"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour."

From "Auguries of Innocence"

by William Blake

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

An Afternoon in Stratford-upon-Avon - Part 3: Misericords

The name misericord is derived from the latin miserere which means "mercy". As mentioned in previous posts priests used to stand for almost all services and the misericord meant that elderly or infirm priests could rest on the small "seat" but look as though they were still standing. There are 3 elements on each seat with the carving in the centre showing the main theme and two carvings (one on each side) known as the left and right supporters.

Dean Thomas Balsall completely rebuilt the chancel of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, between 1466 and 1491 and arranged for the misericords to be installed. There are 26 in the chancel - 13 on the North side and 13 on the South side together with two wall-mounted part-misericords.

Religious scenes do not appear on the Holy Trinity misericords which show mythical animals and humans each with an allegorical meaning. The main message in the carvings refers to the fight between good and evil and the devil's appearance in day to day life trying to trick the unwary. One theme of misericord carvings generally is the suggestion that women should be treated firmly and not allowed to get out of hand!! When the misericords were first carved priests were the only people allowed into the chancel area of the church so some of the carvings could be a warning to them to stay away from women and any temptation they offered.

Information on the Holy Trinity misericords and their possible interpretation is taken from an excellent book I bought which is researched and written by Madeleine Hammond.

North Side Misericords

A man and a woman in whelk shells feature in the centre of the first misericord. The woman is holding a carding instrument and a distaff. The carving represents life in the 15th century showing 2 hard working people with a reference to wool and the production of cloth which were local trades. The supporters are leaf carvings representing the beauty of God's creation.

In the centre can be seen an eagle rescuing an infant in a sling. Eagles are the Kings of birds and symbolise Christ and the resurrection. The eagle is saving the baby (representing mankind) from evil. On the right the supporter is half-man, half-lion which represents justice. The left supporter contains heraldry in the form of a lion sitting which symbolises cowardice.

The mermaid in the centre of the misericord below is holding a mirror and combing her hair representing vanity. Mermaids represented the seduction of men by women into sin and here the merman has succumbed to her temptations. Again the supporters are foliage.

This misericord represents a warning to men to be conscious of and turn down the devil's influence via "loose" women. In the centre a naked woman (her loose hair suggests she is not respectable!) is riding a stag. Stags represented the purity and wisdom of Christ and were the enemy of Satan. The woman is defiling the stag and rejecting religion despite being surrounded by the beauty of God's creation - ears of corn, rose and foliage

The camel in the centre symbolises temperance (it can go long periods without drinking) and the palm tree and leaves represent righteousness and resurrection. The two supporters are horned wyverns representing valour, strength and protection.

The carvings here are a celebration of Christ, Christianity and goodness with the vine leaves, grapes and foliage representing God's creation of nature.

Here we have what is called a bi-corporate lion i.e. with one head and two bodies. The lion symbolises nobility, braveness and fierceness representing Jesus's victory over evil. The two supporters are wyverns.

Although the central carving is defaced it could be a tumbler with hanging masks on the left and right. Jugglers, dancers, tumblers took part in every fair and were part of life in the 15th century. The symbols could be suggesting that the devil can hide in all aspects of life waiting to trap the unwary.

The centrepiece is a boat (possibly a coracle) containing the head of a defaced winged ox. The boat represents the soul and the winged ox an animal of sacrifice symbolising Christ' sacrifice.

An owl is depicted in the centre and, as it is nocturnal, symbolised people in the 15th century who failed to reject darkness and enter the light of Christianity.

A rose with leaves and a shield appear in the centre with Tudor roses on the right and left. The rose symbolised protection, providence, love, beauty and passion and also the Virgin Mary and thus motherhood and purity. In heraldry it was used as a royal emblem by Henry IV and V.

The carvings here show the wonders of nature with three foliage designs.

Here we see a bearded man's head wearing an eastern style head-dress representing people in countries who had not yet converted to Christianity. The right supporter is an ostrich representing obedience and meditation with a horseshoe being used to ward off evil. On the left is a duck representing honesty, fidelity and simplicity.

Carved wooden angels occur on the arm rests between seats.

South Side

In the next misericord we have a scene of domestic violence with an angry woman beating her husband with a saucepan. He appears frightened raising his hand to protect himself. In the 15th century men dominated women and this scene shows the reverse situation. The carving suggests lack of harmony within the house.

The central carving shows a sphinx with a rider and is an emblem of Christianity as in heraldry the sphinx represented guardianship and divinity. The two supporters depict contrasting scenes. On the left a man and woman (she has loose hair again and was thus in those days immoral!) are fighting. On the right a man is beating a woman (this was allowed in the past to keep women disciplined!) and a dog is trying to bite her leg suggesting where the man on the left has gone wrong.

