Irish MS. Fragment Translates Medical Text by Avicenna

A family in Cornwall with Irish connections discovered an early printed book printed in London in 1534/1536 that had been owned by the family the sixteenth century. The small pocket-sized book is Latin manual regarding administration. At some point in the past a 15th century Irish manuscript on parchment was cut up, and a section was used to reinforce the binding of the printed book, a fairly common practice as bookbinders recycled medieval manuscripts.

Pádraig Ó Macháin, a University College Cork (UCC) Professor of Modern Irish was alerted to the existence of the MS. fragment and contacted the owner. Professor Ó Macháin is one of the founders of Irish Scripts On Screen (ISOS), a digital repository of manuscript images. He could determine from photographs that Irish text was an extract from a medical text. In August of 2018 John Gillis of TCD was given permission to carefully remove the manuscript fragment from the book’s binding, and digitize it for ISOS.

With the help of Professor Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, a specialist in the study of Medieval Irish medical texts, the Irish text was identified as a translation of a section of The Canon of Medicine, sometimes called The Canon of Avicenna by Persian physician Ibn Sena (980–1037), better known as Avicenna. The Canon is a Medieval medical encyclopedia, a core text for Medieval physicians. The fragment is from Book 1 of The Canon of Avicenna translated into Irish (with some scribal departures) from the Latin translation of Gerard of Cremona (d. 1187). The sections of

This is the first known early Irish translation of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine. The status (or existence) of the rest of the manuscript that the parchment was taken from is unknown; I can’t help but wonder if additional fragments of the MS. were used to reinforce other books.

The images of the Avicenna fragment are available at the Irish Script on Screen site. A seminar about the fragment is being held at UCC today: Avicenna in Ireland and Medieval Medicine. See also

15th-century manuscript reveals links between Gaelic and Islamic worlds  and Fifteenth century manuscript reveals links between Gaelic and Muslim worlds

The Avicenna fragment attached to the book binding
Image Credit: Pádraig Ó Macháin
The Avicenna fragment removed and opened
ISOS images