The Misericords of Ripon Minster

by Eric Webb

 

 

This monograph was originally written to introduce and accompany a CD-ROM I produced privately in November 2003, containing high-definition scans of my original 35mm colour slides of the Ripon Minster misericords taken over 20 years previously and a slide-show. It would be impractical to post up the original scans or the slide-show on a domestic web-site, however I have managed to include thumbnails.

 

Misericord Seats

The Ripon Misericords

The Colour Slides

The Scans

Illustrated Table of Misericords

Illustrated Table of Comparisons

Copyright

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Misericord Seats

Misericord seats are found in the choir stalls in churches, cathedrals and monastic foundations all over Europe. They are made to lift and tip back, like modern theatre seats but without the counterbalance. On the underside is a shallow shelf, supported by a wooden bracket on which the occupant can then take some weight, thus appearing to remain standing upright whilst in reality partially seated. The posture is broadly similar to that taken on a shooting stick, but with greater stability and often with additional support from high armrests.

Used in this way, the misericord provides relief [Latin misericordia = act of mercy] for those who must spend long hours on their feet in the course of worship. In mediŠval times there were 8 services in 24 hours: matins, lauds, prime terce, sext, none, vespers and compline, and properly speaking, those services were to be said and sung standing.

In Britain most misericords, and certainly those of greatest interest, are pre-Reformation, at least 450 years old. The oldest set, at Exeter cathedral, dates back 650 years to the 14th century. The oldest individual seat, at Ripon Minster, is 13th century. Many are still remarkably well preserved, perhaps in part because of their concealed location. They represent a unique survival and treasure house of mediŠval art and craftsmanship, despite which they are generally undervalued and in places at risk through neglect.

The shape of the underside of the seat, with the central bracket and a flat area to either side, lends itself to carved decoration and almost all surviving mediŠval misericords are decorated, however simply. Typically there is a main, central subject using the bracket, well modelled in 3 dimensions in many of the better examples, with flatter carvings, the supporters, to either side. All British misericords follow this pattern, some continental examples have no supporters.

Perhaps because they were mostly out of sight and certainly out of public sight, perhaps because of the misericords' purpose, to give an appearance of virtuous adherence to proper practice whilst permitting something less, perhaps also because they would obviously be in frequent, close contact with the hinder parts, the subjects chosen for misericord carvings are wide ranging and vigorous, even by the broad tastes of mediŠval church decoration. A few are carved only with abstract foliate designs but most portray men and women, birds and beasts, in great variety. For supporters, formal designs are more common and quite often the design is standard throughout a set. Sometimes the subjects of the central carving and its supporters are related and occasionally they comprise a single, coherent picture or tell a story but usually there is no discernible relationship.

Many stock subjects recur with some frequency, sometimes, as appears, because they are well suited to the physical and artistic constraints of the location; but often there is no such straightforward explanation. Biblical scenes, and overtly religious topics of any description, are in a minority, although the educated mediŠval mind, alert to Platonic ideals, was apt to find religious parallels in unlikely places. It is always tempting to seek an interpretation but it is probably a mistake to look too hard. A carving of a cat catching a mouse may represent the devil trapping a human soul, or it may just represent a cat catching a mouse. Even where some deeper symbolism can be strongly suspected, it is often obscure. It may have been equally obscure to the carver who was merely following his fancy against the background of his times, or recreating something he had seen elsewhere and liked the look of.

Some carvings depict scenes from the popular mediŠval romances, such as Reynard the Fox and the Arthurian cycle, or classic mythology. Country and domestic scenes are also common. There are many birds and animals, real and fantastic. Stock jokes are popular: the fox friar preaching to the geese, the wife beating her husband, the imp Tutivillus eavesdropping on the two ladies chattering in church. Overall there is a rich vein of humour, mostly low and occasionally descending to outright obscenity. At Chester, a Victorian Dean had 5 misericords destroyed because they were 'very improper'. The atmosphere is that of the tales of Chaucer and Boccaccio. To describe it as secular would be mistaken, the mediŠval mind understood no such distinction between sacred and secular as we now imagine, but it was certainly worldly, in a world whose metaphysical boundaries were less constrained than ours.

