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Misericord

Misericord

  • Place of origin:

    King's Lynn (probably, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1419 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oak, carved

  • Museum number:

    W.54-1921

  • Gallery location:

    Furniture, Room 133, The Dr Susan Weber Gallery, case BY9, shelf EXP

'Misericord' is the name given to the ledge supported by a corbel or bracket, set on the underside of the hinged seats in the choirs of churches. They had no religious function but gave some support to the monks and clergy in the long parts of the services when standing was required. This explains the name 'misericord', which comes from the Latin for mercy. The decoration was often amusing and sometimes moral.

The subject of the carving consists of a master-carver seated at his bench, with his dog at his feet, designing with the aid of dividers and square, while two apprentices are busily carving on the left, and another brings a jug. In the background, behind the master, is a completed tracery head, two lengths of cresting, and a plank. To the left of the group is a twisted ribbon forming the letter 'W', enclosing a saw; to the right the letter 'V' and a gouge. Scenes of everyday life on misericords tend to be satirical rather than serious like this one.

Physical description

A misericord with a four-sided seat ledge shaped with double moulding, the rim of which extends out on either side into a branch-like motif from which are suspended two decorative supporters. The seat ledge is supported by a corbel carved in high relief which depicts a master-carver at work.

The subject of the carving consists of a master-carver seated at his work bench, with his dog at his feet, designing with the aid of dividers and square. Two apprentices are shown carving on the left, and another brings a jug. In the background examples from the workshop are displayed: a completed tracery head, two lengths of cresting, fret-cut but not carved, and also a plank. Two of the tools of the wood carver’s trade are shown on either side of the scene. On the left of the group is a saw, enclosed by a twisted ribbon forming the letter 'W'. On the right is the letter 'V' and a gouge. The gouge represented here would have been used in the actual carving of the misericord. Its curved cutting edge would have been used for carving the hollows, rounds and sweeping curves of the figures and the workshop scene. The corbel of a misericord provided an ideal platform for medieval craftsmen to carve all manner of narrative scenes and decoration, and to demonstrate their skills as a carver. This is evident in the busy workshop scene that is presented here; in the lively details such as the little dog, and the sophisticated rendering of fabrics such as the fall of the master-carver’s robe, carved in such a way as to give the appearance of folds of cloth.

Structure and materials
The corbel provides a base for the seat ledge and support for the weight of the sitter. The two upper corners of the rectangle are cut away to form 45 degree angles, which is a design feature of other misericords in the set that were taken from the choir of the church of St. Nicholas at King’s Lynn. This may have been intended to maximise space and provide a neat uniform appearance when tipped up. The choir seat, the ledge and the corbel are carved from a single solid piece of rectangular oak. This would have been freshly cut, green wood, as this was softer and therefore easier to be worked by the medieval woodcarver’s tools. The back has been roughly cleaned, probably with an axe, and there are two mortices for the original hinges, which are now missing. The carving is very detailed and has been executed with care and precision, with any rough surfaces smoothed over.

Summary of later interventions and damage
On the reverse two mirror plates have been attached at the top and bottom.

Place of Origin

King's Lynn (probably, made)

Date

ca. 1419 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Oak, carved

Dimensions

Height: 25.4 cm plus 1.8cm top and bottom for mirror plates, Width: 56 cm, Depth: 12.8 cm

Object history note

This misericord is one of ten which were purchased by the V&A from the Royal Architectural Museum, Westminster per Messrs Bricciani & Co. 254 Goswell Road, EC1., in 1921. It was originally assumed that all ten were from St Nicholas Chapel, Kings Lynn until G.L. Remnant - in A Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain, Oxford, 1969 - pointed out the differences in design in the seats.

It is now thought the misericords divide into two groups: one of six (W.6,9, 10, 11, 12 and 54-1921), which are still believed to be from St Nicholas and one of four (W.7,8,52 and 53-1921) which, while possibly still from East Anglia, are not now thought to be from St Nicholas. This misericord is one of the six still thought to come from St Nicholas.

