MITHRIDATES and the Irish connection

by Penelope Woods

 A little book has just arrived in the library, of notable Irish interest, yet ostensibly none: a Latin text published in Zürich in 1610, the work of one local author, supplemented by another, with the obscure main title, Mithridates.

City of Zürich (1581) by Braun and Hogenberg 

Who was Mithridates?

Mithridates was king of Pontus and Armenia Minor and lived over 2,000 years ago. An exceptional linguist, he was said by Pliny the Elder to have administered his kingdom in all its 22 languages. His name seemed apt in 1555 as the title for a book surveying 130 world languages.

Portrait of Conrad Gessner by Tobias Stimmer, c. 1564
Conrad Gessner by Tobias Stimmer 

It was Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), Swiss physician, naturalist and bibliographer, a man of enormous output and energy, who in 1555 had Mithridates printed in his native Zürich. It reflects the contemporary thinking on languages. Gessner wanted to find out how the vernacular languages had evolved, their connections and distinctions. The three chief biblical languages, Hebrew, Greek and Latin were widely seen as parents of all the vernaculars, with Hebrew as progenitor. Together with Arabic, Gessner saw them as a unifying force in the world.


John Bale
John Bale, Bishop of Ossory

Gessner dedicated his Mithridates, to an Irish bishop

John Bale (1495-1563), protestant bishop of Ossory had become an exile in Basel. Gessner and Bale had already been engaged in grandiose projects: Gessner, in his Bibliotheca universalis (1545-9) attempted a catalogue of all books printed in Hebrew, Greek and Latin since printing began; Bale had compiled a list of British authors and their writings, Illustrium maioris Britanniae scriptorium… summarium (1548), following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and the dispersal and destruction of their libraries. The two men knew each other well. Bale had sent Gessner the Lord’s Prayer in Welsh. It is one of 27 language samples in the book. In the dedication, Gessner presses him for Irish and Manx also.


Gessner on the Irish language

All the Celtic languages except Cornish are mentioned in Mithridates. At that time on the Continent, Ireland was generally portrayed as remote and primitive. In his entry for Irish, Gessner relies on Sebastian Münster’s popular Cosmographia (1544). He repeats ancient ideas of kinship between the peoples of Ireland and Spain, their physique and customs. He states that the language of the Irish is peculiarly their own, spoken otherwise only by the Scots of the highlands and islands, themselves originally from Ireland. But, as indicated, no example of Irish.


Title page of Mithridates Gesneri (1610)


In 1610, Kaspar Waser of Zürich published Mithridates Gesneri and included a sample of Irish!

Kaspar Waser (1565-1625), theologian and orientalist, had Gessner’s Mithridates with its dedication to Bale reprinted in Zürich, together with his own commentary. He had procured the first two verses of Psalm 103, translated into Irish from the English metrical form used in Calvinist Geneva and Scotland (the metrical psalms had not been printed in Irish). Waser included both specimens, Irish and English, declaring he could see no resemblance between them even though, he said, Ireland had long been subject to the kings of England; nor could he see a connection with Spanish, though Spain was only three days’ fair sailing away. Finding he could not relate Irish to the parental antecedents, he dismissed the language as barbarous – this, despite his having visited Ireland in 1592. Little did he realise that the psalms had already been translated into Irish as early as the 7th century (see the Cathach, the Psalter of St Columba.


An early landmark in printing Irish

It was in Waser’s Mithridates Gesneri, that Irish first appeared in print in a cultural context. His specimen predates the output of the Irish Franciscans in Louvain whose little books in Irish script were intended specifically for Irish Catholics, to support their faith. In Ireland, the language had been used solely for printing works for the Protestant Church.


Bookplate from  Mithridates Gesneri (1610)


A collector’s collectible

As a final treat, this copy of Waser’s Mithridates Gesneri bears the armorial bookplate of a 17th century owner pasted to the inside front cover. No less than Louis-Émeric Bigot, (1626-89), a councillor in the parliament of Rouen and a bibliophile, known to savants the breadth of Europe. Another story!

Below, Waser’s specimen of Irish in the original form, in modern spelling and in literal English (with grateful thanks to Msgr Brendan Devlin)



Further reading

Considine, John: Dictionaries in early modern Europe: lexicography and the making of

heritage (Cambridge, 2008).

Gessner, Conrad: Mithridates, introduction, texte latin, traduction franςaise… par

Bernhard Colombat et Manfred Peters (Genève, 2009)

Kuosen, Iodocus à: De vita et obitu…Kaspari Waseri (Basileae, 1626), pp. 11-12

Poppé, Erich: ‘The Celtic languages in Conrad Gessner’s Mithridates (1555)’ in

Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, 45 (1992), pp. 240-50

Waser, Kaspar: Mithridates Gesneri exprimens differentias linguarum tum veterum, tum quae hodie, per totum terrarum (Tiguri [Zürich]: Typis Wolphianis, 1610), ff. 115r-116r

On Louis Émeric Bigot, see


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