Texts : Misericords

Excerpts from Francis Bond, Wood Carvings in English Churches: Misericords (pages 208-214). This text is believed to be in the public domain.


In the primitive churches the chief posture permissible during the services was that of standing; the faithful stood as a rule during the whole service; if at prayer, usually they stood with hands uplifted, as may be seen in the numerous paintings of the "Orante" in the Roman catacombs. At a later period it became more usual to kneel at prayer; still, however, it was forbidden to sit in church. Cases occurred, e.g., at Besançon, where Peter Damian, in the eleventh century, condemned the canons for sitting in church; evidently such a practice was regarded as exceptional and reprehensible. But where the monks or canons were weak or old, some relaxation of the severity of the rule was inevitable. The first step in the direction of mitigation was to provide the weak with crutches, which, placed under the armpit, afforded some support. These "leaning staffs" or "reclinatoria" are mentioned in the Customary of Lincoln Minster; they are still in use in some Greek churches. Amalarius, who took a leading part in the organization of the cathedrals, required the leaning crutch to be laid aside during the reading of the Gospel. Others, like St Benedict, more conservative of ancient usage, refused to allow "reclinatoria" to be used at all. [Walcott, Sacred Archaeology, 548] A further and later indulgence or "misericordia" ("act of mercy") was to construct the seats of the stalls with pivots and hinges so that they could be turned up like the seats of the stalls in a modern theater; and to provide the underside of the seat with a small projecting ledge affording a little support behind to a person standing in the stall. Seats so constructed are termed misericords, i. e. "indulgence seats." By the use of these misericords the monks and canons were able to comply with the ancient discipline where it enjoined a standing position, while at the same time obtaining a little support and change of posture. An early mention of misericords occurs in Peter of Cluny, A.D. 1121, when he speaks of "scabella sedibus inhaerentia" about the same time the term "misericord" is employed at the convent of Hirsaugh, in Germany; the stalls being termed "sedilia." We have no existing misericords so early in England; of those which survive none are earlier than the thirteenth century. Ducange in his dictionary says that the term misericordia is equivalent to the French "misericordes" or "patiences," and that it is applied to the "sellulac erectis formarum subselliis appositae, quibus stantibus senibus vel infirmis per misericordiam insidere conceditur, dum alii stant;" i.e., when the seats (subsellia) of the stalls (formae) are turned up, there are little ledges, and during parts of the service where a standing position is required, the aged and infirm are allowed to sit on these ledges by way of indulgence or mercy (misericordia)." For this use of the term misericordia he quotes the following: "In ecclesia guamdiu scilla pulsatur ante Nocturnos, super misericordiam sedilis sui, si opus habet, quiescit"; i.e., as long as the bell is being rung before Nocturns, he remains still on the misericord of his stall" (sedile). [It is plain from this passage and others that the term sedilia was originally applied to the stalls. What we now call sedilia, viz., the seats of the celebrant, deacon and subdeacon on the south side of the sanctuary, were styled presbytery. The term "forma" is found also for a misericord, and "formula" either for the kneeling board or for the elbow rest.] In the Greek church near London Wall, every seat was of misericord construction. During those parts of the service (and they are very frequent) where the rubrics require a standing position, the worshipper raises the stall to support the person, which it does in a very sufficient manner. [Notes and Queries, i. v. 39] Sometimes even with the aid of the misericords it was found impossible to stand during the long and numerous services, and a dispensation had to be granted. Thus at Westminster the "sanguinati," those who had recently had their blood let, did not proceed to the stalls for service, but to St Benedict's chapel, where seats were provided for them. Such relaxations of discipline were really necessary in the medieval Church. The ancient offices to be said daily were seven; Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, Nones, Vespers and Compline in addition to which there was Matins at or soon after midnight; and every day there was High Mass, at which the whole community was present; moreover, every priest other than the celebrant had himself to say a private mass, besides occasionally taking part in additional masses for benefactors of the convent and others. At each of the seven offices four psalms, besides canticles and hymns, were recited; 4 X 7 = 28 psalms + 7 canticles + 7 hymns = 42 periods at which it was necessary to stand daily, besides endless verses and responses, in addition to Matins and Mass. [Letts, Manchester Misericords] In the end, however, a further relaxation took place; it was allowed to turn down the seats of the stalls and to sit on them; e.g. at the Epistle and Gradual at Mass and the Response at Vespers.

