of the Catholic University of Leuven Leuven Belgium 1914-08-25 German Occupation Troops The Germans set the library on fire as part of the burning of the entire city in an attempt to use terror to quell Belgian resistance to occupation.
Library of Berlin University Berlin Germany 1940-44 WWII 20,000 volumes lost
The Hessische Landesbibliothek Hessische Germany 1940-44 WWII 760,000 volumes lost, including 2,217 incunabula and 4,500 manuscripts
National Library of Germany Frankfurt Germany 1940-44 WWII 2,000,000 volumes and manuscripts lost
Municipal and State Library of Dortmund Dortmund Germany 1940-44 WWII 250,000 volumes lost
Sächsische Landesbibliothek Sächsische Germany 1940-44 WWII 300,000 volumes lost
Library of Bremen Bremen Germany 1940-44 WWII 150,000 volumes losts
University and State Library of Hamburg Hamburg Germany 1940-44 WWII 600,000 volumes lost
Library of the Catholic University of Leuven Leuven Belgium 1940-05-01 German Occupation Troops Caught fire during German invasion of Louvain, Belgium.
National Library of Serbia Belgrade Yugoslavia 1941-04-06 Nazi German Luftwaffe Destroyed during the World War II bombing of Belgrade.
Methodius National Library Sofia Bulgaria 1943-1944 Allied air forces Allied bombing
Załuski Library Warsaw Poland 1944 Nazi German troops The library was burned down during the Nazi suppression of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The burning of this library was part of the general setting on fire of a large part of the city of Warsaw.
Lebanese National Library Beirut Lebanon 1975 Lebanese Civil War The 1975 war fighting began in Beirut's downtown where the National Library was located. During the war years, the library suffered significant damage. According to some sources, 1200 of most precious manuscripts disappeared, and no memory is left of the Library's organization and operational procedures of that time.
Jaffna Public Library Jaffna Sri Lanka 1981-05-01 Plainclothes police officers and others In May 1981 a mob composed of thugs and plainclothes police officers went on a rampage in minority Tamil-dominated northern Jaffna, and burned down the Jaffna Public Library. At least 95,000 volumes – the second largest library collection in South Asia – were destroyed.
Central University Library of Bucharest Bucharest Romania 1989-12-2? Romanian Land Forces Burnt down during the Romanian Revolution.
Oriental Institute in Sarajevo Sarajevo Bosnia and Herzegovina 1992-05-17 Bosnian Serb Army Destroyed by the shellfire during the Siege of Sarajevo.
National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina Sarajevo Bosnia and Herzegovina 1992-08-25 Bosnian Serb Army The library was completely destroyed during the Siege of Sarajevo.
Abkhazian Institute of History, Language and Literature & National Library of Abkhazia Sukhumi Abkhazia 1992-10-01 Georgian Armed Forces Destroyed during the War in Abkhazia.
Pol-i-Khomri Public Library Pol-i-Khomri Afghanistan 1998 Taliban militia It held 55,000 books and old manuscripts.
Iraq National Library and Archive,
Al-Awqaf Library,
Central Library of the University of Baghdad,
Library of Bayt al-Hikma,
Central Library of the University of Mosul
and other libraries
Baghdad Iraq 2003-04-01 Unknown members of the Bagdad population Several libraries looted, set on fire, damaged and destroyed in various degrees during the 2003 Iraq War.
Egyptian Scientific Institute Cairo Egypt 2011-12-01   A first estimate says that only 30,000 volumes have been saved of a total of 200,000.
Ahmed Baba Institute (Timbuktu library) Timbuktu Mali 2013-01-28 Islamists militia The library was burned down, it contained over 20,000 manuscripts with only a fraction of them having been scanned as of January 2013.
Saeh Library Tripoli Lebanon 2014-01-03 Unknown The Christian library was burned down, it contained over 80,000 manuscripts and books.
National Archives of Bosnia and Herzegovina Sarajevo Bosnia and Herzego 2014-02-07 Seven Bosnian rioters suspected of having started the fire; two (Salem Hatibović and Nihad Trnka) were arrested. During the 2014 unrest in Bosnia and Herzegovina large amounts of historical documents were destroyed when sections of the Archives of Bosnia and Herzegovina, housed in the presidential building, were set on fire. Among the lost archival material were documents and gifts from the Ottoman period, original documents from the 1878-1918 Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as documentations of the interwar period, the 1941-1945 rule of the Independent State of Croatia, papers from the following years, and about 15000 files from the 1996-2003 Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the repositories that were burnt, about 60 percent of the material was lost, according to estimates by Šaban Zahirović, the head of the Archives.
Mosul University libraries and private Libraries Mosul Iraq 2014-12-01 Ongoing ISIS Book Burning Book burning.
Libraries in Anbar Province Anbar Province Iraq 2014-12-01 Ongoing ISIS Book Burning Book burning.
Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences Moscow Russia 2015-01-29 Unknown. Fire spread to 2000sqm in third Floor. Roof caved in. Additional water damage. Ambient temperature too high for self-freezing of damaged Works. Library contains 14 million books, including rare texts in ancient Slavic languages, documents from the League of Nations, UNESCO, and parliamentary reports from countries including the US dating back as far as 1789.
Mosul public library Mosul Iraq 2015-02-01 ISIS Book Burning 8,000 rare old books and manuscripts. Manuscripts from the eighteenth century, Syriac books printed in Iraq's first printing house in the nineteenth century, books from the Ottoman era.