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Thursday 17 October 2019

Medieval vellum in book binding reveals Persian link to doctors in Ireland

Old Gaelic manuscript had been re-used to bind a British book

Reading matter: The ‘Avicenna Fragment’ bound to a 16th century book
Reading matter: The ‘Avicenna Fragment’ bound to a 16th century book
Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin. Photo: Emmet Curtin
The ‘Avicenna Fragment’ and the 16th century book

Ralph Riegel

A piece of vellum discovered in a 16th century book has revealed astonishing links between medieval Irish doctors and a Persian physician.

It transpired a 16th century British book had its spine strengthened with a piece of a much older Irish vellum containing the amazing insights.

The discovery was made by Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin, of University College Cork's Irish Department.

It revealed that Irish doctors in the 1400s were exploiting medical knowledge from Persia at the height of the golden age of Islamic learning.

It has also established that the famous Persian medical text 'Canon of Medicine' by physician Ibn Sina (980-1037), also known as Avicenna, was in use in Ireland in medieval times, likely for training young doctors.

The discovery arose from Prof Ó Macháin becoming aware of a book with Irish links in the possession of a British family.

The book - a pocket-sized Latin manual of local administration - was printed in London in 1534-36. It had been in the possession of a family based in Cornwall since that time.

However, the book had a much older connection than the 16th century.

Prof Ó Macháin studied photographs of the book bindings - and realised it was a special cut-out from Irish vellum manuscript.

It had been specially cut and stitched to the book in order to provide a sturdy spine.

"The use of parchment cut from old manuscripts as a binding for later books is not unusual in European tradition," Prof Ó Macháin said.

"This is the first time that a case has come to light of such a clear example of the practice in a Gaelic context."

Prof Ó Macháin was also to determine that the inscriptions on the vellum involved some form of medical text.

"A quarter of what survives of late-medieval manuscripts in the Irish language is medical in content - an indication of the practical purpose of these books in Ireland of the time," he said.

He decided to seek the help of Professor Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha, of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, the only living expert on medieval Irish medicine.

Prof Nic Dhonnchadha confirmed the historic nature of the discovery - the first recorded translation into Irish of the 'Canon of Medicine' by Ibn Sina.

The Persian medical researcher is known to history as one of the foremost physicians in the Islamic golden age of learning.

While it was suspected his texts may have been used by medieval Irish doctors in training, there had been no confirmed Gaelic translations of his work until now.

The spine of the 16th century book contains an Irish translation from a Latin version of Ibn Sina's work which was effectively a general guidebook to medical practice.

The Irish fragment contains parts of the opening chapters on the physiology of the jaws, the nose and the back.

Prof Ó Macháin said the discovery underlined how medical scholarship in medieval Ireland was on a par with that on the continent.

Because of the importance of the manuscript fragment to the history of Irish learning and medicine, the owners kindly agreed that the binding should be removed from the book by John Gillis, of Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

It was opened and digitised under the supervision of Prof Ó Macháin with a new binding then provided for the book.

"The discovery and digitisation of the text was a scholarly adventure.

"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," he said.

A public seminar on 'The Avicenna Fragment' and Gaelic medieval medicine will be held at UCC on March 7, at 2pm.

Irish Independent

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