∼A Glimpse Into the Medieval Mind∼
While visiting one of my favorite Dallas antique stores recently, I was surprised and delighted to come across a highly unusual item labeled, oddly enough, as a “slanted shelf”. Being displayed as it was—flat against the wall—it did indeed look like an utterly useless decorative item that was incapable of being used as a functional shelf. Seeing that it was priced accordingly, I quickly snatched up the piece, took it to the register, and bought it. The clerk shook his head disapprovingly as he swiped my card, surely wondering why anyone would pay good money for such a worthless piece of junk (a sentiment often shared by my long-suffering wife). He even gave me a further 15% discount off the marked price. As I was turning to go, the owner of the store came out of his office and asked me good-naturedly what I had purchased.
“It’s funny you should ask,” I replied. “This was labeled as a slanted shelf but it is actually a hand carved misericord. I think it’s French.”
“It is French,” he said. “We bought it at auction in France as part of a large lot. I wondered what it was because it looked like some kind of weird shelf. What did you say it was?”
By this time another customer had come over and was listening in on our conversation. I explained to them that during the monastic period in Europe monks were often required to stand for long periods during prayer services. To ease the strain on limbs and joints, they incorporated small ledges on the underside of choir stalls, that when folded up, could be used as a kind of perch to take the weight off weary feet and legs. They called them misericords or “mercy seats”.
After showing them a few examples on my iPhone, I happily made my way home carrying my new found treasure. It now takes pride of place in my study—in spite of the questioning looks of the uninitiated visitor who wonders what possible use there is for a slanted shelf.
Misericords came into widespread use during the medieval period between the early 13th century and Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries beginning in 1536. Although they were still being installed in European churches as late as the 20th century, their practical utility ceased with the rapid decline of monastic culture.
Unlike most ecclesiastical artwork, misericords rarely represent religious themes. This absence of pious subject matter, though somewhat incongruous given their location in places of worship, is largely what saved these works from destruction during the iconoclastic fervor of the English Civil War. As a result, misericords are now some of the best preserved wood carvings we have from the medieval period.
Because they are situated on the underside of folding seats and are unseen when the seats are in use, it is believed that most were created by apprentice woodcarvers, thereby freeing their masters to focus on the more visible parts of the church fabric. As a result, the quality and subject matter vary wildly among surviving examples. Most are quite whimsical—illustrating common adages of the time, mythical beasts, and scenes of everyday life—while others can be downright profane.
Although misericords were in use all over Europe, a distinct style developed in England that was quite different from those being produced on the continent. English misericords, even when carved for the same set of choir stalls, show astonishing individuality and variety. The designs are often fantastical and include the use of subsidiary carvings known as supporters that are connected to the main carving by writhing vines or tendrils. It was the absence of these supporters that allowed me to identify the misericord in the antique store as being likely French.
There is a line of thought that, because of their intended use, i.e. for resting one’s buttocks upon, it may have been thought improper to feature lofty subject matter in their design. Whatever the case, they give us a tantalizing glimpse into the medieval mind. Because of the apparent license that individual craftsmen were given, we get a chance to see what was really on the carver’s mind rather than what those in authority wanted him to think.
If you have an interest in learning more about these fascinating products of the medieval imagination, you can find a more complete discussion here. I have also set up a Pinterest page with some of my favorites which you can find here.