During the nineteenth century the custom has grown up of styling these seats misereres this term has no ancient authority and should be discarded. [It seems to occur first in 1809 in Bishop Milner's History of Winchester, ii. 37]


In examining a series of misericords it is of great importance to draw the seat as seen in plan. This seems hitherto to have escaped notice; yet it is the simplest and easiest test of the chronology of the work, e.g., if the seats of the misericords at Christchurch, Hants, are inspected, it will be found that they are of three different shapes; and the series is seen at once to be partly of the thirteenth, partly of the fifteenth, and partly of the sixteenth century. In similar fashion, the misericords in Norwich Cathedral are shewn to be of two different periods by the plan of their seats.

Taking the seat-plan as criterion of date, the misericords fall into three main groups.

I. The first comprises roughly those of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; in this the seats are simple in plan; at the sides they are usually concave; in front they are straight or concave or more rarely convex. Examples occur in Chichester Cathedral and Hospital; Cockington, Devon; Ely, Exeter and Gloucester Cathedrals; Higham Ferrers, Hereford Cathedral and All Saints' church; Lavenham, Suffolk; Lynn St Margaret; Malvern; Norwich Cathedral; Ripple, Gloucester; Sutton Courtney, Berks.; Wells, Worcester and Winchester Cathedrals; Winchester College; Worle, Somerset.

II. The second group comprises roughly those of the fifteenth century and of the sixteenth century up to the Dissolution. They are more complicated on plan, having four, five or six sides, either straight or curving. Many of the earlier seats had had a hollow curve; this second set has normally a projecting point in front; the addition of which provided below more scope for the carver. Examples occur at Aylsham, Norfolk; Beverley Minster and St Mary's church; Brampton, Hunts.; King's College, Cambridge; Carlisle Cathedral; Cartmel; Chester Cathedral; Durham Castle Faversham, Kent; Fordham and Gamlingay, Cambs.; Tansor, Northants; Leighton Buzzard; Lincoln Minster; Ludlow; Lynn St Nicholas; Manchester Cathedral; Maidstone; Norwich Cathedral; All Souls', Oxford; Peterborough Cathedral; Richmond; Ripon Minster; Rothwell; St David's; Stratford-on-Avon; Throwley, Kent; Westminster; Windsor; York Minster.

Of this group there is a variant, which differs in having a straight side and not a point in front. In some cases the misericords are contemporaneous with those mentioned above in others they seem to be rather earlier. Examples occur at Bakewell; Bishop's Stortford; Bristol Cathedral; Gayton, Northants; Higham Ferrers; Minster in Thanet; Sherborne Tong, Salop; and Wellingborough.

III. The third group includes most of those of Post-Reformation date, which revert to the simple plan of seat, usually from motives of economy. Examples are Christchurch, where the plan of the seat has probably been assimilated to that of a number of thirteenth century misericords which remained in use there; Wimborne and Durham Cathedral. A few rude misericords also of the second group retain the early simple form, doubtless also for reasons of economy; e.g., Swine, Yorkshire.

