Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is one of--if not the--seminal work of English literature, written by an author second only to William Shakespeare in influence on the English language (particularly when it came to fart jokes). Just about everything written by the man changed the English-speaking world forever.
He basically raised the English language from its reputation as the barbarian dialect of mud-shoveling peasants to the lofty level of Latin or Italian in literature, poetry, witticism, satire and all manner of subjects concerning asses and the gasses that come from asses.
So What Happened?
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was expected to clock in at anywhere between 100 and 120 chapters. Unfortunately, the dude only managed to finish 24 tales before he suffered an insurmountable and permanent state of writer's block commonly known as death.
The author's grand vision was a massive novel documenting the adventures of a group of pilgrims on their long journey to Canterbury, who pass the time by bullshitting each other with tall stories. Basically, it would have been Aesop's Fables framed within The Lord of the Rings. What we're left with is about a quarter of the intended whole, some chapters just cobbled together from incomplete drafts and notes that Chaucer jotted onto the page. Another clue that the work was nowhere near complete: The characters don't even get to Canterbury.
Such a shame, too. We'll never know how much richer our language would be today if the man who contributed to our lexicon such phrases as arse and knobbe had survived to tell the remaining three fourths of his epic. Shakespeare could have had so much more to work with.
In Your General Direction, a new play by William Shakespeare.
The Salone dei Cinquecento in Florence's city hall was commissioned to be adorned by a massive two-part artwork composed by perhaps the two greatest artists who ever walked the Earth. And the contract was signed by Machiavelli. That's like Batman fighting Superman in a cage match refereed by Iron Man.
"LEO-ANGELO: THE BRAWL IN CITY HALL."
It was the first and last non-ninja related occasion that Leonardo and Michelangelo ever worked together, and had it worked out, it would today be regarded the greatest artwork of all time, anywhere, full stop.
So What Happened?
Leonardo totally dropped the ball on this one. At some point during the painting process (for which he actually had to invent something to stand on), Leonardo's combination of shitty oils and slippery surfaces meant that the artwork started to smudge like he was scrawling it on a whiteboard. That was only the first stage of a Homer Simpson-esque string of catastrophes that led to Leo trying desperately to dry the painting with burning torches before it could drip--this melted the wax that he'd used in the undercoat, and ultimately lubed the whole thing right off the wall.
Meanwhile, Michelangelo got as far as making some preliminary sketches before the new Pope ordered him back to Rome to build a tomb for him instead (because you just never know when your time will come). Both artists eventually abandoned the project, and what little of it that did exist was destroyed by many curious hands, at a time before art curators implemented a "no touching" policy on the works of fucking Michelangelo and da Vinci.
Don't fret, however. There actually exists a real life Da Vinci Code-esque national treasure hunt in Italy to find whatever remained of Leonardo's portion. It turns out that the replacement fresco painted by Giorgio Vasari contains a hidden message: "Cerca trova" ("He who seeks, finds"), which professional Goonie Dr. Maurizio Seracini believes may somehow lead him to the lost Leonardo fresco, and/or Jesus' kids.
Quick, what's the best song of all time?
Don't bother answering. The odds are overwhelming that we don't have it. All records of the music that humans were making for the first several thousand years of the art form, simply doesn't exist.
Franz Liszt, the world's first rock star. Seriously.
So What Happened?
Obviously there was no way to make sound recordings until very recently. But what about sheet music? Don't we have all sorts of ancient scrolls of that laying around?
Nope. While the history of musical notation dates back to Ancient Greece, India and China, it doesn't change the fact that almost nothing has survived. And most of what we have isn't really something you can make into your ring tone.
Humans have been singing and playing music for tens of thousands of years. What did it sound like? Who were the great musical geniuses through the millennia? We have no freaking idea.
How did Homer sing the Iliad? What war songs did Genghis sing as his Mongolian horde prepared for battle? What the hell did the national anthem of the Roman Empire sound like? How many Django Reinhardts or Jimi Hendrixes went unnoticed until the advent of YouTube? How good were they? What styles existed that we've never even heard of?
No. Don't be cute: These aren't rhetorical questions, we seriously want to know. Tell us, God dammit!
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For more pieces of antiquity gone forever, check out 7 Books We Lost to History That Would Have Changed the World. Or find out about some sports that didn't make it because they were just too badass, in 6 Ancient Sports Too Awesome For the Modern World.
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