The Chapel of St Nicholas, Kings Lynn was founded by William Turbe, Bishop of Norwich, 1146-74, for the use of the inhabitants of the 'New Lande' he had laid out for building north of the Purfleet. His chapel was pulled down and on its site was built a small chapel, the west end of which remains (probably dates to 1200-1210). The present building was constructed in the early years of the fifteenth century and completed about 1419. This misericord was part of the original fitted wooden furnishings and was sold by the church wardens of St Nicholas, along with other objects, in 1852 to the Royal Architectural Museum.

Four of the six misericords associated with the Chapel of St Nicholas, Kings Lynn have supporters forming letters. Although there are other examples of this feature (e.g. from Cartmel Priory) it is relatively unusual. The letters could be the initials of donors to the church. (In the case of St Nicholas this is a distinct possibility, as the rebuilding of the chapel at the beginning of the fifteenth century was funded by the citizens of Kings Lynn.) Tracy suggests that the devices on the supporters of W.6-1921 may point to one of the donors being a ship's chandler, an appropriate occupation in a thriving medieval seaport.
Another possibility is that all the letters are in some way related to each other and that, along with other letters on misericords now lost they meant something when the seating they adorned was arranged in a certain order - a motto perhaps.

It is possible that the letters relate to prayers. The letters on all four misericords are formed of the same pseudo-ribbon as that clasped between the hands of the kneeling figure on this misericord (W.9-1921). Again, parallels can perhaps be drawn with medieval manuscripts, which quite often used blank, ribbon-like banners or scrolls to symbolise the spoken word. It seems plausible, even likely, that the banner clasped by the kneeling figure represents prayer, either as a means of showing themselves at prayer and thus recommending themselves as a pious person worthy of the mercy of God, or to encourage the prayers of others, either for them as donor or in general.

Historical significance: Of this misericord Tracy and Grossinger (p.169) comment that this carving of the master-carpenter is well known. There are a few other misericords in England showing the carpenter at work, for example All Hallows, Wellingborough, Northants., dateable to 1383-92 (J.Alexander and P.Binski, Age of Chivalry – Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400 (London 1987)), no.441, with the carver sitting at a bench making a rosette; and St Nicholas, Great Doddington (dated by Remnant to the late 15th century but possibly by the same carver as the All Hallows misericord). However, the Museum's composition is one of the most informative. Grossinger describes 'The carver in working clothes and cap [who] sits bent over his workbench, his dog at his feet, while two apprentices are at work behind him and one in front of him. Examples of their work are placed at the back of the workshop. A saw has been incorporated into the initial U on the left supporter, and a gouge into the initial V on the right supporter."

Scenes of everyday life on misericords are not much concerned with serious matters and most domestic occupations are satirically portrayed. It is interestering that of the different craftsmen, the Carver is most frequently portrayed.

Historical context note

Misericord is the name given to the ledge supported by a corbel which is revealed when the hinged seats in medieval choir stalls are tipped up. The word comes from the Latin misericordia which means pity and alludes to the original function of the ledge, to ease the strain of standing for long periods by providing a seat-rest.

The rule of St Benedict, introduced in the sixth century AD, required the monks to sing the eight daily offices of the Church (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers and Compline) standing up. They were only permitted to sit during the Epistle and Gradual at Mass and the Response at Vespers. Such long hours spent standing was particularly arduous for the older and weaker monks and they soon adopted a leaning staff or crutch to help take the weight off their feet.

By the eleventh century the rules were slightly relaxed and misericords were introduced - the monks were able to perch on the ledge and lean back slightly, taking much of the weight off their feet whilst still giving the appearance of standing up straight. They were in use wherever the monks were required to sing the daily offices, including cathedrals, abbeys and collegiate churches. They sometimes even appeared in Parish churches.

The earliest mention of misericords appears in the eleventh century in the rules of the monastery of Hirsau in Germany. It is not known when they were introduced in Britain but the earliest surviving examples are found at Hemingbrough in North Yorkshire and Christchurch in Dorset. Both date from the early thirteenth century. The earliest complete set of misericords is in Exeter Cathedral and dates from 1240 to 1270.

