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Trinity’s ‘back catalogue’: the 1670 catalogue and the Arabic collection

All venerable old libraries have a complicated ‘back catalogue’ – quite literally. As part of his history of our Arabic collection, Visiting Research Cofund Torsten Wollina investigates the earliest manuscript catalogue – the ‘1670’.

My first post on Provenance Research  introduced the four historical catalogues for the manuscript collections at Trinity Library. This post goes into more detail about Trinity Library’s first catalogue, which was finished around 1670.

The history of Trinity Library’s manuscript collections began in earnest with the acquisition of archbishop James Ussher’s (1581-1656) library. Following some complications during the Cromwellian period, Ussher’s library of about ten thousand volumes, including almost seven hundred manuscripts, was finally transferred to Trinity Library in 1661 and tripled the size of its holdings. According to former College Librarian Peter Fox, it ‘placed Trinity in the first league in terms of collections, not only in size but also in the richness of its holdings.’ [1] This acquisition necessitated the first large-scale cataloguing activity at Trinity Library. The catalogue was completed around 1670 and amounted to 53 folios.

Having himself been a student, Fellow and Professor of Theological Controversies at Trinity College, James Ussher retained  his scholarly interests throughout his life as a clergyman. In addition to his better known contributions to scholarship, he was ‘an important figure in Arabic studies, but not as an Arabist’, rather ‘as a collector of manuscripts, and as a patron and promoter of scholarship.’ [2] And let us not forget his younger brother, Ambrose (?1582-1629), who engaged in Arabic studies even more devotedly and whose annotations can be found in several of the twelve manuscripts which formed the core of Trinity Library’s early Arabic collection.[3]

The ‘1670’ catalogue (MS 7/2, fol. 3v)

How does the 1670 catalogue work then? It might be instructive to relate my own initial errors in that respect. I assumed it to be an accession catalogue at first, assigning progressive numbers to each catalogued manuscript. Looking, for instance, at folio 3v (see above) these numbers can be found in the first and third column from the left. The respective descriptions are given in the other two columns. On that page, we see the numbers ascending from 18 through 34.

Going back to the catalogue another time, however, I paid more attention to the header of the page. This assigns those numbers to a specific shelf: section A, shelf 1. It transpires that this catalogue is a shelf catalogue and by combining the header information with those manuscript reference numbers, one gets an items respective shelf mark and can thus localize it within the library. It includes 21 shelves: A through C with two shelves each (1/2), D-I, K, M-P, R-T, X. Of the twelve Arabic manuscripts, nine are found on the A.1 shelf, two on the P shelf, and one on the R shelf without any obvious indication as to how those shelves were chosen. It should be added that also those latter manuscripts comply with shelf marks using one letter and two numerals that I have outlined in a my former post referred to above.

As can be seen, the manuscript reference numbers in the columns are usually embedded between two letters. The first letter is a little tricky to make sense of, and several entries do not feature it at all. However, it is my assumption that they might have been added in preparation for an alphabetical catalogue, which was finally completed by Samuel Foley in 1688. If we look at numbers 19 and 30 respectively: the former is ‘A Physic book in Irish’ and is marked with ‘P’ for ‘Physic’. The latter is described as ‘Epistola Christi ad Abgarum’ and thus given the letter ‘E’. These numbers could thus be interpreted as a sort of concordance between the first two catalogues.

The second number is much easier to interpret. It refers to the language or languages one would encounter in a given manuscript. This is based on a key on folio 1v which includes the following categories in that order:


  1. Syriack.

I           Irish

Æ         Aethiopick.

H          Hebrew

A         Arabick.

O         [this is left blank]

Ɨ           Ɨllyrica

F          French

E          English

L          Latin

It.        Italian

Hp.      Spanish

G         Greek.

M         Mixt

Using these two complementary ordering principles (by shelf in the header and by language/concordance in the columns) the 1670 catalogue manages to include a wealth of information in a limited space.

In conclusion, a few things seem noteworthy. First, as the two examples above show, the catalogue used both Latin and English, and this would remain so in further catalogues as well. In the key, we can see this as well, most clearly in ‘Ɨllyrica’ referring to the northwestern Balkan peninsula. Second, orthography is quite different from nowadays, as we can see in in the use of the ligature Æ or the unusual struck-through Ɨ and finally in the use of ‘ck’ at the end of several words. Together with the punctuation this seems to indicate that those words end on a hard sound.

Dr. Torsten Wollina

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund Fellow

Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute 

[1] Fox, Peter, Trinity College Library Dublin. A History. (Cambridge, 2014) 30.

[2] Toomer, Gerald, Eastern Wisedome and Learning: The Study of Arabic in Seventeenth-Century England. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996) 78-85.

[3] Unfortunately I have not yet been able to consult MS TCD 1, which seems to be a brief two-folio catalogue of Ambrose Ussher, as writing on the spine indicates; see Guide Catalogues [unpublished, accessible on site].

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