Sets of misericords contrast with other, more visible decoration: roof bosses, stained glass and wall paintings, and the great west fronts of some cathedrals with their elaborate series of sculptures. These are tightly organised, with a clear didactic or monitory purpose, and wholly or largely given over to biblical characters and scenes. Misericords seldom follow a tidy scheme, or any scheme at all, often they seem a complete mish-mash, and this cannot usually be explained by accumulation and addition over a long period nor by later loss or destruction. Most of the major sets were created all of a piece and many are still largely complete. It may be that what has been preserved gives us a somewhat distorted view of the whole, and perhaps coherences which were once obvious are lost on us now, nonetheless there is a prevailing sense of joyous anarchy: a foil perhaps to the formal splendour and spectacle of the mediŠval church.

Early misericords have nicely rounded, ergonomic under-seats; they would be truly comfortable to sit on. Later examples are more angular, more architectural; this development is consistent and along with other stylistic features it can be used in dating. Some of these later seats seem to be designed rather more for the sake of the carved decoration than of the sitter. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that they were commissioned more for show than for use; perhaps local pride in a nice set for display, to an appropriate audience, came to outweigh the practicalities.

Experiment quickly demonstrates that most British misericord seats are now unusable as such. They are set so low that perched on the under-seat one's legs splay forwards bearing little weight, an excruciatingly uncomfortable position and certainly no improvement on standing upright. Perhaps in the course of repair and refurbishment over the centuries either the stalls have been cut down or the floors raised; in some instances the seats themselves have been reset in newer stalls. Returning to the suspicion that some later sets may have been made largely for display, perhaps they have always been this height, but I have no evidence for this supposition.

Without doubt though, misericords were originally developed for an entirely practical purpose and in some places they are still used. On a recent holiday in Greece, I found a set in an Orthodox nunnery near Delphi, plain without ornament, new and lightly constructed. Confirming my British experiments, the seats proper were set high, perhaps 70 cm from the floor; with Mother Superior shepherding us purposefully onwards it was impossible to inspect very closely. The under-seats must then have turned up at about 80 cm. There were also high armrests about elbow level. If that was comfortable for a modern Greek nun, a mediŠval English choirman or monk may have needed something a little higher again. With a main seat so high, so that the feet rest only lightly on the floor when seated, it is a long way down to worship kneeling and a long way back up again afterwards. Perhaps a change in the fashion of address to God, from standing to kneeling, explains latter day alterations.

 

The Ripon Misericords

G.L. Remnant in A Catalogue of British Misericords [OUP 1969] dates the Ripon misericords 1489-94, although one of the carvings itself bears the date 1484. [It is most unusual for misericord or other mediŠval church woodcarvings to be dated in this way.] Other sources identify the chief craftsman as William Bromflet, or William Carver as he is named in the Minster accounts. He was paid 6d/day.

There are 34 misericord seats in the choirstalls, 17 either side, one of which is a modern copy of the original. Another much older is displayed elsewhere; this probably dates from the 13th century and as such it is the oldest British misericord. It was given to the Minster in 1958 and is said to be one of the set removed when the present seats were installed.

The choir seats are of high quality: they are robustly designed and executed and well-preserved. As with most sets of misericord seats, although the subjects and/or designs of some of the individual carvings are similar or related and there is a general unity of style and pattern, there is no obvious overarching programme or theme.

Some of the Ripon craftsmen, and others trained or influenced by them, later worked elsewhere in the North of England, including Manchester Cathedral and Beverley Minster. I append some selected examples illustrating similarities and differences of style. At Manchester it is possible to trace, or at least easily to imagine, an evolutionary link; at Beverley this is not so easy, nor is the craftsmanship uniformly to such a high standard. However at Beverley as at Ripon there are particularly striking choir bench ends, similarly decorated with substantial figurative carvings.

