Provost and collector: Robert Huntington’s Arabic manuscripts

Trinity College might have only a small collection of Arabic manuscripts but it is older than one might think. Its beginnings go back to the mid-17th century and are connected to one of the biggest names in Trinity’s history: at least one manuscript in the collection (MS 1514) was partly written, partly annotated, possibly compiled, and most certainly signed by Ambrose Ussher (d. 1629), the brother of the Library’s great collector, James.

Ownership note of Ambrose Ussher in a compiled manuscript containing texts in Latin and Arabic, MS 1514, fol. 113.

Although it is mostly forgotten today, Dublin participated in the rather lively engagement of British and Irish scholars with the Arabic language, history, and religions during the 17th century. Much more neutrally than today, Arabic was very much in vogue with people like Ussher or Narcissus Marsh, who was appointed Provost in 1679.

Central to all this, not only from a Dublin perspective, was one other Provost of Trinity College. Robert Huntington (d. 1701) (sometimes also written Huntingdon) was an interesting character by all accounts. In 1761 he was employed by the British Levant Company, a trading company with its main branch in Aleppo. He would serve the company as a chaplain for a full decade. As an avid traveler, Huntington traversed much of the Ottoman Empire, visiting Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus and Istanbul, in addition to several places in Syria.

As commercial and intellectual interests converged, from many of those journeys Huntington would return with manuscripts in Arabic. Altogether, he acquired more than seven hundred books. Once back in the British Isles, he was quite liberal in donating books to different institutions. In Oxford, the Bodleian Library received 35 and Huntington’s alma mater, Merton College, received 14. The Bodleian was certainly the main benefactor from his collecting activities. In addition, they bought from him another 646 manuscripts (1693) and would receive more of his purchases through donations made by Thomas Marshall (1685) and Archbishop Narcissus Marsh (1713).[1]

Huntington’s note on a copy of “Manāt al-iḥkām fī ʿilm al-inshāʿ(?) wa-ʿilm al-sulūk wa-l-aḥkām”, a legal work. MS 1522, fol. 1a. Above Huntington’s note are notes which attest to earlier purchases of the manuscript. One indicates it was bought in Aleppo in 1048/1638.

To Trinity College Dublin Huntington donated ten manuscripts in 1682. Even today, they can still be identified as his collection. All of them carry a similar note on the first page which gives the benefactor’s name and the year of donation. The date of the donation is intriguing as he must have presented those manuscripts only about a year before he was appointed the new Provost of Trinity. Was his generosity a reason for his appointment? Or was his reputation as a scholar of Arabic the deciding factor?

Huntington’s manuscripts remained intact as a separate collection within the Library. In the Abbott catalogue of manuscripts, published in 1900, Huntington’s Arabic manuscripts appear as one solid cluster from MS 1518 through to MS 1528 (with the exception of MS 1526 which lacks the note). In this, Abbott might have followed their placement in the Library: they were placed on three shelves in bay B in the Long Room, the smallest volumes on the highest and the largest on the lowest shelves. Also Huntington’s Persian manuscript (MS 1678) could be found in this section.

Dr. Torsten Wollina

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund Fellow

Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute 

[1] Andrew Lake, “The First Protestants in the Arab World: the Contribution to Christian mission of the English Aleppo chaplains (1597-1782), PhD Thesis, Australian College of Theology, 2015, p. 65