St. Canice’s Library: The Otway-Maurice Collection

By Yvette Campbell, Susan Durack and Barbara McCormack, Special Collections & Archives

The Otway-Maurice Collection of St Canice’s Cathedral Library, Kilkenny is a very important collection which was recently acquired by Maynooth University Library on long-term loan from The Representative Body of the Church of Ireland for restoration and safe keeping with Hugh Murphy (Senior Librarian) and Barbara McCormack acting as project managers.

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St. Canice’s Library Room

This is a unique collection of early printed books, mainly that of Bishop Edward Maurice, who was Bishop of Ossory in the mid-18th Century. It includes many fine examples of woodcut illustrations, historic bindings, and manuscript fragments. Particular highlights of the collection include: four items of incunabula (pre-1500 printing), a Shakespearean Fourth Folio (1685) and a Sarum Missal printed for Fleet Street printer Wynkyn de Worde.

Collection processing was carried out on a phased basis to provide access to the collection as soon as possible: the first stage was to list the material in the collection and then each item was catalogued to a minimum level before the final stage of full DCRM (B) compliant cataloguing can begin.

A substantial amount of work began on the collection in September 2015 which included a basic clean, freezer de-infestation and transportation from Kilkenny to Maynooth. It was strongly recommended that the collection be housed in an environmentally controlled storage area to prevent insect damage and deterioration due to fluctuating humidity and temperature. This was especially essential that all pre-1600 items (approximately 310) and other particularly rare and valuable items be housed in this storage area.

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St. Canice’s Library Room

One of the highlights of the collection is a magnificent copy of Shakespeare’s Folio, one of the most sought-after books in the world. The First Folio, printed seven years after Shakespeare’s death, brought together 36 plays – 18 of which would otherwise not have been recorded. Without this publication, there would be no copy of plays such as Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and The Tempest.

This copy was published in 1685 and is the fourth printing in perfect condition. The book is also the only source of the familiar dome-headed portrait of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout.

Shakespeare's Folio
Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio 1685

Another favourite is our copy of The Ship of Fooles by Sebastian Brandt printed by John Cawood in 1590. Brant’s satire on human foolishness became a European bestseller. By 1574, more than 40 editions of the text had appeared, including translations into Latin, French, English, Dutch, and Low German. The text describes a fictitious sea voyage of 112 fools, each representing a certain type of human misconduct, to the promised land of “Narragonia.” The succession of fools is led by the foolish reader: convinced of his learning, he is engaged in chasing away the flies buzzing around his desk piled with books, but he does not open the books to gain knowledge. Brant does not so much criticise foolishness as remaining foolish by failing to recognize one’s own shortcomings.

The Ship of Fooles
The Ship of Fooles

One of the reasons for the work’s great success was undoubtedly the high-quality woodcuts that introduce and complement the text. Each sin or vice in the book is accompanied by a finely detailed woodcut that gives either a literal or allegorical interpretation of that particular sin or vice. Chapters are devoted to such offenses as Arrogance Toward God, Marrying for Money, and Noise in Church. Among the artists with whom Brant collaborated on this work was the young Albrecht Dürer, who soon after the completion of this work left Basel for Nuremberg.

Our copy of John Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs is a perfect example of a medieval book in all its glory – great binding, elaborate text accompanied by striking images.

John Foxe’s survey of Christian martyrs throughout history laid strong emphasis on those who had died for their faith during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-58), and was widely read during the 16th and 17th centuries. It had a great influence on popular opinion with regard to Catholicism over the following centuries, providing support for the legal oppression of Catholics until the 19th century.

Foxe's Book of Martyrs
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

While Foxe was by no means an impartial writer, and his presentation of history is selective and peppered with comment, his access to the evidence from very recent trials and eye-witness accounts renders his work generally reliable and fascinating.

As a Protestant in exile in Germany he continued writing, as news of the persecutions in England reached him. The first edition of his book, in Latin, was published in 1559, and contained little information about the recent Protestant martyrs, whose stories were included in the much fuller edition published in English in 1563.

Paradise Lost
Milton’s Paradise Lost

Our 1688 copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost is certainly an incredible treasure in this collection. Since its first illustrated edition rolled off the press in 1688, Paradise Lost has fired the imaginations of artists. Generations of painters, draughtsmen and printmakers have tried – and sometimes failed – to create a visual equivalent of Milton’s poetry. Between the late seventeenth and early twentieth centuries a flurry of illustrated editions of Paradise Lost appeared. Apart from being beautiful artefacts in themselves, these books and their engraved plates are an invaluable sign of what Paradise Lost meant to the periods that produced them. Satan, for example, looks very different in 1680 to how he looks in 1860.

Other items of interest include the oldest item in the collection – which are latin fragments known as binder’s waste from the early 1500’s; Books with such topics as Greek Mythology, Cannibalism, Demonology, Witchcraft and Botony; Epitaphs on the tombs in the Cathedral Church of St. Canice Kilkenny; material with provenance history from Queen Christina of Sweden to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The St. Canice’s Library Collection is certainly without a doubt a treasure trove that offers both researcher and enthusiast alike a chance to step back in time and discover a hidden gem. Below is a geographical map of the origins of the collection showing the places of publication across Europe from the 16th to the 17th centuries.

To date, 3152 books from the St. Canice’s Library Collection have been catalogued and can be accessed online via the LibrarySearch discovery tool.

Access to this collection is by appointment only – Please email library.specialcollections@nuim.ie

 

References

British Library

BBC News

Darkness Visible: a resource for studying Milton’s Paradise Lost

Wikipedia

 

 

 

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