A 550-year-old book comes to Maynooth!

By Dr Elizabeth Boyle, Department of Early Irish; Hugh Murphy, Head of Collections Maynooth University

A page from the 1471 printing of Orosius, bought by Maynooth University

Maynooth University has acquired a 550-year-old book, which contains one of the earliest discussions of Ireland in print. The book is the so-called editio princeps or first printed edition of an influential Latin work of Christian history, the Seven Books of History Against the Pagans by Paulus Orosius, who wrote it shortly after the year 400. Orosius’s text circulated in vellum manuscripts and was widely-read and highly influential, so it is not surprising that it was amongst the first works to be published during the first decades of print production in Europe.

Orosius describes Ireland – in Latin called Hibernia – as “an island situated between Britain and Spain”. He gives the name of a river – Scena – thought to be the Shannon, and two population groups, the Velabri and the Luceni, who lived in what is now Co. Kerry. Orosius notes that, although Ireland is smaller than Britain, Ireland is richer “on account of the favourable character of its climate and soil”.

Thus, Orosius was one of the first Christian writers to mention Ireland. Dr Boyle’s research has shown that his work had certainly been read in Ireland by the seventh century at the latest, and it became fundamental to how people in medieval Ireland understood the past. Orosius believed that nations rose to, and fell from, power according to God’s favour. He saw political power as moving through history from one dominant empire to another: the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks and, at the time he was writing, the Romans. This framework of history became standard in medieval Ireland, where Orosius was highly regarded as a historical authority.

With the advent of moveable type printing methods, seminal works such as those of Orosius began to be published in printed form. Sixteen years after the production of the Gutenberg Bible, a German printer named Johannes Schüssler, based in the city of Augsburg, produced the first printed copies of Orosius’s history. Nearly a hundred copies are known to survive, mostly preserved in national and university libraries around the world. With the support of our academic colleagues in both Maynooth University and St. Patrick’s College, the Library was able to acquire this copy, which, while incomplete (with 5 of the 7 ‘books’ complete) preserves the critical discussion of Ireland, which is found near the beginning of the work.

Page showing the print block which is of carbon ink, with annotations which are iron gall. The red capital letters would have been hand painted after the printing was completed.

As has been noted by our colleague and rare books specialist Penny Woods, Maynooth’s library collections are “rich in printed works that mention the island of Ireland or its saints and its people”. Indeed this has been a key collections strategy for decades. While there is a 1483 copy of Orosius in the library of Trinity College, for Maynooth, our earliest copy was until now an edition published in Paris in 1510. Those editions are both interesting in their own right, particularly in terms of the early history of print, but the acquisition by Maynooth of the 1471 printing means that there is now a first edition held in an Irish library, available for consultation by historians and researchers.

Professor Salvador Ryan, professor of Ecclesiastical History at St Patrick’s College Maynooth says that “Orosius is a hugely important figure in the study of Christian historiography and what was traditionally termed Historia Sacra [‘Sacred History’]. This is an area on which many Maynooth scholars have published over the years. It is particularly fitting, and a cause for celebration, then, that this early printed edition of Orosius’s work has been acquired for our Library’s Special Collections”.

This book will join our 59 other incunabula (the technical term used for books printed before 1500) and will be available for consultation as a priority. We are fortunate that Dr Boyle is a key member of the International Orosian Network (a group of scholars devoted to studying the transmission and reception of Orosius’s work in the medieval and early modern periods), and we look forward to providing them and others with the opportunity to engage with this remarkable work.

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