A Handbook of Medieval Misericords

Misericords: A hidden Gallery of Medieval Art

William James Shadwell


Misericords are perhaps the most neglected of all the treasures to be found in the great Cathedrals and many churches in this country. They are the under-seat carvings in choir stalls.

Visitors often enjoy the immediate impact of solid Norman architecture, or towering Gothic masonry, or the magnificent blaze of colour from a stained glass window, but the fascinating world of misericords remains largely unknown and undiscovered.

In the choir, often the darkest part of the building, lies a treasury of Medieval art and social history which amply repays detailed study. The ideas expressed are mostly secular, and the carvings are cameos of rustic life, activities, customs, humour and beliefs from the early 13th century onwards. In what Art Gallery would one find scenes of Medieval life so naively and beautifully carved as these? Here are galleries of everyday happenings and interests bequeathed to us by our [humble] ancestors [of long ago preserved] for all who take the trouble to look for them and lift the seats to examine them.

The seats are irreplaceable and highly valued by the Cathedrals and churches which house them, and permission should be sought before lifting them, and great care taken in handling them.

When you enter the Choir of such a church you will probably admire the intricately carved canopies over the stalls, but fail to see the misericords because the hinges seats are often left down or because the Choir stalls are corded off. (plate ...).

The Choir with its stalls was the most important and sacred part of the medieval church, and the most particular and detailed work was put into it. The stalls consist of a lifting seat (the misericord), a book rest (prie dieu), a partition between each stall (parclose), an elbow rest on the partition, often finishing in a carved subject which gave extra support to standing, a back panel and a canopy (baldaquin) usually very elaborately carved. The two latter and the partition, which had replaced earlier curtains, helped to keep out the cold draughts from the aisle and a glassless triforium.

The word 'misericord' ('misere' is sometimes used) is derived from Latin 'misericordia' = pity of the heart = act of mercy, and was applied originally to anything permitted to an infirm person out of consideration for his weakness. Other 'miscericords' accorded to sick and elderly clerics were milk (?), a blanket in winter and meat in Lent.

The main function of cathedrals and monastic and collegiate churches in medieval times was not services for the laity, but the conducting of two daily masses and the eight Divine Offices: matins, laud, prime, terce, sext, nones, vespers and compline, starting in the early hours (3.00 AM - perhaps) and finishing about 11.00 PM, said by monks and canons in cold, unheated choirs. Prayers were recited standing with hands uplifted. There were 42 occasions of standing and in addition each priest said daily at least one private mass, again standing. Extra to all this were the masses said for the souls of departed benefactors. Clearly, such physical demands were often too great for the sick and aged clerics, so crutches ('reclinatoria') were first allowed, then 'elbows' on the partitions between the stalls and finally misericords.

These were at first plain pivoted seats with small wooden brackets on the underside supporting a ledge extending from the front (plate ). During the periods of standing the worshipper hitched his seat on the ledge, so taking most of his weight of his legs. The ledges were sometimes called 'nodding seats' - if a monk nodded off, his seat would fall with a clatter as he bent forward and expose his lapse of concentration. Nearly all such seats have carved undersides, and it is these that make misericords so interesting. To most people these are the misericords.

The best examples are pre-Reformation: 12th to 16th centuries, and it is with these that we are concerned. Post-Reformation misericords, usually termed 'modern', are more realistic in a literal sense, but lack the simplicity, the intriguing naivety and spontaneous vitality of the medieval ones. In this country hundreds are over 700 years old, thousands well over 400 years old.

Survival and Distribution

At the reformation in England and Wales there was great destruction and loss of medieval church treasures at the time of the Dissolution of the monasteries 1536 - 1553 in Henry VIII's reign.

Much of their dearly loved and treasured furniture, including stalls and misericords, was destroyed or lost, or was distributed among humble neighbouring churches who might have been glad of them. Because of their relative obscurity under the seats, misericords probably suffered less destruction than most of the other furniture, and this gives them a rather special role as records of the art and interests of common folk "written" by themselves. Fortunately most Cathedrals, a number of Abbeys, Priories and Collegiate Churches and a few chapels attached to charitable institutions retained their original furniture.

