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Misericords of North West England

Their nature and Significance

Misericords, carved into the underside of choir stall seats in major churches and cathedrals, reveal the otherwise lost skills of medieval craftsmen, together with important insights into the thought of the period. The images, as powerful representations of the constant struggle between sin and virtue, and often drawing on the fantastic, depict many strange monsters alongside scenes that are domestic in character; the mother watching the fox stealing the cock, or marital disharmony in the kitchen.

The medieval misericords of England's North West are regarded as one of the finest regional sets in the country. This clear and compelling account of the major collections across Cheshire, Cumbria and Lancashire explains how to interpret the images and brings vividly to life the philosophy, as well as the humour and capriciousness, of the monks' lives. The volume, based on first-hand fieldwork by the author, and accompanied by specially commissioned photographs and an extensive bibliography, casts new and fascinating light on the hidden and secretive world of the misericords.

  • Softback
  • Full Colour Cover
  • ISBN: 978-1-86220-204-7
  • 49 Specially commissioned black and white illustrations
  • 136 Pages

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Published by Centre for North-West Regional Studies, Lancaster University

About the Author
John Dickinson grew up in Canada, and first laid eyes on a misericord during his 1996 honeymoon in England. As an academic administrator at Lancaster University since 2000, he has been able to take full advantage of the wealth of misericords in the North-West, indulging a passion that has culminated in this book.

Extract from: Misericords of North West England

To begin it is necessary briefly to define what a misericord is. Misericords are hinged seats found in the choirs of many medieval churches, abbeys and cathedrals in west Europe. Choirs are made up of double rows of seats (one, two, or even three deep) called stalls, located between the altar (the holiest site in the building) and the nave (where the congregation would be allowed to assemble and which, during the medieval period, was considered non-consecrated ground ). The rows face each other, and, owing to the East-West axis on which almost all churches lie, are referred to as the Northern (left-hand side as one faces the altar) and Southern (right-hand side) stalls. When the seats are pulled down they look like any other row of seats, all connected by a single, often panelled, back, with armrests, or elbows, between each place.

Extract from: Misericords of North West England

Chapter 3

With 48 misericords Chester Cathedral is the largest of all the North-West collections. They were constructed in approximately 1390 under Abbot Henry de Sutton by a father and son team, William and Hugh Herland, renowned carvers who were also responsible for the misericords of Lincoln Cathedral. It is also considered that William Newhall, the king’s chief carpenter, assisted them in their work, an indication both of the importance of Chester, and of the workmanship expected in the choir stalls. The stalls are indeed spectacular (see Chapter 4), but it is the variety of imagery in the misericords themselves that dominates any description.

Extract from: Misericords of North West England

Chapter 5

With 46 misericords, Carlisle is second only to Chester in the North-West; an impressive total when considering that it is the second smallest cathedral in England, and has been subject to various Scottish raids over its history, raids which elsewhere destroyed such woodwork (e.g. Durham). The subject matter, unsurprisingly, spans the full panoply. Angels sit beside wildmen, men with demons, and one (S8) depicts a battle of the sexes that bears comparison with Nantwich. Nor is this is the only depiction at Carlisle of the monastic view of women. N1 has a representation of the demon Bigorne, or Fillgut, who feasted on good husbands and was marked by his fatness. His partner demon, Chichefache, or Pinch Belly, fed only on good wives, and was, consequently, always starving. However, it is the animals, birds and monsters of the medieval imagination that dominate, featuring on 39 of the 46 stalls.

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