It is easy to forget, in a modern world with high definition televisions, global travel and astounding engineering technologies, that the average person in medieval Worcestershire would have seen and experienced very little of the world. Their existence would have centred around agriculture and rarely would they see other towns, let alone other countries. Although the Cathedral still inspires awe in anyone who steps over the threshold today, the towering stone structure would doubtless have been the single most impressive sight the people of Worcester had ever seen. The craft work involved in its construction – its unparalleled proportions, vaulted ceilings, great stone pillars, intricate wooden carvings – was lavished with such attention because the building was dedicated to God; it was an indication of man’s faith and devotion, and therefore it warranted the lavish attention and expense.
This connection of workmanship with devotion is important to keep in mind as you wander around the Cathedral today. Places which we would think of as unimportant were a canvas on which a craftsman long ago had the opportunity to show off their skills in the name of God. One of the most interesting examples of this are the Worcester misericords, which can now be found in the Quire. In order to assist frail monks who were required to stand in prayer during the long services, the underside of the folding seats had a little shelf on which a person could perch if they wanted to take their weight off their feet. The word ‘misericord’ literally means ‘act of mercy’ for this reason. Wooden carvings can be found on the underside of many of these folding seats, which have always spent most of their day hidden from view facing the floor.
Most of the misericord carvings at Worcester Cathedral date from around 1379 and give a fascinating insight into medieval everyday life. The carvings have been made for a place of Christian worship, and some of the designs reflect this. For example, this amazingly detailed scene on the 28th stall on the North side depicts the Judgement of Solomon (1 Kings 4, 16-27). On either side of the seated figures are the two women being judged, the one on the left holding a child in a shroud and the one on the right clutching a live child who is being seized from its mother. Of particular note here is the finely wrought architectural detail of the canopies above their heads.
The carvings are not limited to just biblical scenes. The misericords of Worcester depict the first almost complete cycle of the labours of the months. Nine months of the year (excepting January, April and November) are represented by a medieval farmer performing some kind of agricultural action, such as haymaking (July), reaping (August) and sowing (March). The 22nd stall on the North side shows a swineherd knocking acorns down from an oak tree as food for his pigs, an image that probably represents September.
It would seem, however, that the carvers were not restricted to just depicting either theological or agricultural scenes. Some churches have misericords which feature alarmingly pagan or subversive images that we might never have expected to find in a place of Christian worship. At Westminster Abbey, for example, one misericord depicts a woman with a handful of birch beating the bare buttocks of her husband, who is holding a winding frame and a ball of wool. In various churches around the country there are representations of the Green Man, a pagan folk deity.
Although Worcester does not have any depictions of medieval gender inversion, a number of the misericords feature mythical beasts, such as stall 14 on the North side, showcasing the imaginative skill of the craftsmen who worked on these scenes. This carving shows a woman’s head on an animal’s body with wings and cloven feet. It could possibly represent a harpy, a mythical monster from ancient Greek and Roman cultures, or a manticore, a legendary Persian creature. The supports either side of the beast depict a scene of a man hunting with a hawk.
The 8th stall on the North side is also interesting in its depiction of non-Christian folklore. It bears a carving of ‘the clever daughter’, who is shown wearing a net, riding a goat with one foot on the ground and holding a hare; thus she is clothed but not clothed, walking but not walking and carrying a gift that cannot be given. The story is similar to one found in Grimms’ fairy tales called ‘Die kluge Bauerntochter’, and is found in many manifestations in European folklore. The supporters on either side of the clever daughter are traditional Green Men.
It is amazing what you find when you look in the hidden corners, undersides and crevices of a medieval Cathedral. The Worcester misericords are just one example of the treasures you may discover there.
NB: This blog post made use of ‘The Misericords in Worcester Cathedral: A Pocket Tour’ by John Bailey, a fascinating publication which can be purchased from the Worcester Cathedral Library shop.