Irish Translation of Ancient Arabic Manuscript Discovered in Book Binding


The Guardian have reported the discovery of a previously unknown Irish translation of an Ibn Sina manuscript found on the spine of a book belonging to a family in Cornwall.

The discovery, of the 15th century vellum fragment, is the first to show that Ibn Sīna’s writings were translated into Irish.

Ibn Sīna, also known as Avicenna, was considered to be the most prominent physicians of the Islamic Golden Age and lived between 980 and 1037. His ‘Canon of Medicine’ was a medical encyclopaedia which was revered as the principal medical text, for not only the Islamic world, but also throughout Europe for more than 600 years.

The manuscript fragment, an Irish translation of the ancient Persian’s physician’s ‘Canon of Medicine’, had been used to bind a later book. It had been trimmed, folded and stitched into the spine of a Latin manual about local administration, which had been printed in the 1530s in London.

The manuscript has been in the possession of the same family since the 16th century, but recently their curiosity about the unusual binding got the better of them. They took the book along to University College Cork, where professor of Modern Irish, Padraig Machain, new instantly it was a “significant” find.

He said it was “very, very exciting, one of those moments which makes life worthwhile”.

Professor Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha, of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, an expert on medieval Irish medicine, identified the text as a fragment of Ibn Sīna’s ‘Canon of Medicine’.

Machain went on to say that, although it has long been known that Ireland was familiar with Avicenna in the 16th century, the discovery shows for certain that the Canon was translated into Irish. He said “this fragment must have come from a seriously big manuscript. The use of parchment cut from old manuscripts as a binding for later books is not unusual in European tradition, 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.”

The book’s owners have agreed that the binding should be removed, opened out and digitised so this amazing discovery can be shared by others. It can now be seen on the Irish Script on Screen website.

“The discovery and digitisation of the text was a scholarly adventure,” said Ó Macháin. “One of those occasions when many people, not least the owners of the book, were working together towards a common purpose for the cause of pure learning. It was a pleasure to have been able to make it happen and to have been part of it.”


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