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What are Misericords?

So what the heck, you ask yourself, is a misericord? Well, he answers, helpfully. In cathedrals (or priories, abbeys, Minster churches, collegiate churches and similar bodies) that started off as monastic foundations, the monks, canons and other clergy were not supposed to sit down for the duration of long services, however, in great human tradition they cheated! They added a small carved shelf to the underside of the choir stall  known as a misericord or sometimes a mercy seat or pity seat or even miserere, so that when the seat was tipped up, they could park their bums on the shelf. This is actually far more prevalent than you would at first imagine, mainly due to anyone with any spare money would make an endowment for several monks or canons to perform masses for their souls , this of course required choir stalls with misericords.  All this sounds boring, but, if you’re a nutter, like me, you’ll see that a lot of them are great fun!  Incredibly, the wood carvers were, very often, given a free rein and so came up with humorous and profane carvings for the main bracket and supporters.  Subjects  for misericords vary widely, much is medieval folklore, such as Aesop’s fables or  musical pigs - which had an allegorical relationship to lust, apes with urine flasks - which is taking the mickey out of the medical profession, mermaids, the Green Man - relating to earlier pagan beliefs  and wives beating their husbands, which may relate to reminding the clergy that they had not lost out badly by celibacy, unfortunately much of the meaning behind this folklore has been lost.  The woodcarvers did, however, seem to like this proof  that the monks were merely frail humans, like themselves.

Whilst you may assume that misericords are going to be a purely medieval phenomena, this is untrue; the UK got its latest misericords in May 2010!

You may find it surprising just how many churches do have misericords and  also some of the locations, we forget in our hubris that some quiet backwaters were of great importance before the industrial revolution.

It’s also worth noting that some churches may have gained misericords at a much later date, sometimes due to the Victorian love of the medieval, sometimes due to a small church needing new choir stalls at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries and being able to snaffle them cheaply from a building that was either due to be demolished or turned to secular use.

For those of you who already know this - sorry, but hope you enjoy the site anyway.

Some of the most attractive (in my opinion) examples of medieval misericords in the UK are at Manchester Cathedral, St George’s, Stowlangtoft and New College, Oxford.

Post war examples, such as the misericords at Breda Grote Kirk, in Holland show wonderful contemporary scenes and are well worth a look.

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