Serpents were a sign of the devil and we have two intertwined in the centre; one with a monster's head and one with the head of a woman. The association of serpents and women with evil goes back to The Garden of Eden. The supporter on the right is a man in the mouth of a fish (fish were a symbol of Christianity) and the sword the man holds represents power, truth and Christ's strength in the battle against evil. The left supporter is a serpent-like figure playing a flute - again linking evil and serpents.

More foliage representing the wonder of nature.

The next carvings are more unusual in that there is no centrepiece. There are three carvings of the same woman which tell a story. On the left her tongue hanging out of her mouth symbolic of the devil. In the centre she has an evil grin suggesting she may be gossiping or lying or scolding her husband and on the right she is wearing what is known as a "scold's bridle" where her tongue is held down by a metal bar. Apparently this awful procedure was practised until the early 19th century!

In the centre there is a mask bearing a human face. On the right is a monster's head and on the left a human face - both surrounded by leaves suggesting the Green Man symbolic of regrowth each Spring. The carvings may also suggest that man was also created by God and that like leaves people grow and will eventually die.

This misericord represents lechery and evil. The woman in the centre is partly naked suggesting evil. On the right is a harpy, a winged monster, which was believed to terrorise areas by grabbing people and tearing them apart. On the left is a defaced harpy.

In the centre is a human mask bearing the horns of a ram. On the left is a dolphin thought of in those days as the king of fish and a symbol of Christ. On the right is a goat - then a symbol of those damned.

The centrepiece shows a defaced satanic mask with four horns. Theatrical masks are shown as supporters - these masks were often worn at fairs when people may have behaved in a different manner. Possibly a warning to be careful of who was hiding behind the mask.

In the centre a defaced St George slaying the dragon with a woman behind kneeling in prayer. St George is destroying evil and the girl represents the Virgin Mary with a palm tree representing righteousness and resurrection. The left supporter is a person with animal hindquarters and the feet of a bird. The man appears to be re-arranging his beard - suggesting vanity (one of the deadly sins) and thus symbolic of evil.

More heraldry in the centre with two upright bears counter rampant (standing ready for action) and muzzled along with a staff and chain bearing a resemblance to the Earl of Warwick's badge. There are two monkey supporters one producing a urine specimen and one looking at the contents of a flask containing urine. This is satirical as doctors at the time were always diagnosing illnesses from urine samples.

In the centre of this misericord is a unicorn (representing Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary and then crucified by man) with a maiden and hunter about to kill the unicorn (symbolising the people who killed Jesus). The three crosses on the shield represent the Holy Trinity. On the left and right are oak leaves and acorns which are symbolic of the tree of life and denote worship.

The centrepiece is an eagle (symbolic of Christ) with two hawks holding a coronet protectively over the eagle's head. They portray those who serve Christ. The grotesque figures on each side symbolise evil.

Photos of a couple of the nine Bench Ends in the chancel.

I do marvel at the skill of the woodcarvers who made the misericords and the possible interpretations of their meanings show a fascinating insight into life in the 15th century - although I definitely would not have liked to have lived in that period! As the author of the book mentions there must be many aspects of the language of the misericords that we cannot possible understand and probably never will.

Apologies for any errors - I haven't been able to check this as well as I would have liked as E wants to use the computer!!

Reference : "The Misericords of Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon" researched and written by Madeleine Hammond


Margaret Adamson said...

Such wonderful craftmanship in all the carvings

Ragged Robin said...

Margaret Adamson - Thanks Margaret - I agree :)

Dartford Warbler said...

Thank you for a fascinating post, and for your previous posts about Holy Trinity in Stratford.

The misericord carvings are beautifully wrought, although the feminist in me is horrified at the attitude to women that it portrays. Life for Medieval women must have been hard.

Ragged Robin said...

Dartford Warbler - Thanks so much for your kind comment and so pleased you enjoyed the Holy Trinity posts.

I don't think I would have lasted 5 minutes in Medieval times! Some of the possible interpretations sent shudders through me! I wonder what people in 500 years time will think of us!

SeagullSuzie said...

How dreadful that scold's bridle must have been, however I think our politicians would be well suited to the practice!

Ragged Robin said...

SeagullSuzie - lol Suzie re: politicians. It does sound a pretty horrible instrument!

Countryside Tales said...

Fascinating as always. The carvings are amazing things. I love the idea of elderly priests resting secretly on them to get through their devotions!

Ragged Robin said...

Countryside Tales - Thanks - so glad you liked them. :)

David said...

