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Misericord

Misericord

  • Place of origin:

    East Anglia (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    late 14th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    carved oak

  • Museum number:

    W.7-1921

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10, case FS

Misericords were 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.

This scene shows the activity of threshing corn. It may have been copied from a calendar illustration. The monsters at the sides are a kind of 'blemya', a fantastic man-eating creature with no head and a face in his chest. The ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder and later medieval travel books mentioned 'blemyae' as though they really existed.

This misericord was probably carved in East Anglia, but we do not know which church it came from.

Physical description

Made of a solid, rectangular (landscape) piece of oak. The top two corners of the seat are cut away to form a concave curve at each corner. The left edge of the front face (the face with the misericord on it) of the seat has been partly planed away, creating a step/lip. A hinge of approx 4cm width occurs near either end of the lower edge of the seat.

The misericord itself is bordered with a six-sided double moulding with a tapering and facetted support to the bracket below. Obscuring most of this bracket is a scene showing two figures threshing corn. The bearded figure on the left holds a flail (instrument used to thresh the corn) in both hands and raises it over his left shoulder, preparing to strike the corn at his feet. The figure on the right also holds a flail in both hands but he has already made his strike and the flail has made contact with the corn at his feet. Between the two figures is a large pile of sheathed corn.

At either side of the misericord is a supporter, which extends out from the ledge as a curved branch ending in a creature with human legs supporting a torso with a human face protruding from it and a tail hanging from the back of it. The figures almost look like they are dancing - having their respective left and right legs raised. Both creatures face inward toward the figures threshing the corn.

Place of Origin

East Anglia (possibly, made)

Date

late 14th century (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

carved oak

Dimensions

Height: 29.3 cm, Width: 57.2 cm, Depth: 15.3 cm, Weight: 4.98 kg

Object history note

This misericord is one of ten (W.6 to 12 and 52 to 54-1921) which were purchased from the Royal Architectural Museum, Westminster 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 to 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 four not thought to come from St Nicholas.

Historical significance: This misericord depicts two figures threshing corn. This practice involved hitting, or literally thrashing, the ears of corn with flails to expel the edible grains within. The OED describes a flail as "An instrument for threshing corn by hand, consisting of a wooden staff or handle, at the end of which a stouter and shorter pole or club, called a swingle or swipple, is so hung as to swing freely".

The inclusion of this scene on the misericord highlights the way in which the subjects depicted were often concerned with everyday life rather than overtly religious topics. It also suggests connections with the calendar cycles found at the beginning of many medieval manuscripts.

These cycles often included illustrations of 'the labours of the months': physical tasks undertaken by labourers at different times of the year, more often than not contributing to, or resulting in, the production of food or drink. The most popular topics were to do with corn, hay, grapes and livestock.

While the exact 'labour' applied to each month often varied from manuscript to manuscript the overall pattern was similar and harvesting/reaping the corn was a key event usually chosen to represent July or August. Threshing took place after harvesting but it would not necessarily have been used as the labour to illustrate the month that followed.

While some medieval manuscripts such as the Luttrell Psalter (British Library, London, Add. MS 42130 C.1320-40, Lincolnshire) include scenes from medieval life outwith a calendar cycle, in general they were restricted to this setting and as such only twelve 'labours' could be represented. There were several activities to choose from for each month and threshing may have lost out to alternatives such as moving the grain/storing the grain/treading grapes (a common image even in calendar cycles produced in Britain) or other wine-making related labours.

This misericord is one of three related to the harvesting of corn which are thought to come from the same set. Since none of them depicts the moment of harvest/reaping itself, it is tempting to suggest this may have occupied another misericord, now lost (it is certainly known to exist in other sets of misericords, for example at Worcester Cathedral). However, no sets of twelve, let alone extended cycles, of 'labours of the months' survives in any group of misericords known today. It is therefore most likely that such scenes were simply part of the rich and varied subject matter tackled by misericords rather than conscious, comprehensive calendar cycles.

It is possible that the threshing scene was based on an already existing image in a manuscript but the extent to which those carving the misericords had access to such material is not known. Perhaps whoever was overseeing the work would have had access to these sorts of resources or perhaps the carvers simply based the images on real-life experience - threshing corn would have taken place every year in society at large. At the very least the inclusion of such a scene on the misericord shows a common interest in such subjects amongst contemporary artists/craftsmen and or audiences.

Similarly, the nature of the supporters would appear to reflect contemporary interests. However, scholars seem to be divided as to exactly how they do this. In English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork Charles Tracy describes the supporters on either side of this misericord as 'blemyae' (singular = blemya). These bizarre figures come from a repertory of fantastic creatures mentioned by Pliny in Natural History and later in books such as Mandeville's Travels written in French in about 1357. It is true that the creatures with their human legs supporting a torso with a human face protruding from it and no head, are similar to the so-called 'blemyae' but other examples, such as those at Norwich Cathedral and Ripon Cathedral, show the figures with arms and no tail; the more conventional form of the blemya.

While it is possible that the supporters do indeed refer to 'blemyae' and as such feed into the contemporary interest in hybrid anthropomorphic and animal marginalia, often referred to as 'grotesques', Michael Camille offers a different interpretation. In Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England he draws parallels between the creatures on this misericord and some of those in the Luttrell Psalter to suggest a tradition of artistic reference to contemporary performance and pageantry.