However, for various reasons considerable numbers of misericords which survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries have since disappeared for ever. In the spate of image smashing during the Puritan Commonwealth the damage to misericords was surprisingly limited, possibly because they were not noticed by the Puritan iconoclasts, or not seen as "images", or religious carvings at all. The infamous "image smasher" Dowsing was untiring in Dorset in destroying wood and stone carvings as well as "images" and stained glass, denuding many churches of the region of their old treasure. Some have suffered from neglect, some from vandalism. In 1829 a lunatic started a fire in the Choir of York Minster, destroying all but two of its ancient misericords. Restorations also caused losses. At King's Lynn the order to burn the stallwork fortunately was disobeyed by the carpenter employed in the restoration and the set was paced with the British Museum. No doubt some loss or damage occurred when stalls were moved and resited in a restoration. For instance, at Worcester Cathedral in the 18th Century there were 52 Misericords, now there are 39 (plus 4 modern). In 1551 the stalls were dismantled, stored in the tower, and later set up in new positions. In the early 19th Century some were cut out to form a cornice to the screen erected at the entrance to the Choir. In 1865 the screen was removed in a major restoration when the misericords were restored to their original positions.Some new seats had to be constructed and their misericords were set into new frames. In a major Victorian restoration most of the seriously decayed misericords at Old Malton (Yorkshire) were removed and replaced by copies.

"Moral rectitude" disposed of some - at Chester Cathedral a Victorian Dean had five destroyed on the grounds that they were indecent. Twelve very interesting misericords were lost when Coventry Cathedral was destroyed by enemy action in 1940. Theft accounts for some recent losses.

Considering their age and vulnerability however, they have suffered surprising little damage. Most are in excellent condition.

Most Cathedrals and and Abbeys contain misericords and of our 18,000 parish churches, half of which date from Medieval times, more than in any other country, hundreds poses them, giving a total of over 3,500. Ireland, Scotland and Wales together have only 15 churches containing misericords with a total between them of 179. A number of museums and some private houses have a few. Eg. Victoria and Albert Museum, London possess 31, most in storage.

The best information on the distribution of misericords is G.L.Remnant's "Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain" (Oxford University Press) which lists known misericords, where they are to be found, and gives basic information: description, age, origin. This book is indispensable if you wish to find misericords for yourself.

In France there are perhaps 8,000 largely uncatalogued. Belgium, Germany and Switzerland posses some, as well as a few Eastern European countries in the Catholic tradition. Italy and Spain have very few - their winters being less cold, their Choirs would have been warmer, and so the frequency of standing less demanding.

Misericords are widely distributed, with concentrations in the West Country, East Anglia and Yorkshire, areas whose wealth was based on the Medieval wool trade. Most Cathedrals and Abbeys, but not all, have some. For example those at Canterbury are modern, carved for a Victorian restoration; those at Rochester are all plain - a simple bracket supporting the ledge.

Over 50 sets are of 20 or more. The largest collections are at: Sailsbury Cathedral 106, all alike, of floral design; St George's Chapel, Windsor 96; Lincoln Cathedral 92, Beverly Minster, and King's College Chapel, Cambridge, 68 each; Winchester Cathedral 66; Ely Cathedral 65; Chester and Wells Cathedrals, 64 each; Boston, St Botolph's Norwich Cathedral and New College Chapel Oxford, 62 each; Henry's VII's Chapel, Westminster Abbey 53; Exeter Cathedral 50; Carlisle and Gloucester Cathedrals, 46 each; Worcester Cathedral 42; Hereford Cathdral 40. Four Oxford University Chapels between them have 167. The best and oldest are in Exeter Cathedral, Probable date 1238-44, and Winchester Cathedral c.1305.

The Craftsmen and the Character of their Work

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-existent. 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.

The Art Form

Misericords are a distinctive art form, arguably the most distinctive. English misericords have an energy and vitality second to none, and are remarkable for their individuality in style and arrangement, as well as in their subject matter. Especially characteristic is their delicacy of imagery.

They consist of a central main subject forming the brace to the seat ledge, and very usually a supporter each side, sometimes called "ears". Those in Gloucester Cathedral are exceptional in having none. The supporters are often independent of the main subject, and not infrequently of each other. In some cases they are of greater interest than the main subject. Those in Winchester Cathedral are unusual in that they are larger than the main subject. Main subject and supporters may occupy their own independent spaces, but are more often connected by curved lines. In a few cases, as at Sherborne Abbey they merge to fill the whole surface in one design.