 

The Colour Slides

The original colour slides were taken, with the leave of the Minster authorities, on 17/02/77, in the course of a visit to Yorkshire during which I also took pictures at Beverley Minster and St. Mary's Beverley. The cameras used were Minolta 35mm SLR's, with a single electronic flash on a bracket and lenses of 35mm & 50mm focal length. The film was Kodak Ektachrome. I took at least one slide of all the seats, with duplicates and/or details of some, together with a few of other features of the stallwork.

I concentrated on the central subjects and the supporters to either side are seldom completely included, if at all. In a few cases of particular interest I took separate pictures of these.

Judging the correct photographic exposure for old, dark, polished woodwork is difficult. Although I had some previous experience I was still learning and the slides are somewhat underexposed, but consistently so, so that correction does not present undue difficulties.

After initial inspection and use, the slides were stored in archival conditions and they appear to have survived well.

 

The Scans

The original scans were made with a Nikon Coolscan III slide scanner, working with a PC running Windows 98. The scanner was driven with the Nikon Scan 2.1 program. It was used at maximum resolution and basic factory settings, with a correction routine for minor dust marks and scratches switched in but with no colour, contrast or density corrections.

The scans were initially saved, as. jpg files at maximum quality, producing a file size about 4 Mb. Using JASC's Paint Shop Pro 7.0 program, this original scan series was processed and edited in various ways, to improve image quality and for convenience, to produce other series. The CD-ROM contains all these series, in separate directories.

 

Illustrated Table of Misericords

The images in the table below are arranged and numbered according to file no. hence according to actual seat position and G.L. Remnant's scheme.

The descriptions follow Remnant, with amendments where he is mistaken and a few other additions of my own.

 

Image no.

Description

Image

N.01

Lion attacked by 2 dogs, who stand one on each of 2 large leaves which form the supporters.

N.01r

N.02

Wyvern attacked by 2 dogs, who stand one on each of 2 large leaves which form the supporters. [Compare N.04.]

N.03

Compare

Demi-angel holding a blank shield. Supporters: Left & Right, rose.

[Compare S.01 & S02.]

N.04

The Tree of Life, represented only by large leaves which form the supporters, on each of which stands a bird. A wyvern in the centre.

[If the birds remain in the shelter of the Tree they are safe from attack by the wyvern; symbolising the safety of souls in the shadow of the Almighty]. [Compare N.02.]

N04l

N.05

Hart's-tongue ferns. Supporters: Left & Right, vine-leaf.

N.06

Conventional flowers. Supporters: Left & Right, conventional flower.

N.07

Ape attacked by lion. Supporters: Left & Right, conventional flower.

N.08

Vine with grapes. Supporters: Left & Right, vine-leaf.

N.09

Birds pecking fruit. Supporters: Left & Right, cluster of fruit.

N.10

2 antelopes. Supporters: Left & Right, elaborate flower foliage.

N.11I

Fox in pulpit, preaching to goose & cock. Supporters: Left & Right, sycamore leaf.

N11ii

N11c

N.12

Fox running off with 2 geese. Supporters: Left & Right, triple sycamore leaves.

N.12c

N.13

Fox caught by dogs. Supporters: Left & Right, 5-petalled rose.

N.13c

N.14

Dragons fighting. Supporters: Left & Right, rose.

N.15i

Grotesque mask with head inverted and fruit & flowers issuing from the mouth. Supporters: Left & Right, fruit.

N.15ii

N.16

Compare

Man holding a club & wearing a chaplet of oak-leaves & acorns. Remnant suggests he is intended to represent Orson.

[Valentine & Orson were twin brothers, abandoned in the woods in infancy. Valentine was discovered and brought up as a knight, while Orson remained in the woods to be raised by a bear. He lived as a wild man until he was eventually overcome and tamed by Valentine, whose servant and comrade he became.]

However wild men are fairly common on misericords and images often became separated from their original inspirations. Supporters: Left & Right, triple fruit design.

N.17

Remnant has 'hawk' catching a rabbit but the predator is in fact a griffin. Supporters: Left & Right, fruit.

S.01

Angel with book. Supporters: Left unicorn, Right, rose.

[Compare N.03 & S02.]

