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English Medieval Misericords

English Medieval Misericords: The Margins of Meaning

Paul Hardwick
Volume: 2
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    English Medieval Misericords
    Book Description:

    Misericord carvings present a fascinating corpus of medieval art which, in turn, complements our knowledge of life and belief in the late middle ages. Subjects range from the sacred to the profane and from the fantastic to the everyday, seemingly giving equal weight to the scatological and the spiritual alike. Focusing specifically on England - though with cognisance of broader European contexts - this volume offers an analysis of misericords in relation to other cultural artefacts of the period. Through a series of themed ‘case studies’, the book places misericords firmly within the doctrinal and devotional milieu in which they were created and sited, arguing that even the apparently coarse images to be found beneath choir stalls are intimately linked to the devotional life of the medieval English Church. The analysis is complemented by a gazetteer of the most notable instances. Dr Paul Hardwick is Professor in English, Leeds Trinity University College.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-962-6
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-17)

    Early in the twentieth century, Francis Bond devoted the first of his volumes on English ecclesiastical wood carvings to misericords, recognising their value in illuminating ‘a History of Social Life in England in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as it was lived by common folk’.¹ Whilst, as we shall see in the course of the present volume, this is one valuable aspect of misericord carvings for the modern viewer, Bond’s analysis – seminal though it is for subsequent studies – is restricted by the then current view of misericords which placed them very much in the category of ‘folk art’.² In...

    (pp. 18-43)

    So writes William Langland in his late fourteenth-century allegory Piers Plowman. Falling asleep one May morning on the Malvern Hills, Langland’s narrator, Will, finds himself in an unknown wilderness, separated from the world yet able to look upon it from a privileged vantage point. He is distant from all that he sees but, in consequence, he is able to see clearly the intricate workings of society – the winners and wasters, the pious and pernicious – bounded on one side by the finely wrought tower of Heaven, on the other by the dreadful defile of Hell. Will’s position may in some respects...

    (pp. 44-65)

    In the previous chapter, we explored the ways in which the scenes of everyday activities which abound on medieval misericords can be seen to have carried a spiritual message for a specifically clerical audience which was attuned to their iconographic significance and by whom, after all, they were commissioned. Without the barrier of such unacknowledged symbolism to distract us, we may expect images which address devotional and doctrinal matters more explicitly to communicate directly with the viewer and, in consequence, to be in some ways more readily understandable to a modern audience no longer steeped in the subtleties of the...

    (pp. 66-84)

    In discussing the standard of workmanship found on English choir stalls, M. D. Anderson laments the absence of detailed records, both of the process by which such work was commissioned and of the craftsmen who were responsible for undertaking the work, before reflecting that,

    [o] n the whole, the level of workmanship is high, even in small churches, which suggests that their misericords may have been obtained from workshops in some larger centre. This was certainly done in the case of monumental effigies, but if the principle of shop-work was adopted for misericords the almost inexhaustible versatility of their designs...

    (pp. 85-109)

    The importance of the choir stalls at Ripon Minster – dated to the closing years of the fifteenth century – has long been acknowledged, in terms of the arrangement of elements, the vigour and variety of misericord carving and, as we saw in the last chapter, their influence upon subsequent work in a number of significant churches in the north of England: Beverley Minster, Manchester Cathedral, All Saints, Wensley, and the stalls now located in Bishop Tunstall’s Chapel in Durham Castle.¹ However, when faced with such a bewildering iconographic richness as the Ripon stalls display, it is not uncommon for both the...

    (pp. 110-134)

    As Terry O’Connor has noted, ‘people’s attitudes to animal bodies go right to the heart of the business of being human’.¹ To human society, animals may be workers or entertainers, pets or pests; the source of food, clothing or tools; objects of fear or comfort, revulsion or reverence. Consequently, our relationships with other species are immensely complex in a practical sense and, concomitantly, in a symbolic sense. Even today in the west, when dogs and cats are popular pets, to call someone a dog or describe them as catty is an insult, whilst a dogged determination or feline grace may...

    (pp. 135-153)

    ‘When I use a word,’ says Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s fantasy world of White Rabbits, Gryphons and other curious hybrids, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean.’¹ As modern viewers of misericords, as much as we may identify with Langland’s constantly questioning Will, we may equally find ourselves in the position of Carroll’s dream-narrative protagonist, Alice, asking questions of strange figures, always curious though sometimes sceptical of the answers as they appear to invent their own rules of meaning. As we have seen throughout our investigations, these figures, occupying that curious space which paradoxically draws attention to...

    (pp. 154-155)

    Lewis Carroll’s imaginative approach to the misericords of Ripon Cathedral may at first appear to have little bearing upon the readings that have been posited throughout the present volume. However, just as Carroll could appropriate these images for his own creative purposes within a few years of Wildridge’s assertion concerning their near neighbours in Beverley Minster that they are ‘the most important and instructive of [medieval ecclesiastical] ornaments’¹ – and, indeed, contemporary creative writers may use choir stall carvings as a stimulus at the same time as medievalists assay their original signification² – so it is perhaps unwise to assume a singularity...

    (pp. 156-167)
    (pp. 168-182)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 183-192)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 193-193)