The space occupied by the main subject, no more than a few inches in diameter, is usually triangular, rounded off at its lower apex, or trapezoidal. The area to be carved was thus limited, of unusual shape, and cut out in low relief, often less than 1 inch (25 mm) in depth; high relief is rare. Thus the medieval artist had to employ special techniques to present his subject, particularly if it was a scene involving several elements. Most misericords are fine pieces of design, original, arresting and highly skilled in execution. As such they are far from being crude folk art. Subjects are concise, economical and sharply focussed. Main features are often enlarged and given primacy of position. Emphasis on, or exaggeration of, some elements was employed, and some crowding, while great simplification was common and adornment was rare. Adaptations were ingenious: figures seated, kneeling, bowed, contorted. Legs, and tails, fitted well in to the base apex of the shape, wings in to the two top angles. Arrangement in scenes tested the skill of the carver to tell a tale.

Supporters, rarely found on the Continent, are characteristically English. They began as scrolled extensions of the main subject, but soon gained their own independence. They are often carved in roundels. Many are conventional in design; foliage or flowers. Frequently faces, people, animals, dragons are chosen. The most interesting are simple scenes, especially those associated with the main subject, and are little works of art in their own right.

Dates and Dating

The best carving dates from the 14th and 15th centuries. The oldest misericords date from the early 13th century. Exeter cathedral has the oldest complete set in Britain, some dating from before 1230. Kidlington (Oxfordshire) has 5 simple misericords dating from late 13th into early 14th centuries.

In dating accuracy is not easy. A few are documented from monastic records and from tradition. Assessment of age can be made from such characteristics as stylistic variation, especially of seat ledge shape, the oldest being plain and rounded. Later ledges are more angular, with edge mouldings. A rough guide to age would be as follows:

13th century: semi-oval, shallow moulding
14th century: more variety - concave sides, seat ledge dips
Later 14 century: more complicated, seat plan having 4 or six sides, straight, or concave, with a projection at the front. This allowed the carver more scope, and subjects could become more elaborate.

Crude village carpenters work gives the appearance of being older than that by skilled craftsmen of an earlier period.

It is rare to find a date which is certain. Rippon cathedral and Bevery minster each have a date carved into a misericord, 1489 and 1520 respectively. Heraldic arms and a rare name, give evidence of an important church dignitary or a donor who might be traced.

Foliage is a favourite subject, especially for supporters and this provides a good clue for dating.

Early 13th century: conventional trefoil, cinquefoil, ball flower
Mid 13th century: more refined
End 13th century: more naturalistic
14th century: more globular
15 century: more conventional and standardised, flowers square or lozenge shaped

The subject can be significant. For example the elephant carved on a misericord in Exeter cathedral gives a probable date of 1255-60. In 1255 Louis IX of France gave Henry III of England the gift of an elephant which was paraded through the streets of London. The carver may have actually seen it (though this id very unlikely) and carved it from memory. He probably worked from reports, or possibly a drawing made from observation which was passed to him. The supporters, heads of a man and a woman, possibly husband and wife, and donors of the stall, argue a similar date: the wife wears a fashionable head-dress and gorget of the period, her hair in a net.

All figures are in contemporary dress, costume, armour, helmets give an indication of date. The last example illustrates this. At Ludlow a misericord shows a woman's head, wearing a horned head-dress and a hennin veil in fashion about 1430. She is bridled and with her large, ugly and grinning mouth, is believed to be a "scold". Is this a portrait of a bad tempered local lady of quality whose sharp tongue had mad her disliked?

In a misericord in Exeter cathedral the flat topped helmet of a night (the "Chevalier au Cygne") dates it mid 13th century. The 12 century romance of the night of the swan was widely popular and at this time many of the nobility claimed decent from him. Wagner based his opera "Lohengrin" on this same legend.

Other fashions assist dating: style of hair, beard, moustache, shoes, tunic, etc. The broad shoes and flat cap worn by Aquarius at Ripple give a date late 15th to mid 16th centuries.

Style and ornamentation of the stalls in which misericords are found indicate date, though later alterations and rearrangements can confuse.