What a wealth of misericords, the stories told through the wonderful carvings are fascinating. However some are rather bizarre to our modern eyes, especially the urinating monkeys, and the depiction of "immoral" women as having loose and free hair! However I remember an elderly relative of mine never liked my sisters with their hair down, though he was definitely a bit of throw back to a time long gone!

Isn't the upright muzzled bear still the county badge of Warwickshire?

Hope you have a great weekend and kindest regards to all :-)

Ragged Robin said...

David - Thanks so much. Yes, the stories are fascinating even though, some as you say, are rather bizarre!!The elderly relative of yours rings a bell with some of my grandparents' generation when I was young (a long time ago!)

Yes I do believe the bear and ragged staff is the Warwickshire symbol - you see the emblem in so many villages and towns.

Have a great weekend too David and enjoy the Garden Birdwatch - hopefully with the Brambling visiting!!

Best wishes Caroline

John Scurr said...

I am fascinated by picture 27.
The legend of the Lady and the Unicorn is shown in a number of sets of famous tapestries. The best known are the set in the National Museum of the Middle Ages at Cluny, Paris which were the inspiration for Tracey Chevalier's best selling book The Lady and the Unicorn.
This features one tapestry representing touch where the Lady is shown holding the Unicorn.

There is a further set in The Cloisters in New York which has recently been taken as a template to recreate a new set for Stirling Castle in Scotland called The Hunt of the Unicorn.
Unlike the set in Cluny these feature hunters as shown in the misericord.

As to the coat of arms, this does feature 3 crosses which would be an emblem of the Holy Trinity. However it is more detailed than that, specifically there is a chief with a crescent above the crosses and above that I think there is something else which I can not interpret. Having looked up the arms I find these are very similar to the Arms of Arden Baron Alvanley. (Gules 3 crosses crosslet fitchy argent on a chief or a crescent gules.)
I believe Arden is an important family name in Warwick!
The wood carvers would have struggled to make the crosses into crosses cosslet fitchy which would have made the top 3 bars of the cross be crossed again and the bottom bar end in a spike. The crescent can be a difference mark which would indicate that the arms belong to the second son of a family, sometimes these difference marks descend down through the family.
Sorry I appear to have gone on rather a lot

Ragged Robin said...

John Scurr - Thanks so much John for your exceedingly interesting comment and for all the links. This is all so fascinating. The piece about the Coat of Arms is particularly of interest - have spent the last half hour googling it all :) I can't make out what the mark above the crescent could be - have even used a magnifying glass. Some of the misericords are a bit "worn" and parts have been defaced. In this particular one the hunter's face has been chiselled away.

I've rechecked the guide I bought and there isn't much more information other than what I said in the post. Sadly it looks as though the lady who compiled, wrote and researched the booklet is no longer with us.

I've been checking through another booklet I have on the misericords from St Laurence Ludlow as some misericord themes and carvings can seem similar but I couldn't find that there was a carving there of a unicorn/lady/hunt. Apparently though the carvers did seem to work from
drawing or design books.

I can see I am going to be doing some more research on this! Would be interesting to see if the unicorn/lady/hunt theme occurs on other misericords either in other Warwickshire churches or elsewhere. Sadly, I am the only person in the family interested in old churches so I don't get to visit anywhere near as many as I would like.

I will also be buying the Tracy Chevalier book!

Thanks again for such an interesting comment.

Best wishes

Toffeeapple said...

Thank you for taking the time to make this post, it is very interesting. Coming from Baptist background we had nothing like the misericords in our Chapels so it is all new to me.

Am I right in thinking that there were quite a few where faces had been chipped off?

Ragged Robin said...

Toffeeapple - Thanks so much and am so pleased you find it interesting :) Its only in recent years that I've started to revisit old churches - it never ceases to amaze me the amount of history I find there.

Yes, I think quite a few are worn or have been defaced or chiselled!

Deb said...

Beautiful carvings and I love the stories behind them. Thanks for sharing such an interesting post. :-)

Ragged Robin said...

Deb - Thanks so much for your very kind comment - so glad you enjoyed :)

Bovey Belle said...

What a fascinating post. I love misericords too, and it was wonderful to have them all explained - many thanks. With my Pictish studies, archaeologists tend to go for the most obvious biblical explanation for some of the symbolism. I think they could be wrong, after reading this.

Ragged Robin said...

Bovey Belle - Thanks so much - I am so pleased you found it all so interesting. It is a fascinating subject - getting very tempted to buy more books on it even though I am not supposed to buy any more due to the 1000's I already have! But churches such as HTC Stratford and St Laurence in Ludlow have little booklets with possible explanations of their own misericords.