After about 1100 there was a sudden development in Europe of practical skill and inventiveness in all fields of crafts, especially in that of individual work. The "spirit of the times" found expression in the rapid and remarkable flowering of the Gothic Style, and craftsmen came to be held in high regard. It is a modern vanity to believe that only our own age has originality and individuality. The general conception that medieval men were more savage and brutish than ourselves is only partly true, there was as much sensitivity and awareness of beauty then as now, and quite as much liveliness of mind.
Contrary to popular opinion monks did not do the carving or even the building of the great Churches and Cathedrals. Some would be employed in "cloister crafts" such as book illuminating, decorative alter work, shrine making and ivory carving.
Bands of workmen were employed in the building of a Church, and when that work was completed would move to another site. Some were craftsmen who, as members of their Craft Guild, had been trained in carving skills and knew something of the traditions and legends of their time. Though there was more education for those who were above the level of serfs than is generally believed, text books and work manuals were rare, and theory and academic learning as we know them were non-existant. Craftsmen stored their minds with their skills and the knowledge of their craft. They were pious men who accepted the beliefs and observed the religious practices of their time, but much of their work reveals the richness and variety of individual personality.
The best of them would have lived within the "liberty" of a great Church (ie within the area which it administered) where they were not hampered by the interference of civic authorities and the exactions of their tax collectors, so were free to pursue their craft and improve their individual skill, and since the Church was the great patron of excellence there was a greater range of opportunity here than elsewhere. Other good workmen would often attach themselves to a religious community ad there exercise their skills as lay brothers.
In contrast to the villein who was "tied" to his lord and whose life was "nasty, brutish and short", the early medieval craftsman enjoyed considerable freedom, he was not one of a herd but would have been what today we would call professional middle class. He would have had a home of his own, and possibly a small shop or stall where he sold the products of his skill. A son would most probably learn his father's skills, and as his inheritance would follow his father's craft. Where interesting or rewarding work offered itself, as at the beautifying of an Abbey or Cathedral, he would live on the site together with other craftsmen till the work was completed, which might take several years.
The best craftsmen were well enough known for their services to be in demand. After the stalls and misericords at Lincoln Cathedral were completed some of the craftsmen moved to Chester, probably via the Carmelitie monastery at Coventry, and Roche Abbey (Yorkshire), finding their skills in demand at each. The misericord carvings at Chester Cathedral of the legends of of Sir Yvain and of Tristan and Iseult (a very rare subject), and of the Green man, are so similar to those at Lincoln Cathedral that they are clearly the work of the same carver.
After completing the roof of the apse and choir, always the part of the Church to be finalised first (roofs in the earlier Medieval period were of wood) the best craftsmen would work under the supervision of a "master" - himself trained and expert in the practical skills of his craft - who acted as "adviser". He planned and organised the beautiful and intricate carving in the choir, most of it repetitive. This work, part of the visual display of religion, was controlled by churchmen; the misericords were the carver's province where he could express his own individuality. He left intellectual matters and high thinking to his betters. (plate 2b)
Cathedrals and churches were full of sermons in pictures (stained glass, wall paintings), sermons in stone (statuary, carved capitals, corbels, tympanums, fonts), and sermons in wood (stalls, screens, pulpits, bench ends) - all excellent visual aids, and all carefully controlled by the Church authorities in accordance with the requirements of a long established religious tradition.
It is always surprising that so much "secular" is found in the Choir, the most sacred part of the church, reserved entirely for the use of the clergy. For example, of the 66 misericords in Winchester cathedral not one is religious in any way. The medieval mind clearly disliked plain surfaces, the long blank panels formed by the empty undersides of the tilting seats just had to be filled. Since religious themes were eschewed as being subjects not fit to suffer the indignity and scandal of being sat on, the carvers were given free choice of subjects for these clerically unimportant spaces. Many subjects reflect the daily activity, interests and customs of the common man. They constitute a record 'written' by men unaware that they were chronicling their times, influenced only by their own imagination, prompted by the beliefs and traditions of their own age, their own knowledge and observation, and their personal experience. There is little sophistication, some crudity, real fun, great freedom of choice and execution, and a lively spirit running through all their work. Since there was or no imitation or copying and massa production was unknown, there no stereotypes and no ostentation. They were unaware of fashions or style. All of their work is remarkably self conscious and displays a zest and vitality rarely found in later art till perhaps our own time. Thus seeing one set does not spoil one's enjoyment of another. Part of the pleasure in looking for misericords is in discovering the uniqueness of each set.
Very little evidence of planning exists, that was an ecclesiastical monopoly beyond the capability of medieval craftsmen. There is only one coherent scheme preserved, that of the "Kalendar of the Months" of the agricultural year at Ripple (Worcestershire). (plates...) Even where there are related subjects in a set they rarely seem to have been fitted in sequence, but have been arranged haphazardly.
It is not surprising then that no carvers names have been preserved, only an initial or two, and these probably of the supervising "master". Possibly an occasional "mason's mark" might have acted as a signature, as at Exeter Cathedral (plate 4) and at Ludlow (plate 5). The nearest we get to a name is in the 13th Century choir stalls at Winchester Cathedral, which are some of the finest in the country. These were carved by William Lyngwode who had been brought from Norwich where the reputation for his fine work in the Cathedral there had made him famous. Winchester wanted the work there "to be as good as that work at Norwich, or better". Emulation was as powerful an incentive then as it is now.
The very fine misericords at Worcester Cathedral it is thought were carved by several craftsmen. Judging by the style of the work there seem to have been five: a simple, somewhat unskilful thought vigorous carver who chose animal subjects; a second, more skilful, who chose biblical or occupational themes and usually of three figures standing on plinths, as if he were carving in stone; another who favoured figures in architectural settings; a fourth who was partial to mythical beasts; and finally the best artist of the five, an educated and highly skilled craftsman who excelled at choosing and carving complex and sensitive themes.
Some styles and subjects of early misericords are similar to those of stone carvings of capitals, corbels etc, indicating that many of the wood carvers had graduated from stone carving to carving in wood. Misericords were almost always carved in relief from a single block of oak, occasionally chestnut. Some carving is undercut. Many of which have been cut down in size and fastened to new seats. In such a move an original sequence could be disrupted; e.g in Great Malvern Priory Church the sequence of the "Kalendar of Months" was disturbed when the stalls were moved from the Chancel entry in the 19th Century and resited in their positions in the Choir.
Except for the occasional and obvious village carpenter's work, the standard of workmanship is high. It is known that Medieval Craft Guilds set and maintained strict standards of excellence in all work produced by their craftsmen. Usually within a craft the same wages were paid to all, so only the best workmen came to be employed. These facts must be set in the wider atmosphere of the belief of the time that man in his creation of works must be like God who in his Creation made all things good. Even if the work was hidden it was meant to last and was to be pleasing to its creator and to God, since both man and what he made would have to face a final reckoning at the last Judgement.
History books frequently use as illustrations of medieval life pictures taken from illuminated manuscripts of the period, but the old calligraphers and illustrators saw life from an angle different from that of the carvers, since they were usually monks with the withdrawn and enclosed clerical view of existence. Their pictures are intriguing but lack the sympathetic understanding and the fresh and loving observation of the carvers of misericords.