A previously undiscovered 15th-century Irish vellum manuscript, reveals a connection between Gaelic Ireland and the Muslim world and indicates that medieval Ireland was once at the centre of medical scholarship in the world.
UCC Professor of Modern Irish, Pádraig Ó Macháin, was made aware of an early printed book in the possession of a family in Cornwall, with a connection to medieval Irish learning.
UCC Professor of Modern Irish, Pádraig Ó Macháin
The book, a pocket-sized Latin manual of local administration, was printed in London in 1534/1536, and had been in the family’s possession since that time.
What was of interest to Professor Ó Macháin was the binding of the book.
This consisted of a sheet, full of text in Irish, cut from a 15th-century Irish vellum manuscript, that had been trimmed and folded and stitched to the spine of the printed book in order to form a sturdy binding.
“The use of parchment cut from old manuscripts as a binding for later books is not unusual in European tradition,” says Pádraig, “but this is the first time that a case has come to light of such a clear example of the practice in a Gaelic context.”
From photographs of the binding supplied by the owners, Professor Ó Macháin established that the Irish text was a medical one.
“A quarter of what survives of late-medieval manuscripts in the Irish language is medical in content,” says Ó Macháin, “an indication of the practical purpose of these books in Ireland of the time.”
The identity of the text was established immediately by Ó Macháin’s collaborator of many years, Professor Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, the only living expert on medieval Irish medicine.
It is a fragment of a translation into Irish – previously unrecorded – of the ‘Canon of Medicine’ by the Persian physician Ibn Sena (980–1037), also known as Avicenna, considered one of the most significant physicians in the Islamic Golden Age.