The choir seat, the ledge and the corbel supporting it were made of a single piece of wood, usually oak. The corbel provided an ideal platform for medieval craftsmen to carve all manner of narrative scenes and decoration. British misericords differ from those elsewhere in Europe by having subsidiary carvings on either side of the central corbel. These are known as supporters and are often used to develop the theme introduced in the carving of the corbel.

Over half of the misericords in Britain are decorated with foliage but of those which do have narrative decoration, both in Britain and on the Continent, very few depict religious subjects. More common themes included scenes of everyday life and moral tales, often being depicted in a humerous way.

Whether, as has been suggested, the lack of religious scenes was because the hidden location of the misericords meant craftsmen were more free to be creative with their carving, or whether the monks would have thought it inappropriate to sit on images of Christ, Saints or biblical scenes is not known. However, their lack of overt religious content together with their concealed physical position probably contributed to a large number of them surviving the Reformation and still existing today.

Information taken mainly from:
Church Misericords and Bench Ends, Richard Hayman, Shire Publications, Buckinghamshire, 1989 (no copy in the NAL)
The World Upside-Down - English Misericords, Christa Grössinger, London,
1997
(NAL = 273.H.95)

Descriptive line

English 1400-1500 St Nicholas, King's Lynn

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Ref Herbert Cescinsky & Ernest Gribble: Early English Furniture & Woodwork. Vol.II. p. 159, 164 (London, 1922)
H. Clifford Smith: V&A Catalogue of English Furniture and Woodwork (London 1929) c81
Francis Bond, Wood Carvings in English Churches. 1. Misericords (London 1910), p.96
Charles Tracy, English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork (London, 1988), cat. no. 78.
Misericord, one of six (Mus. Nos. W.6-1921, W.9-1921,W.10-1921, W.11-1921,W.12-1921, W54-1921) the seats bordered with a four-sided double moulding; flanked by foliage and other decorative supporters (PLS 25-30). The subject of the carvings consist of: A leopard gorged and chained, on the left a merchant’s mark, and on the right a barrel and a hook, each in ribbon letters (Mus. No.W.6-1921); An ecclesiastic, apparently the donor, kneeling at prayer; he is vested in a long full surplice. hood and round cap; on the left a twisted ribbon in the shape of the letter ‘B,’ enclosing an eagle displayed; on the right a ‘Y,’ with a pod, probably the donor's device (Mus. No. W.9-1921). A falcon grasping a rabbit; on either side a pomegranate (Mus. No. W.10-1921); A stag pursued by hounds; on the left a hunting horn, on the right a crossbow, each in ribbon letters (Mus. No. W.11-1921); A lion crouching; on either side a rose. On the back are cut the words: ‘W. H. Hubbard, March 19, 1775,’ and the letters ‘E P, 1769.’ (Mus. No. W.12-1921); and a master-carver seated at his bench with his dog at his feet, designing with the aid of dividers and square, while two apprentices are busily carving on the left, and another brings a jug. In the background is a completed tracery-head, also two lengths of cresting, fret-cut but not carved, also a plank. On the left of the group is a twisted ribbon forming the letter ‘W’ enclosing a saw; on the right the letter ‘V’ and a gouge (Mus. No. W.54-1921).
From St Nicholas. King's Lynn
Oak. About 1419
25.4 X 56 X 15.3 cm
Mus. No. W.54-1921
The Chapel of St Nicholas, King’s Lynn was founded by William Turbe, Bishop of Norwich, 1146-74, for the use of the inhabitants of the New Lande he had laid out for building north of the Purfleet. His chapel was pulled down and on its site was built a small chapel, the west end of which, probably dating from 1200-1210 (Edward M. Beloe, Our Churches: (King’s Lynn, Norfolk), Cambridge, 1900., p.95), remains. The present building was constructed in the early years of the fifteenth century and completed about 1419 (Edward M. Beloe, Our Churches: (King’s Lynn, Norfolk), Cambridge, 1900., p.111). These misericords and many other carvings from St Nicholas, evidently part of the original fitted wooden furnishings, were sold by the churchwardens in 1852 and bought by the Royal Architectural Museum (H. Clifford Smith, Victoria and Albert Museum Department of Woodwork Catalogue of English Furniture and Woodwork, Vol.1, Gothic and Early Tudor, London, 1923. Revised and reprinted 1929,p.28-29., and Catalogue of the Royal Architectural Museum, 1877, p.53). There can be no doubt whatsoever that this group of six misericords is from St Nicholas’ Chapel. Some of the woodwork is still in situ and telling details, on both the loose carvings and the fitted furniture still in the church, are found in common. The museum also bought a number of bench-ends (mus. Nos. W.2 to 11-1916, W.14-1921, W.16 to 18-1921, W.20-1921, W.56 to 60-1921, Circ.26-1921, Circ.36 to 39-1921, Circ.41-1921). In its original arrangement the woodwork must have been very impressive. It is a tragedy that the nineteenth-century ecclesiologist selected to tidy it up. The poppy-heads, now in the chancel of the church, are some of the finest in England. The misericords are also of high quality.
The carving of the master-carpenter is well known. There are a few other misericords in England showing the carpenter at work (FIG.19) but the museum's composition is one of the most informative. Another misericord displays contemporary wooden furniture. The carving with the ecclesiastic kneeling at prayer, possibly the donor of the woodwork, shows a bench with high, crested back and a reading desk not unlike the one in the museum's collection (mus.no. 143-1898, PL.114a,b&c).
Another carving shows a bird of prey in the act of catching a rabbit. This subject is often found on misericords. An example from Stowlangtoft in Suffolk of about the same date makes a good comparison (No.20). On the King's Lynn carving other rabbits are peeping out of their burrows. This motif also occurs in two elaborately carved chest fronts at the V & A, one from Rufford Old Hall, Lancs (Acq.No.82-1893) of mid fifteenth-century date and probably Flemish, and the other of unknown provenance, possibly from the late fourteenth century and probably English (W. 5 and 15a-1920, PL.106). Another carving from this group worthy of special mention is the misericord of the gorged and chained spotted leopard (Mus. No.W.6-1921, PL.25). Perhaps the devices on the supporters here suggest that one of the donors of this very elaborate furniture was a ship's chandler, an appropriate occupation in a thriving medieval seaport.