Camille cites several instances where there are records to show that communities engaged in entertainments, often in celebration of, or as part of, 'labour-related' activities such as the harvest. This involved making masks and dressing up, a constant factor being the performer wearing a cloak of some description, be it a piece of sacking or sheet. This would explain, in a way that the 'blemyae' and 'grotesques' explanation does not satisfy, why the creatures flanking the other two misericords in the 'harvesting' group (W.8, and W.53-1921) wear a surplice/cloak-like garment.

This is not to say that the creatures either side of the misericords are necessarily illustrating specific pageant costumes, although this could be the case. Rather, they are perhaps examples of a contemporary tradition to refer to such activities in relation to, and draw connections with, harvesting. Such a reading would also explain the significance of the supporters to the subject of the misericord they flank. Although the subject of supporters does not always seem to be connected to that of the misericord, it often was. Without the 'pageantry' explanation the supporters on this misericord would appear to have no overt connection with the threshing scene depicted on the central corbel.

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.

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, Lonodn, 1997
(NAL = 273.H.95)

Descriptive line

Misericord; two men threshing wheat/corn with flails, flanked by two blemyae; late fourteenth century; possibly from East Anglia

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

Charles Tracy, English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork (London, 1988), cat. no. 69.
Misericord, one of four (W.7-1921, W.8-1921, W.52-1921, W.53-1921) the seats, bordered with a six-sided double moulding with a tapering and facetted support to the bracket (PLs 21-24); below are carved three harvesting scenes — stooking (W.8-1921), carting (W.53-1921) and threshing the corn (W.7-1921), and the image of an eagle with a scroll in its beak, flanked on either side by grotesque figures (W.52-1921).
Probably from East Anglia
Oak. Late 14th century
29.2 X 57 X 15.3 cm
Mus no. W.7-1921
These misericords were purchased, with the six below (Mus Nos. W.6-1921, W.9-1921,W.10-1921, W.11-1921,W.12-1921, W54-1921) from the Royal Architectural Museum, Westminster. It had been assumed that all ten misericords were from St Nicholas, King's Lynn until Remnant (G.L. Remnant (with an introduction by L.M.D. Anderson), A Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain, Oxford, 1969.p. 94) pointed out the differences in design in the seats. These carvings must, indeed, come from a different, and unidentified set of choir-stalls.
The harvesting scenes were probably associated with a cycle of the labours of the month and copied from calendar illustrations. Such cycles are likely to have been common but, unfortunately, all that is left is a few individual misericords. All three of the subjects displayed on the museum's carvings are unique. Considering the popularity of these cycles in manuscript illumination, it is surprising that there are only six examples in England of the cutting of corn on misericords (FIG.17).
Of equal interest in this set of carvings is the treatment of the supporters. There are a pair of pygmies, two pairs of half-humans, half-animals and a pair of so-called blemyae. The latter are from the repertory of fantastic creatures mentioned by Pliny in Natural History and later in books such as Mandeville's Travels written in French about 1357. The blemya or anthropopaghus was a man with no head and a face in his chest. He is described in a fifteenth century translation of Mandeville's Travels: ’And in another yle also ben folk that han non hedes, and here eyen and here mouth ben behynde in here schuldres’ (M.C. Seymour, MandeviIIe’s Travels, Oxford, 1967.p.147). Those illustrated in the Livre de Merveilles (Bib.Nat.ancien fonds francais 2816), a collection of accounts of the Orient which includes Mandeville, show how these men were usually presented. The pair on the misericord of the thresher seem to be a conflation of blemya and pygmy. The more conventional treatment can be seen on the late fifteenth-century examples at Norwich (FIG.18) and Ripon cathedrals.
These four misericords are quite distinct from the group of six seats from St Nicholas King's Lynn (see Mus.Nos. W.6-1921, W.9-1921,W.10-1921, W.11-1921,W.12-1921, W54-1921) church. They could be from East Anglia but they are probably slightly earlier in date than the King’s Lynn furniture, that is, of the late fourteenth century.

Image on the Edge - The Margins of Medieval Art by Michael Camille (Reaktion Books Ltd, London, 1992), pp.95-96, illus.48
Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England, by Michael Camille (Reaktion Books Ltd, 1998).

Labels and date

MISERICORDS.
Carved oak.
above: Bringing in the Harvest.
below: Threshing.
From the church of Saint Nicholas,
Kings Lynn
ENGLISH; about 1415.
W.52-1921, W.7-1921.
The misericord is a hinged seat with a corbel projecting from its under-surface which, when the seat was tipped up, allowed the occupant of the chair to combine the comfort of sitting with the appearance of standing. Misericords were usually decorated with non secular subjects such as are found in these four examples. [Pre-2006]
THREE MISERICORDS
Oak
ENGLISH (East Anglia); about 1390
From the Collection of the Royal Architectural Museum, Westminster
W.7, W.8 and W.53-1921

The word 'Misericord' derives from Misericordia (Act of Mercy). Misericords were projecting shelves under seats which afforded a support for those who had to stand during the service. They were often decorated with episodes from everyday life or humorous subjects: this group shows scenes of threshing, gathering and delivering wheat, all flanked by grotesques. [Pre-2006]

Materials

Oak

Techniques

Carving

Subjects depicted

Corn; Men; Harvest; Blemya

Categories

Christianity; Woodwork; Religion; Folk Art

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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