S.02

Demi-angel with label bearing the date 1489. [NB that the archaic form of figure '4' is simply the top portion of figure '8'] Supporters: Left & Right, leaf.

[Compare N.03 & S01.]

S.03

Lion fighting dragon. Supporters: Left & Right, leaf.

S.04

Griffin eating a human leg. Supporters: Left & Right, leaf.

S.05i

Owl with outspread wings. Supporters: Left & Right, rose.

S.05ii

S.06

Mermaid with mirror & brush. Supporters: Left & Right, fruit.

S.07

Compare

2 piglets dancing to bagpipe played by sow. Supporters: Left, rose, Right, rose reversed.

S.08

Jonah cast overboard [Jonah Ch.1]. Supporters: Left & Right, flower in profile.

S.09

Compare

Man wheeling a 3-wheeled wheelbarrow, containing a woman holding in her right hand a short staff [Remnant identifies this as a reed.] & in her left a bag. According to Remnant, this may represent either a scold being taken to the ducking stool, the man resisting the temptation of a bribe held out to him, or a man wheeling his bride to church. Supporters: Left & Right, formal foliage.

S.09c

S.10

Compare

Fox carrying off a goose, chased by a dog, on right supporter, and a woman with a distaff, on left supporter.

S.10c

S.10l

S.10r

S.11

Compare

Griffin in profile. Supporters: Left & Right, leaf.

S.12

Hart gorged and chained. Supporters: Left & Right, leaf.

S.13

Compare

Pelican in her piety [wounding her own breast to feed her young]. Supporters: Left & Right, grotesque head with protruding tongue.

S.14

Jonah coming out of the whale. [Jonah Ch.2:10] Supporters: Left, fruit. Right, a small animal with a long tail.

S.14c

S.15

Samson carrying the gates of Gaza [Judges Ch.16:2-3]. Supporters: Left & Right, leaf.

S.16

Head with flowing hair & beard. Supporters: Left & Right, rose. [Remnant believes this may be modern. I am inclined to agree as the grain of the timber is rather coarse and the finish of the seat edge rather plain compared with the rest, but otherwise it is an excellent match.]

S.17

Compare

Caleb & Joshua carrying grapes on their return from the promised land [Numbers: Ch.13:23]. Supporters: Left & Right, blemya. [Creatures with their faces on their bellies, described by Pliny and perhaps, originally, African bushmen in body-paint.]

Remnant suggests that they may be intended to represent Anakim. These were probably a remnant of the original inhabitants of Palestine before the Canaanites. Their formidable warlike appearance, as described by the spies sent to search the land, filled the Israelites with terror.

S.17l

S.17r

Old.i

2 armed men in combat, with a tree in the centre background. There are no supporters,

Old.ii

Old.iii

Stall.01

Unidentified male animal, perhaps a beaver?

Stall.02i

Compare

Elephant

Stall.02ii

Stall.02iii

 

Table of Comparisons

I have taken Ripon Minster as the benchmark, ignoring examples where there are comparable designs at Beverley and Manchester, but none at Ripon. To return from this table to the corresponding image in the Ripon Minster table, click the appropriate Return hyperlink. The Full and Mono hyperlinks can be used to view full-size colour and monochrome versions of the thumbnails.

 

Ripon Minster

Beverley Minster

Manchester Cathedral

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No comparison

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[Example at Manchester

is badly damaged.]

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No comparison

 

 

Copyright ę

Copyright in the pictures is the property of the Ripon Minster, Beverley Minster and Manchester Cathedral authorities, as appropriate, whose permission must be sought for any publication for profit. I shall be grateful for suitable acknowledgement in the event of any further reproduction, whether for profit or not, including reproduction in electronic form.

Copyright in the text of this document remains with myself as author. Subject to acknowledgement of authorship it may be freely reproduced in whole or in part, quoted from or cited for the purpose of personal research or study and all other non-profit-making purposes. Reproduction or quotation with a view to profit requires my leave, which is unlikely to be withheld but may be made contingent on a suitable charitable contribution.

 

29 November 2003

Eric Webb

Table of Comparisons

Illustrated Table

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