Christa Grossinger, The World Upside-Down: English Misericords (Harvey Miller Publishers, London, 1997), p.169.
Benno M. Forman, American Seating Furniture 1630-1730 (New York and London, 1988), p.44, fig. 11
Ted Ingraham, "The English Handsaw before the Industrial Revolution", in Tools and Trades vol. 16 (The Tools and Trades History Society Journal), pp.55-90, figs. 3a, 3b
'the earliest known portrayal of an English handsaw'

Labels and date

MISERICORD
Oak
ENGLISH (St Nicholas' Chapel, King's Lynn, Norfolk); about 1420
From the Collection of the Royal Architectural Museum, Westminster
W 54-1921

The Chapel of St Nicholas at King's Lynn was built on an earlier foundation and completed by about 1419, at which time the interior furnishings would have been made. This misericord, one of six from the chapel in the Museum's collection, depicts a master carpenter working with dividers and a joiner's square, while two apprentices carve a panel and another brings a mug. In the carved ribbons at the sides are a saw and a gouge. [Pre-2006]
Misericord showing carver’s workshop
About 1419

England (King’s Lynn)
Oak

From the Chapel of St Nicholas, King’s Lynn

Museum no. W.54-1921

This hinged seat from a church choir stall was carved from a single oak block. A master carver sits at his bench, designing with dividers and square, with his dog at his feet. In the background are tracery and lengths of cresting. Intertwining the side initials are a saw and a curve-bladed gouge, both used in the making of misericords. [01/12/2012]

Materials

Oak

Techniques

Carving

Categories

Woodwork; Christianity; Religion

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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