The medieval episcopal register of Richard Ledred, the tempestuous 14th century Bishop of Ossory in Ireland, has been digitised and made available to a worldwide audience. The 79 vellum leaves, bound in red leather – giving rise the book’s evocative name the Red Book of Ossory – is one of the most significant medieval manuscripts in the archives of the Church of Ireland’s Representative Church Body (RCB), the executive trustees of the province.
Richard Ledred – or Richard de Ledrede as he was otherwise known – was Bishop of Ossory from 1317 until his death in 1360 or 1361. This book contains the lyrics of no less than 25 songs related to the nativity, written by Bishop Ledred. It also contains later entries from the time of Elizabeth I.
“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,” the Church of Ireland said.
Dr Adrian Empey, a member of the Church’s Library and Archives Committee, said that Ledred was “one of the most extraordinary bishops ever to occupy the see of Ossory. It is a great delight that the Library has seen fit to make available not just these songs but all of the other unique content of the Red Book of Ossory in digital format for a worldwide audience to view.”
A 14th Century Christmas song written by Bishop Richard Ledred, taken from the Red Book of Ossory. It is titled “Cantilena de nativitate Domini” (A song of the Nativity of (our) Lord). Consisting of five stanzas, it opens with the words: “verbum caro factum est” (The Word was made Flesh).
Photo: The Church of Ireland
The volume is internationally renowned for a number of reasons: it contains numerous documents of legal interest, such as the provisions of Magna Carta.
But of most interest is the lengthy medical treatise on aqua vitae – or cognac as it is more widely known today. The three-and-a-half pages of closely written Latin shorthand includes the earliest known recipe for distillation known to exist in any Irish manuscript and its content is of particular contemporary interest to Ireland’s whiskey industry.
But its inclusion is probably less connected with the joviality of the Christmas season and more to do with its medicinal qualities: perhaps linked to the Black Death that ravaged Kilkenny in 1348.
The Diocese of Ossory is one of the oldest in Ireland, being one of the 24 created at the 1111 Synod of Ráth Breasail, which saw the Church of Ireland move from a monastic model to one based on dioceses and parishes. It continued in existence until the see of Ossory was subsumed into the united bishopric of Ossory, Ferns and Leighlin; in 1977 a further meger saw the creation of the present-day diocese of Cashel and Ossory. At the Reformation, parallel Anglican and Roman Catholic sees existed; the Catholic Diocese of Ossory continues to this day.
The book has been made available as part of an ongoing project to digitise the Church of Ireland’s historic archive. You can see the book – and the rest of the collection – at ireland.anglican.org/library/archive.