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Thursday 10 December 2015

The fascinating and sometimes very rude sixteenth-century misericords in Bristol Cathedral

The collection of misericords in Bristol Cathedral date from 1515-1526 and were installed by order of Abbot Robert Elyot. The stalls around them date to the nineteenth century but the misericords are the original ones. 

In 'Church Woodcarvings: A West Country Study', JCD Smith says that the Bristol misericords are 'the newest set of medieval misericords of any size in the West Country' and that they are 'not renowned for the superlative quality of their carving but they are outstandingly interesting in their subject matter.'

Misericords are small ledges revealed when the seats in the choir stalls are tipped up. They were used by clergy to rest against whilst standing for long periods of time during Masses. The odd name comes
from the Latin words for 'pity' and 'heart'.

Many of the Bristol misericords illustrate tales of Reynard the Fox, a trickster peasant-hero figure. Stories about him were popular all over Europe, especially in Britain after William Caxton published a printed version in 1481. Some images are harder to decipher and may illustrate morality tales or sayings that have been lost over time.

Sadly, not all of the misericords can be easily seen by a visitor, due to some badly-placed brass rings holding the ends of ropes that stop anyone sitting on the seats. However, the designs have been replicated on embroidered cushion covers that rest on the seats, although some of the cushions have been moved around from their original places. Here are a few misericords that can be seen:

In this tale from Reynard the fox, Tybalt the cat has been sent to bring him to justice. He is tricked along the way into being trapped in the house of the priest's mistress. The priest's son has Tybalt on a leash whilst she belabours him with a broom, but Tybalt has the priest's testicles in his mouth. Checkmate.

Tybalt and the priest have another fight. Dame Dulok tries to pull the cat off the naked priest's back as Reynard the fox watches from a bush on the right. Some of the faces carved on the supporters to each side are so well executed that they make me wonder if they represent actual people - perhaps other builders or apprentices used as models, or clergy of the time? In 'The Hidden World of Misericords', Dorothy and Henry Kraus say that these side carvings are also sometimes called 'wing carvings' and that they are 'the most distinguishing stylistic feature of British misericords.'

In 'Church Misericords  and Bench Ends', Hayman notes that the carvings of Reynard's tales in Bristol  draw heavily on the first illustrated edition published in 1501, or perhaps a Netherlandish or German equivalent.

A monster with two heads drives three naked men. Richard Hayman, in his book 'Church Misericords and Bench Ends', says that this design was 'copied from a book of hours printed in about 1500 in Paris by Thielmann Kerver.'

While all this is going on, a man touches his nose with his tongue and a monkey plays a lute. Maybe having fun on the Sabbath got these unfortunate men in trouble.

Someone is in trouble for having a look in the cooking pot. Maybe this was to remind the clergy that married life has it's ups and downs?

In this strange and beautifully-carved tableau, a mermaid is held by a wyvern and an odd winged man who may be the Devil. The mermaid in church carvings usually represents the perils of lust. There is a clown on the supporter to the left and an ape holding a flask (of wine or urine?) on the right.

Two men holding a pig. The man on the right is holding what is often interpreted as intestines with a knife nearby, showing the hog is being slaughtered. This subject can also be seen on a misericord at the Church de La Trinité in Vendôme in France. 

I'd suggest that there is another possible interpretation, that the pig (which is obviously a sow and looks very alive) is in difficulties giving birth and the men are trying to assist. Two rabbits run in and out of holes under the bench that the sow is on.

The geese come to see the fox hanged, as two sorrowful human faces also look on.

Varty, in '"Reynard the Fox: Cultural Metamorphoses and social engagement in the Beast' says that although this scene is inspired by the Tales of Reynard, in the actual tales the fox is never executed. He points out that this scene was only depicted in England and this is one of two surviving images of it, the other being in Beverley Minster.

Hayman, In his book on 'Church Misericords and bench ends' says that the stories about Reynard inspired a separate tale of the fox bishop. In a satire on corrupt clergy, the fox bishop and his friends the apes dupe the local pigs and birds. However he eventually gets his comeuppance and the geese, in an act that turns the normal order on its head, hang the trickster. The whole story is illustrated on bench ends in the church at Brent Knoll in Somerset.

A tale from the Old Testament of the Bible. Samson is empowered by God to wrestle a lion and tear it apart with his bare hands. He carries the jawbone of an ass in his belt, with which he defeats an army single handed.
In George Jack's textbook 'Wood Carving: Design and Workmanship', first published in 1903, he shows illustrations of the two side figures of this misericord. Jack writes;

"The little jester just emerging from  flower..., is undoubtedly a true portrait, carved without the slightest attempt at exaggeration. The quiet humour which it evinces required only sympathy to perceive and skill to portray on the part of its carver. He had nothing to invent in the common acceptation of the word. The carving of the mendicant, which comes on the other side, is equally vivid in its truth to nature. It is so lifelike that we do not notice the humorous enjoyment of the artist in depicting the whining lips and closed eyes of the professional beggar. Observe the good manners of it all - the natural refinement of the artist who leaves his characters to make all the fun, without intrusion from himself other than to give the aid of his skill in representation."

