The study of ancient cultures is hindered by the incomplete survival of material artifacts, so we commonly underestimate the diversity of cultural production in historic societies. To correct this survivorship bias, we applied unseen species models from ecology to gauge the loss of narratives from medieval Europe, such as the romances about King Arthur. The estimates obtained are compatible with the scant historic evidence. In addition to events such as library fires, we identified the original evenness of cultural populations as an overlooked factor in these assemblages’ stability in the face of immaterial loss. We link the elevated evenness in island literatures to analogous accounts of ecological and cultural diversity in insular communities. These analyses call for a wider application of these methods across the heritage sciences.