Sir George Mackenzie does not give any authority for his statement as to the use of the term, “Black Book.” It was one in common use, but not appropriated, I think, to a monastic chronicle. The volumes in which episcopal and monastic bodies and municipal corporations copied the charters, bulls, royal grants, and other deeds and instruments affecting themselves, were known as Registers or Leiger (or Ledger) Books; and it is to a volume of this description that the title seems to have been most frequently applied. Thus the Black Book of Arbroath is simply a chartulary,1 and such is the Black Book of Peterborugh although the Chronicon Petroburgense has been engrossed in it.2 The ‘”Black Buik” of the city of St. Andrews was “all written by umquhile Johnne Minto, Clerk of the said Citie for the tyme, quhilk is onlye ane memore and record of the infeftments, evidentis and writtis maid to the saidis prouest… of the said citie of Sanctandrois.”3 The “Blak Buik” now in the Register House is a register of public and private writings relating to Scotland, and, amongst other things, contains a series of parliamentary proceedings, from 1357-1402.4 Besides these are the Registrum Nigrum of St. Eadmundsbury, the Liber Niger of Christ Church, Dublin, the Black Book of Hexham, and many others; and of a somewhat different character, the Black Book of Taymouth; the Black Book of the Exchequer; the Black Book of the Admiralty. There are also “Red Books” and “White Books,” “Green Books” and “Purple Books,” “Yellow Books” and “Speckled Books:” such as the Red Book of Glasgow, an ordinary Register, and to a large extent merely a copy of an older Register;5 the Red Book of the Church of Moray, which is simply a diocesan Register;6 the “Registrum Rubrum,” of Aberdeen, a volume of a similar description;7 the Red Book of Coldingham, mentioned by Bower;8 the Red Book of Wells;9 the Red Book of St. Asaph; the Red Book of Grandtully; the Red Book of the Exchequer; the Red Book of Perth;10 the Red Book of Durham; the Red Book of Hexham; the Red Book of the Earls of Ormonde. Bishop Cassie, of Durham, compiled a history of his see, under the title of “Liber Rubeus.”11 Of White Books, there are the Great White Register of the Church of York, containing all the early charters, endowments, and privileges granted to that church by the English and Norman Kings;12 the Registrum Album of Aberdeen;13 the Liber Albus of St. Eadmunsbury;14 the White Book of Wells;15 the White Book of Kilkenny;16 the White Book of London. Then we have the Purple Book, the Green Book, the Red Book of Bruges;17 the Yellow Book of Lecain;18 the Yellow Book of the O’Ferguses;19 the Speckled Book, or great book of Dun Doighré.20
It may well be doubted whether these various epithets had any reference beyond the colour of the outside of the volumes,21 just as we have at the present day, the Royal Blue Book, the Red Book, Blue Books, Yellow Books, and Green Books. Amongst the records of the Abbey of Dunfermline are “The Buke with the Blak Covering, callit Novum Rentale, begynnand in 1555 and endand 1583”; and “the Bulk with ane Quhyt Covering, begynnand 1586.”22 The service books belonging to the choir of Glasgow Cathedral were bound in white.23 The books in the Cathedral Library, Aberdeen, were bound in red, white, green and black.24
The covers of books may no doubt have been coloured in some instances according to their contents, but there does not seem to have been any rule upon the subject. Amongst the Romans, the parchment envelope in which they enclosed their rolls was generally dyed on the outside purple or yellow, while the title was written in deep red colour (See Becker’s Gallus, translated by Metcalfe, p. 329); but there was no special significance in the colours. Colour was not, however, without its appropriateness in some things. The Romans used a red ink (made of rubrica, or red ochre) for the headings of laws, and the Athenians distinguished their law courts by red letters. The Praetors’ edicts were written on a white tablet, album. The later Emperors appropriated to themselves the use of a purple red ink made from the murex, with which they signed rescripts, and which were only valid when so signed (Rescript of the Emperor Leo in 470: Cod. Just. I., 23, 6: cf. Becker’s Gallus, p. 466.) If the Emperor was under age, his guardian used a green ink for writing his signature.