The edge of the seat is of course always rounded, with a view to the comfort of the occupant; and in some of the earlier misericords this is about all that is done in the way of molding; e.g., at Exeter and Hemingborough. In the latest examples the tendency is to increase the number of moldings considerably; e.g., at Norwich, Beverley Minster and Manchester. But exceptions occur, so that simplicity or elaboration of molding must not be accepted by itself as a criterion of date; e.g., the sixteenth century moldings of the Westminster misericords are very simple, whereas those of Bristol, which are c. 1520, are of very elaborate character. Sometimes a difference of molding argues a difference of date; e.g., in Norwich Cathedral. But it may argue, not a difference of date, but a difference of workman; e.g., at Chester one man, a splendid craftsman, carved many of the seats and put his own set of moldings on them; another, an inferior craftsman, employed a different set of moldings. Against this we may set the fact that sometimes a craftsman varied his molds; e. g., at Ripon the two carvings of Jonah are undoubtedly by the same hand; yet the moldings differ. On the whole much caution has to be exercised in drawing deductions from the similarity or dissimilarity of molds. It is better to pay attention to the moldings of the stall-back and its elbow-rests than to those of the seat. With so much carving below of foliage and figures, ornamentation other than molding was not required; nevertheless all the misericords of Beverley Minster have a scalloped ornament; and on those of Lincoln Minster tiny roses are carved. The upper roll or the rounded edge of the seat is usually continued on to the supporters; but in a few cases, e. g., Higham Ferrers and St Nicholas, Lynn, two rolls are continued. In a few instances workmen's marks are found on misericords; e. g., at Exeter and Ludlow. Almost always the stall-backs and elbow-rests are of wood, not of cold stone; but at Walpole St Peter, Norfolk, and St Swithin, Norwich, the seats rest on stone supports. At Denton and King's Sutton, Northants, both stalls and seats are of stone; in the former there are seven, in the latter twelve. [Cox and Harvey, 260]

A misericord of normal design had a centerpiece flanked by supporters. It was some time before the carvers fully recognized the importance of the supporters; they are emphasized more in the thirteenth century misericords of Exeter than in the examples at the beginning of the next century in Chichester and Winchester Cathedrals, where the supporters are bunched up close to the centerpiece. Perhaps most elaboration was bestowed on the supporters in Winchester Cathedral, where they are larger than the centerpiece; and at Westminster, where they are c. 1509; in an example at Lavenham the supporters have actually crowded out the centerpiece. In a few churches the supporter is omitted altogether. This is the case at Wakefield Cathedral; Soham, Cambs.; Swine, Yorkshire; King's College, Cambridge; Wimborne Minster and Durham Cathedral. In some cases only the tip of the bracket supporting the ledge is carved; e.g., at Sutton Courtney, Berks., and Soham, Cambs., and Wingfield, Suffolk; or the bracket form is more or less retained, as at Fordham, Cambs.; Tilney All Saints', Norfolk; King's College, Cambridge, and Wimborne Minster. In very few cases are all the misericords alike; as at Wingfield, Suffolk, and at Lincoln College, Oxford.

In foreign examples the supporters are usually absent; and this is occasionally so in England, e.g., at Gloucester.

Very frequently there is no connection between the subject of the centerpiece and those of the supporters. There are, however, interesting exceptions. At Exeter a centaur shoots a dragon-headed supporter. The Ely harriers occupy both supporters and the centerpiece; and at Ely also the representations of St Giles and of St John Baptist occupy all three. So domestic bliss may be represented in the supporters, and domestic infelicity in the centerpiece, or vice versa. In Beverley Minster one supporter portrays the vice of avarice, the other that of drink; in the centerpiece a devil is carrying a lost soul to hell. The most elaborate sequence perhaps exists at Lincoln, where the first three scenes are portrayed on the stall (the 's) above. (1) Two monkeys are churning; (2) a monkey has stolen a pat of butter and is hiding in a tree; (3) the thief is hanged; the churners hauling at the rope, and the culprit with clasped hands saying his last prayer; (4) on the misericord below, the thief's corpse is being carried to burial by the executioners.

Originally there were no doubt many sequences in the misericords, but they have been subjected to so many changes that in few cases has the sequence been preserved. Thus at Westminster a pair of misericords, now separated, probably originally adjoined; in the one the devil is seizing a monastic miser, whose money is dropping out of his bag; in another a devil is hauling him off, bag and all, to hell. At Bristol there is a long sequence from the romance of Reynard the Fox, which has recently been restored to its proper order.