Between pragmatism and ideology: the ‘Abbott Catalogue’

Before returning to Berlin, and an exciting new phase in his career, Dr Torsten Wollina completed his examination of the historic cataloguing of TCD’s Arabic manuscripts.

The final entry in our series on Trinity Library’s historical catalogues brings us back full circle to the first post . As I stated there, the current manuscript reference number for any manuscript in Trinity’s collection is based on the progressive numerals by which Abbott ordered the collection prior to publishing his catalogue in 1900.

So far, we have referred to Abbott’s organizing system briefly. In this post we are putting this system itself under the magnifying glass. In the same way as the other historical catalogues, which were created by others before him, Abbott employed a specific organizing principle—even though he did not do so more pragmatically than comprehensively—which has consequences on how we find and ‘read’ the manuscripts in their context.

Philosopher and scholar, Rev Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913) became University Librarian in 1887 and was tasked with creating a new manuscript catalogue. This would replace the Lyon Catalogue which dated from 1745 and would put in place an entirely new ordering system. As Peter Fox states in his Trinity College Library Dublin. A History (CUP, 2014), Abbott’s greatest contribution was a concordance of his new system with all the previous catalogues as well as with J. H. Bernard’s canonical union catalogue of 1697. The more interested reader can verify this in this digital version of the catalogue (the introduction to which also offers a short history of Trinity’s manuscripts collections).

What is less obvious is that Abbott replaced Lyon’s somewhat arbitrary organization with another system which was no less arbitrary. When  Abbott’s catalogue was originally published, it catalogued, i.e. described and organized, 1691 manuscripts. Since then, the number of manuscripts at Trinity Library has risen further to above 11,000 items. We will get back to this shortly.

Table of contents from the ‘Abbott catalogue’: Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin… (Dublin, 1900)

First, however, we need to address Abbott’s organizing principle. On the surface, organizing manuscripts in a consecutive sequence seems neutral. Yet, Abbott did not proceed haphazardly. Rather, he reorganized the manuscripts with certain demarcations in his mind. That he applied those demarcations unevenly, is already clear in the table of contents shown here. While ‘Irish manuscripts’ and ‘Oriental Manuscripts’ received their own sections, a similar delimitation for English, French or Spanish manuscripts is missing. Those are combined in the first, ‘general’ section.

Abbott’s main priority was cataloguing the Irish language manuscripts, as is obvious from his publication of a dedicated catalogue in 1921. This justifies them receiving their own section Abbott’s first catalogue. However, why are ‘Oriental Manuscripts’ marked out but not those in European languages in a similar way (say, ‘Occidental Manuscripts’)? What does that do to one’s perception of the manuscripts listed under the former heading which also come in a variety of languages such as Ethiopian, Syriac, Persian or Chinese? Instead of giving my answer, I ask the reader to give some thought to these questions.

We find most of the Arabic manuscripts in this section as well. They consist a solid cluster ranging from MS 1514 to MS 1546, followed by another cluster of Persian manuscripts (MSS 1547-1611). The demarcation of languages within the ‘Oriental Manuscripts’ grouping is a second feature specific to this section, which is, at the same time, pragmatic and ideological. On the one hand it allows a reader, knowledgeable in only one language, to find the related manuscripts easily in the catalogue. On the other, it obscures historical connections among manuscripts in diverse languages.

For instance, former Provost Robert Huntingdon (c. 1636-1701) collected manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Coptic, and Syriac. These entered Trinity Library together, as parts of his donation. Thus, the modern monolingualism which permeates the Abbott Catalogue, stands in stark contrast to pre-modern multilingualism both in the Ottoman Empire, where Huntingdon acquired those manuscripts, and in the context of the Irish and British ‘Oriental Studies’ of his age.

Abbott himself admited, in his introduction, that his catalogue was intended as an updated ‘summary catalogue’ and that he had to make compromises in the degree of detail in his descriptions. This means that, in even more cases than he acknowledged, Abbott gave less information than earlier catalogues but ‘to have waited for this would have been to postpone the publication [of his catalogue] indefinitely.’ (Abbott, Catalogue, vii)

Even before the end of his catalogue, pragmatism prevailed over ideology, as the last ten entries abandon the demarcation by language or provenance and only retain the numerical sequence. This sequence was further kept in the appendices and laid the foundation for the application of manuscript accession numbers (which are also used as manuscript reference numbers) at Trinity Library ever since. In the continuation of the Abbott sequence, as it appears in the so-called ‘Black Catalogue’  (the unpublished continuation of Abbott’s catalogue, now online), there is only one further cluster of Arabic manuscripts (MSS 2683 to 2696). Yet, even this cluster is interrupted by several manuscripts in other languages. Other entries, like this for an “Imam’s Staff” (MS 2685a), are interspersed among other unrelated manuscripts.

MS 2685a: an Imam’s staff

This could be interpreted as a victory of pragmatism over ideology. It also brings us full-circle in a different way: very much like in Trinity’s ‘back catalogue’ from 1670, Arabic manuscripts are treated as part of a larger collection—not defined by language but by provenance—; but now it was the Trinity Library manuscript collection as a whole that brings those manuscripts together.

Dr Torsten Wollina

Marie Sklodowska-Curie Cofund Fellow

Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute 2019-2020