In the Middle Ages, and down till a comparatively recent time, different colours of wax were employed by different persons, and according to the nature of the document to which the seal was to be attached; and in Germany this rule was scrupulously observed as an important point of Court etiquette. The right of sealing with red wax was of the nature of a privilege, and a mark of the highest distinction. Some cities used red wax and others green wax for their seals. A grant of red wax flowed from the Emperor, and without this the highest nobles and greatest cities dared not make use of a red seal. The Counts Palatine could not confer nobility, but it was said they could do the nearest thing to it, they could authorise the use of red wax (Georg Mundius de Comitibus Palatinis, c. 3, num. 72). The nature and effect of this grant were much discussed by civilians and feudalists, and it has a literature of its own. A chief question that was debated was whether such a grant inferred the jus gladii, the better opinion being that it did not – perhaps a fortunate decision, for had it been otherwise it would be somewhat alarming to contemplate the potential executive authority that must exist if the power of life and death belonged to every man or woman who uses red wax. In any case, however, it is possible that so vulgar a thing as sealing wax might not be so much esteemed, for the old rule, of course, applied to natural wax – sealing wax being but of yesterday.
Black was seldom used save by the Knights of Malta and by the Master of the Teutonic Order. (See, on the subject of seals, Hugo de Prima Origine Scribendi, ed. Trotz, p. 132 n. et seq.; G. A. Struve, Observationes Feudales, p. 18, No. 10 [Francof, 1688, 4to]; Heineccius, (Jo. Mich.) de Sigillis, [Franc. 1709] Linck (Henr.) Discursus de rubro, nigro et albo [Altd. 1679 and 1687]; and the authorities referred to by these writers respectively.)
In the French Chancery under the Monarchy, red wax was used with the great seal when affixed to letters concerning Dauphiné, and yellow to those relating to the other provinces, except in the case of pardons, which were sealed with green wax (Denisart, Collection de Décisions Nouvelles, s. v. Sceau, Vol. III. [6th ed., Paris, 1768]). The royal seal of England was most frequently in white until the reign of Charles I., since which time the prevailing colour has been green, to signify, as it has been quaintly expressed, rem in perpetuo vigore mansuram (Tomlin’s Law Dictionary, s. v., Seal, ed. 1835). In Scotland green wax was used in the case of Charters, red wax for Commissions, and white for Remissions. (Ruddiman, Introduction to Anderson’s Diplomata, p. 101.)
1 Liber S. Thome de Aberbrothoc, Vol. I., p. xxx.
2 Chronicon Petroburgense, p. 157, et seq. (Camden Society). Stubb’s Preface to Walter of Coventry’s Historical Collections, I., p. xliv.
3 Contract between Archbishop Gladstanes and the city of St. Andrews, in 1611; quoted Liber Cartarum Prioratus S. Andreæ, p. xii.
4 Thomson’s Acts, I., p. 23.
5 Registrum Episcop. Glasg. I., p. xii.
6 Registrum Moraviense, p. iii.
7 Registrum Episcop. Aberdonensis, I. p. Ixx.
8 Book of Cupar, quoted Scotichronicon, ed. Goodall. II. p. 165 n.
9 First Report of the Historical MSS. Commission, p.93.
10 New Statistical Account, X., p. 69. Parish of Perth.
11 Registrum Dunelmense, I., p. xcviii. n.
12 Historical Papers from Northern Registers, ed. by James Raine, p. xv. (1873, Rolls Series.) First Report of the Historical MSS. Com., p. 96.
13 Registrum Episcop. Aberdonensis, I. p. Ixviii.
14 Chronica Jocelini de Brakelonda, pp. ix., 113. (Camden Society.)
15 First Report of the Historical MSS. Com., p. 93.
16 Ibid., p. 130.
17 Twiss, the Black Book of the Admiralty, IV., pp. cxli. 303.
18 O’Curry’s Lectures on the MS. materials of ancient Irish History, pp. 125, 190.
19 Ibid., pp. 76, 531.
20 Ibid., pp. 31, 190, 352.
21 See Spotiswood’s Religious Houses, Hope’s Minor Practick, p. 449 and Keith’s Bishops, p. 412. The Priory of Hexham, ii p. v. (Surtees Society, 1865.) See also Sim’s Manual for the Genealogist, pp. 39, 40, 58, (2nd Ed., 1861.) First Report of the Historical MSS. Com., p. 93, b.
22 Henderson’s Annals of Dunfermline, pp. 198, 228.
23 Inventory of the Ornaments, &c., belonging to the Cathedral Church of Glasgow. (Maitland Club), p. 8.
24 Registrum Episcopatus Aberdonensis, II. p. 128, et seq.