A misericord is a small wooden shelf
Shelf may refer to:* Shelf , a flat horizontal surface used for diplay and storage* Shelf , a user interface feature in the NeXTSTEP operating system* Shelf, West Yorkshire, a village in England...

 on the underside of a folding seat in a church, installed to provide a degree of comfort for a person who has to stand during long periods of prayer
Prayer is a form of religious practice that seeks to activate a volitional rapport to a deity through deliberate practice. Prayer may be either individual or communal and take place in public or in private. It may involve the use of words or song. When language is used, prayer may take the form of...



Prayers in the early medieval church for the daily divine office
Divine Office
Divine Office may refer to:* Liturgy of the Hours, the recitation of certain Christian prayers at fixed hours according to the discipline of the Roman Catholic Church* Canonical hours, the recitation of such prayers in Christianity more generally...

s (Matins
Matins is the early morning or night prayer service in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox liturgies of the canonical hours. The term is also used in some Protestant denominations to describe morning services.The name "Matins" originally referred to the morning office also...

, Lauds
Lauds is a divine office that takes place in the early morning hours and is one of the two major hours in the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it forms part of the Office of Matins...

, Prime
Prime (liturgy)
Prime, or the First Hour, is a fixed time of prayer of the traditional Divine Office , said at the first hour of daylight , between the morning Hour of Lauds and the 9 a.m. Hour of Terce. It is part of the Christian liturgies of Eastern Christianity, but in the Latin Rite it was suppressed by the...

, Terce
Terce, or Third Hour, is a fixed time of prayer of the Divine Office of almost all the Christian liturgies. It consists mainly of psalms and is said at 9 a.m. Its name comes from Latin and refers to the third hour of the day after dawn....

, Sext
Sext, or Sixth Hour, is a fixed time of prayer of the Divine Office of almost all the traditional Christian liturgies. It consists mainly of psalms and is said at noon...

, None
None (liturgy)
None , or the Ninth Hour, is a fixed time of prayer of the Divine Office of almost all the traditional Christian liturgies. It consists mainly of psalms and is said around 3 p.m...

, Vespers
Vespers is the evening prayer service in the Western Catholic, Eastern Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran liturgies of the canonical hours...

, and Compline
Compline is the final church service of the day in the Christian tradition of canonical hours. The English word Compline is derived from the Latin completorium, as Compline is the completion of the working day. The word was first used in this sense about the beginning of the 6th century by St...

) were said standing with uplifted hands. Those who were old or infirm could use crutches or, as time went on, misericordia (literally "act of mercy"). Seating was constructed so that the seats could be turned up, the undersides being provided with a small shelf thus allowing a person a small level of comfort by leaning against it. Like most other medieval woodwork in churches, they were usually carved with skill and often show detailed scenes which belie their hidden position underneath the seats, especially in the choir stalls
Stall (enclosure)
A stall is a small enclosure of some kind, usually less enclosed than a room.-Market stall:A market stall is usually an immobile temporary structure erected by merchants to display and shelter their merchandise...

 of the quire
Quire (architecture)
Architecturally, the choir is the area of a church or cathedral, usually in the western part of the chancel between the nave and the sanctuary . The choir is occasionally located in the eastern part of the nave...

 around the altar.


Misericords in English churches date from the start of the 13th century right up until the 21st century, although after the beginning of the 17th century they are viewed as modern copies with little or no historical importance. Remnant's 1969 catalogue dismisses everything after this date as "modern", rarely even affording it a description, but there are many wonderful carvings from the Victorian era, and even the modern day. The earliest set of misericords can be found in the choir stalls of Exeter Cathedral
Exeter Cathedral
Exeter Cathedral, the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter at Exeter, is an Anglican cathedral, and the seat of the Bishop of Exeter, in the city of Exeter, Devon in South West England....

 and date from the middle of the 13th century. The vast majority of English misericords date from the 14th and 15th centuries and are curiously most often depictions of secular or pagan images and scenes, entirely at odds with the Christian iconography and aesthetic of the churches they sit within.

