The archival biography of MS TCD 1514

Manuscripts have their own biographies. And those are not defined by their respective points of creation nor by the place where they end up. A book bio can be much more topsy-turvey or bodacious, depending on how you want to frame it. And often enough, we can only reconstruct parts of such a biography, exactly because they became embroiled in their own adventures at different points. This much is certainly true for the item which today is referred to as MS 1514 in Trinity Library, Dublin.

You see, at least as we engage with certain books, they receive their own personalities and, through us, their own life stories. Even apart from an individual reader’s perspective, though, manuscripts have their own biographies. MS 1514 has “lived” in Trinity Library at least since 1670, and the period it spent there is the one we know most about. Not only does the manuscript itself allow us to look for clues to its biography, but Trinity Library’s historical catalogues provide further valuable insights. I have written a series of four blog posts on those historical catalogues, and MS 1514 repeatedly shows up in those. The catalogues that interest us are: the 1670 ‘Back Catalogue’, the 1688 Foley Catalogue, the 1745 Lyon Catalogue, and the 1900 Abbott Catalogue.

What these catalogues show, is that MS 1514 existed once as several manuscripts, which only became one at some point before the Lyon Catalogue. Moreover, the appearance of those earlier manuscripts also changed between 1670 and 1688, some of their contents being reshuffled and compiled in new ways while others remained stable until they were added to MS 1514.

At one point, there were four different manuscripts before they were merged into MS 1514. Why were they put together to create this new manuscript whose biography as a manuscript of its own account only started in the 18th century? And could we extend the metaphor of manuscript’s biography further, and denote the earlier circulations of its parts as its parents or lineage, its ‘biographical background’ so to speak?

In the 1688 Catalogue, the contents or ‘parents’ of MS 1514 numbered three; in the 1670 Catalogue four. Those were, in the order, in which they appear in MS 1514: 1. a Latin introduction (prolegomena) on the origins of the Arabic language and script, followed by a glossary; 2. an Arabic treatise on the Qur’anic Sura of the Cave (S 18) with a Latin translation; 3. Christian letters (epistola); 4. a moral treatise.

For those, who are familiar with multiple-text and composite manuscripts (in short, manuscripts which contain several texts), this juxtaposition might not appear uncommon at all. Those manuscripts would have often served as a “one book library”, which would contain the most important, if not all, texts a person owned in writing.

And those manuscripts are further important in terms of archival practices, as e.g. Konrad Hirschler has recently shown with regard to a whole corpus of Damascene ḥadīth manuscripts. One important aspect of Hirschler’s study is that the manuscripts in the form in which we encounter them can be an endpoint of one phase of their life cycles. Their parts would have circulated individually—and unbound—, and their compilation into a bound manuscript signifies the end of that circulation. That is why the binding of smaller units into a bound manuscript can be described as an archival practice. Although it might not be immediately apparent, the compilation and binding into a book proper was always guided by some kind of archival logic. Which papers were deemed important enough to be included at all instead of being sold off or used in making bindings? How were the different contents organized into a book that made sense to the owner (or librarian / archivist)?

The one aspect of MS 1514 that makes it stand out somewhat from those manuscripts is the presence of Latin script and language. This points to a West-European connection in the biographies of the ‘parents’ of MS 1514. As the Latin texts were put first in the book (if read from left to write), the later foliation also moves in this direction. This makes sense for the first two parts and less so for the other two. However, this way you can open the book from both ends and start reading (provided you know both Arabic and Latin).

The presence of Latin brings us back to the biographical metaphor also in a different way. The reason that these contents were compiled into MS 1514 is related to the person, who, at one point, had owned all its parts and had penned or written several of them, as well. This was Ambrose Ussher (ca. 1582-1629), brother of Archbishop James Ussher (1681-1656). Ambrose’s manuscripts most probably reached Trinity Library as parts of James’ library in 1661. For more on this, see this online exhibition.

The compilation of the diverse contents into MS 1514 most probably occurred in the mid-18th century under the auspices of John Lyon. I assume the decision to combine them into one manuscript was guided by a number of, often pragmatic, considerations. The contents are of roughly equal size (quarto format), were connected through their earlier ownership by Ambrose Ussher, and were all concerned with Arabic. We should also not dismiss the costs of binding: if four items fit into one binding, why not put them together? Costs have always been an important concern in archival practices.

Title page of Ambrose Ussher’s treatise/translation on/of the Sura of the Cave (S 18) with provenance note; Dublin, Trinity College, MS 1514, fol. 113r.

As this image shows, the earlier history of MS 1514 as several individual items is still traceable. The treatise on Sura 18 with Ambrose’s Latin translation had its own decorative title page with his own Arabic handwriting at the center. It is also much more decorative than that of the first title. However, from the 18th-century Dublin archivists’ perspective, placing the Introduction to the Arabic language and script first makes more sense in their own context of knowledge production and organization.

In this context, the organization of MS 1514 privileges not only texts in Latin over those exclusively in Arabic; it also prioritizes the manuscript parts that were produced in Ireland and England (by Ambrose) over those whose provenance is less certain. The latter two parts originated within an Arabic language context, and whereas the “moral treatise” is a distinct text, the “epistles” are actually a small collection of paper slips of different sizes, covered in different hands, and potentially of diverse provenance (see image below).

Dublin, Trinity Library, MS 1514, fols. 121v-122r.

We know very little about this tiny ‘archive’. I am not aware that it has been included in any study on Arabic letters or documents. I also cannot say when they originally became one manuscript. Did Ambrose compiled them or did he already obtain them as a bundle? Where do they come from? So many questions.

One thing I can say with some certainty, is that this archive does not only contain letters. For instance, the paper slip shown below is no letter at all. While my own reading is far from authoritative, it is sure enough to say that this is a document of attestation, presumably concerning the rent of a domicile.

“An Arabic Letter”, Dublin, Trinity Library, MS 1514, fol. 120r.

That this is a document becomes clear immediately after the opening invocation of God: “Ashhada Muḥammad…”, “Muḥammed… witnessed” signifies the purpose of this piece of writing. As I understand it, this document is concerned with his(?) renting a house or flat from “the Christian Jawwān Abū al-Fawnas(?) b. Nūḥ” and attests that he moved in on 14 Jumādā II.

MS 1514 thus confronts us with archival practices on several levels which most probably span different locales over several centuries. Disentangling the impact of those layers on the biography of MS 1514 might prove a valuable research project. Any takers?

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "The archival biography of MS TCD 1514", in Damascus Anecdotes, August 23, 2020,

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