I'm assuming that Jack (whose expression of personal opinions throughout seems unusually free for someone writing a textbook) had either not seen or chose to ignore the side figure shown four photos on from this one, for whom the expressions 'good manners' and 'natural refinement' don't necessarily seem to apply!

Two men wrestle naked with a thong or scarves wrapped around their necks, perhaps binding them together, while another man looks on and points towards the ground. In the original Greek Olympics, men wrestled naked.

An ape riding a horse (?) with a sack for a saddle, encounters a naked man wielding a stick who holds the mount's tail. Two rabbits in burrows below.

A man hunting a stag with his dog shoots it in it's flank. Perhaps refers to one of the Christian saints of hunting, Saint Hubertus or Saint Eustace?

A naked man fights off two beasts (demons?) with a sword. Look carefully at the figure on the supporter to the left. Medieval Christian carvings were a lot bawdier than later ones!! This isn't the only example of such a figure on a misericord. The is similar one one in the Cathedral of St Tugdual in Tréguier in France.

In 'Church Woodcarvings: A West Country Study', JCD Smith records that;
'After 1841, when restorations were carried out in the cathedral, there remained thirty misericords but, according to the records, several were removed at about this date. In a paper given to the Clifton Antiquarian Club in 1888, Robert Hall Warren listing the misericords which were in the cathedral before the restorations, stated that three of them were too indecent to be exposed to view or even mentioned. Presumably the dean and chapter at that time shared Mr Warren's opinion, which would explain their absence today. Tradition has it that they were burned.'

Satan comes out of the jaws of Hell to greet a woman who is leading in four apes on leashes. Apes obviously mean human sinners in these carvings. I wonder how the Theory of Evolution would have been received in those days!

This carving illustrates a tradition of the time, which said that maids who die unmarried would lead the souls of bachelors, like apes, into Hell. In 'Misericords: Medieval Life in English Woodcarving', Anderson mentions that this saying is alluded to in Shakespeare's plays 'The Taming of the Shrew' and 'Much Ado about Nothing' and points out that it became popular in the late sixteenth century. This is interesting, as the carvings were produced at an earlier date than that.

This is one of the most complex and beautifully-carved sets. JCD Smith says that the man is riding a muzzled bear and that the scene is a parody of the game of quintain. The book also points out that the simplified, 'crude' representations of trees are characteristic of these Bristol misericords.

In 'The Hidden World of Misericords', the Krauses talk about how many misericords show parodies of courtly pursuits as 'the posturings of the waning knight class were satirised in sham contests'.

A man riding a sow and a woman riding a goose or turkey look like they are having a mock joust. Although the bird is often referred to as a goose, some of the first turkeys seen in Britain were brought to Bristol by William Strickland and sold in the market there in 1526. That was the year in which the last of the misericords was carved and the turkeys must have caused quite a stir, so I think that the novel bird has been recorded by this carver. It certainly looks a lot more like a turkey than a goose!

Mike Harding has pointed out that many misericords celebrate the 'The world turned upside down'. On St Stephen's day, Lords of Misrule would be elected and the normal rules would be abandoned, which probably gave a welcome and necessary release to a society bound by so many legal and moral conventions. Although the 'Feast of Fools'  was not formally abolished in England until a Royal Proclamation in 1542, this celebration can still be seen today in the tradition of 'Carnival'.
The two green men on the supporters are also worth noting.

A snail, with its house on its back in a tied bundle, is encouraged to speed up by a man with a double-thonged whip as another man looks on. Knights and others in battle with snails are a surprisingly common theme in medieval art and there is a video by Vox Almanac on Youtube that considers some possible reasons, including that the snail is an allegorical depiction of the Lombards.


  1. I just love these carvings! There are some great ones on the wooden stalls in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, but try as I might, I can never get any decent photos of them. The ones there have less of an anecdotal quality, but there are a whole load of quirky/funny/lewd references and you wonder how their creators managed to pull these off in a church setting! But as you said, things must have been far bawdier then...

  2. It's always really tricky to get decent images of them as you say, they are so tucked away that lighting is a real problem. I'm very happy with some of these though, I just balanced the camera with the flash off and set it on self timer.
    Seeing the ones that survived the Victorians does make one wonder what the three that didn't were like. Given the amount that the church must have spent on the misericords, I can't believe that the clergy holding the pursestrings wouldn't have had a full say in what the carvers made as well. A different time.

  3. One of these is on display at MShed Museum, Bristol

  4. Are you still responding to questions. I noticed that the comments above are dated 2015.

    1. Hi, I have been more focussed on my Instagram page for the last couple of years, mainly because of lack of time to compose decent blog posts with a lot of commission work on and a new baby. Sorry if I've seemed a bit distant! However, I am realising how useful this blog is for me personally and I think for those who enjoy reading it, so will hopefully come back with new material soon. Thanks for posting your comments though. It really is good to know that there are folks out there reading my posts.