Many of the stalls with misericords were once part of monastic or collegiate church
Collegiate church
In Christianity, a collegiate church is a church where the daily office of worship is maintained by a college of canons; a non-monastic, or "secular" community of clergy, organised as a self-governing corporate body, which may be presided over by a dean or provost...

es, but with the coming of the Reformation
Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation was a 16th-century split within Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other early Protestants. The efforts of the self-described "reformers", who objected to the doctrines, rituals and ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, led...

 many were either destroyed or broken up to be dispersed amongst parish churches. Those that survived were subject to further depletion at the hands of the 17th century iconoclasts
Iconoclasm is the deliberate destruction of religious icons and other symbols or monuments, usually with religious or political motives. It is a frequent component of major political or religious changes...

 and the Victorian
Victorian era
The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence...

 reformers. One set at Chester
Chester is a city in Cheshire, England. Lying on the River Dee, close to the border with Wales, it is home to 77,040 inhabitants, and is the largest and most populous settlement of the wider unitary authority area of Cheshire West and Chester, which had a population of 328,100 according to the...

 was destroyed by Dean Howson because he deemed it improper, although 43 of the original medieval scenes still remain. The woodcarvers came from Lincoln
Lincoln, Lincolnshire
Lincoln is a cathedral city and county town of Lincolnshire, England.The non-metropolitan district of Lincoln has a population of 85,595; the 2001 census gave the entire area of Lincoln a population of 120,779....

 in the late 14th century and moved on to Westminster Hall when they had finished the quire, three years later. It is said that it was the apprentices who were allowed to carve the seats, while the masters did the more impressive works.

Others have been destroyed by fire or by natural decay. Fortunately, there are many hundreds left. There are a particularly fine set of original 15th century misericords beneath the choir stalls in St Botolph's church, Boston, Lincolnshire
Boston, Lincolnshire
Boston is a town and small port in Lincolnshire, on the east coast of England. It is the largest town of the wider Borough of Boston local government district and had a total population of 55,750 at the 2001 census...

, also known as The Stump
The Stump
St Botolph's Church is a parish church in the Church of England in Boston, Lincolnshire. It is famous for its extraordinarily tall tower, known as the Boston Stump.-Background:...


Misericord (room)

A distinct (but related) meaning of the word is to denote a room in a medieval Benedictine monastery where some part of the community would eat on any given day. The principal purpose for the existence of the misericord was due to the fact that the Rule of Saint Benedict prescribed tough rules on the food allowed for monks in the refectory
A refectory is a dining room, especially in monasteries, boarding schools and academic institutions. One of the places the term is most often used today is in graduate seminaries...

 (for example, it provided for a complete ban on the meat of four-legged animals except for the sick.) In a late medieval monastery, a schedule would send half of all monks to dine in the refectory, and the other half to the misericord, where the Rule of Saint Benedict was not in effect and they could indulge in meat. At Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey
The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, popularly known as Westminster Abbey, is a large, mainly Gothic church, in the City of Westminster, London, United Kingdom, located just to the west of the Palace of Westminster. It is the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English,...

, the misericord was constructed sometime between 1230 and 1270.

Present day

Misericords are found to this day on kathisma
A Kathisma , literally, "seat", is a division of the Psalter, used by Eastern Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics who follow the Byzantine Rite...

, the choir stalls used by Eastern Orthodox monastics. These tend to be much simpler than their Western counterparts, usually being a simple strip of rounded wood with little or no ornamentation. Their use is very common in the Greek Orthodox Church
Greek Orthodox Church
The Greek Orthodox Church is the body of several churches within the larger communion of Eastern Orthodox Christianity sharing a common cultural tradition whose liturgy is also traditionally conducted in Koine Greek, the original language of the New Testament...

, though Russian Orthodox monasteries tend not to have individual choir stalls, but simple benches for the brethren to sit on. Orthodox Christians stand throughout the long divine services, rather than sit or kneel, though some seating is provided for the elderly and infirm. Whereas Greek monks will tend to lean in their stalls during the services, Russian monks usually stand upright.

As the 'hidden' position and 'vernacular' iconography of misericords have prompted them to be seen as a subversive art-form, they have re-appeared as motifs in modern art and literature (see Misericords for Ninevah, Mike Freeman, Poetry Nation Review, pp24–25, 2009).

Further reading

  • Gordon Emery, Curious Chester (1999) ISBN 1-872265-94-4
  • Gordon Emery, Chester Inside Out (1998) ISBN 1-872265-92-8
  • Gordon Emery, The Chester Guide(2003) ISBN 1-872265-89-8

External links

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