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Ground–breaking analysis of the Red Book of Ossory by University College Cork team at the RCB Library

One of the most precious – if not the most precious – manuscripts in the RCB Library’s safe custody is the Red Book of Ossory (D11/1/2) which has a strong association with Richard Ledred, Bishop of Ossory from 1317 to about 1361. The volume contains 79 vellum leaves, composed largely in the 14th Century during Ledred’s time, with later entries added up to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

The Red Book derives its name from the colour of the leather binding, faded on the outside, but still visible inside the cover.  Like other medieval episcopal registers, it contains a wide range of documents that defy classification, the choice of which depended on what was important to individual bishops, in this case by Ledred – regarded as “one of the most extraordinary bishops ever to occupy the see of Ossory”.

The volume is internationally renowned for a number of reasons: it contains, for example, numerous documents of legal interest, such as the provisions of Magna Carta. More exceptionally, it contains a lengthy medical treatise on aqua vitae, or what we would call cognac, that occupies three and a half closely written pages in Latin shorthand.  Its inclusion in the register was for a significant medicinal reason – likely linked to the Black Death that had ravaged Kilkenny during Ledred’s time, in 1348. It thus provides the earliest known recipe for distillation known to exist in any Irish manuscript and its content of is particular contemporary interest to Ireland’s whiskey industry. Another reason for the international fame of the Red Book is the collection of 60 Latin lyrics that make up the final folios, all but 13 of which were composed by Ledred.

The Red Book, which was previously featured as an Archive of the Month, is available to view in a digitized format with an introduction by Dr Adrian Empey.

More recently, a team from the Department of Modern Irish at University College Cork, led by Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin, as part of his Irish Research Council Advanced Laureate Award, has brought state–of–the art imagining equipment to the RCB Library to identify and analyse the content of the inks used in the manuscript. The technique is called “XRF” which stands for X–ray fluorescence.

Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin's PhD students (left) Veronica Biolcati, from Italy, working with (right) Anna Hoffmann, from New York, as they position the XRF scanner over the Red Book in the RCB Library.
Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin's PhD students (left) Veronica Biolcati, from Italy, working with (right) Anna Hoffmann, from New York, as they position the XRF scanner over the Red Book in the RCB Library.

It is a means of exciting the atoms and molecules in the inks so that they reveal their identity and an elemental spectrum of the ink can be generated. A photo of the computer monitor shows such a spectrum, as well as the particular spot on the letter where the X–ray was targeted.

The results from this detailed analysis will feed vital data into an international research project on medieval inks in comparable manuscripts.

PC screen with the image of the particular spot in a selected letter that is being analysed; above it is the spectrum of elements in the ink that the XRF analysis reveals.
PC screen with the image of the particular spot in a selected letter that is being analysed; above it is the spectrum of elements in the ink that the XRF analysis reveals.

For further information please contact:

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