‘Irish manuscript auctions in the early nineteenth century: markets, collectors, libraries’

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On 4 March 2014, the Centre welcomed Prof Richard Sharpe (University of Oxford) to discuss ‘Irish manuscript auctions in the early nineteenth century: markets, collectors, libraries’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

At the onset of his research into 19th century Irish manuscript auctions, Prof Sharpe anticipated a declining audience for manuscripts in the wake of the collapse of the Gaelic system of chiefly patronage. However, he soon discovered a thriving culture of auctions that facilitated the survival of many vernacular manuscripts. Vernacular manuscripts form the third of  four main phases of Irish manuscript development:

1) Vellum, pre-1550: oldest form of manuscripts.

2) ‘Old paper’ 1550-1680: ‘early modern character’, created within a dominant Gaelic culture, commissioned by chiefly patrons.

3) ‘Vernacular’ 1680-1810/20: intended to be used as books, wide circulation.

4) ‘Post-Traditional’ 1810-1890s: made by professionals to look like older manuscripts, disproportionately high survival rate.

Vernacular culture is often hidden below the horizon, meaning the survival of vernacular manuscripts is hugely important in attempting to unearth this buried culture. Between c. 1820-1850, auctions drove up the prices for vernacular manuscripts, driving demand and interest, which in turn increased their chances of survival.

Catalogues for auctions provide an insight into what books were sold, who they were sold to/by, and what they cost. Many vernacular manuscripts were made by those with little money for those with little money. Few commanded high prices yet the buyers still clearly had disposable income. Two parallel markets were created: one for upmarket (or polite) sales, the other for vernacular sales. At the 1831 O’Reilly sale, prices shot up due to the involvement of London dealers and the interest of the Irish Academy.

The buyers attending upmarket sales were primarily interested in historical manuscripts (the older the better!) and scorned the more recently created vernacular books. The booksellers, Hodges & Smith sold 227 manuscripts to the Irish Academy for a whopping 1250 guineas. Prof Sharpe suggested that the bulk of these books were worth little, but the appeal lay in becoming the ‘preserver of a tradition’ in one fell swoop. After the Irish famine, the burgeoning culture of manuscripts auctions quickly diminished.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Next week, 11 March, our seminar series continues with Martin Cook (AOC) ‘Recent work on Pictish barrows’ and Dr Gordon Noble (Aberdeen University) ‘An update on Rhymie’. This is a joint seminar with the First Millenia Studies Group. It will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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