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  • English Medieval Misericords: The Margins of Meaning
  • Ailish McKeown
Hardwick, Paul, English Medieval Misericords: The Margins of Meaning (Boydell Studies in Medieval Art and Architecture), Woodbridge and Rochester, Boydell, 2011; hardback; pp. 198; 32 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £45.00; ISBN 9781843836599.

The demands of the medieval liturgy meant that clergy and religious spent many hours in the choir stalls. This book explores the world of images that decorated the misericords, which, while generally not seen by the laity, were visible to the members of the choir. According to Professor Hardwick, misericord carvings were neither ‘sites of profane exuberance’ (p. 2) nor ‘books for the unlearned’, but were intended to speak to an educated audience at multiple levels, through symbolism and allegory. In this book, he argues that the bewildering variety of images, most of which are not overtly religious, can only properly be understood when situated within the context of the ‘doctrinal and devotional culture’ of late medieval England, using late medieval Christianity as the ‘primary lens’ (p. 2) through which to view them.

The work is not a complete survey of surviving misericord carvings in England, but provides an informative and entertaining overview of the nonfoliate images, and offers an insight into their meaning. The cultural context of the images is explored, with a particular emphasis on literary works, especially Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, although art, drama, sermons, Lollard texts, and even popular sayings are also invoked. In each of the book’s six chapters, the author explores a theme and examines one or two carvings more closely by way of ‘case study’. The thematic distinctions are loose, due partly to the wide range of scenes depicted in misericords, but also because, in a society in which symbolism assigned spiritual meanings to temporal things and moral lessons could be drawn from romance, the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ could not always be distinguished.

The first chapter covers depictions of ‘everyday activities’ including work, leisure, scenes of domesticity, agriculture and hunting, taverns, music and entertainment, as well as fools and proverbs about folly like ‘shoeing the goose’. Only one surviving carving depicts the activity of ploughing, which [End Page 210] Hardwick explains was an allegory for preaching. He attributes this scarcity to the ploughman’s removal from orthodox discourse following Lollard appropriation of the figure as a representative of lay spiritual authority.

Chapter 2 explores the question of patronage, audience, and images relating to devotional themes. Particularly interesting is the discussion of heraldic devices in choir stalls, the presence of which suggests that the people who commissioned or occupied the stalls paid close attention to the details of decoration. The case study of an image – which Hardwick interprets as an ape–physician and a priest elevating the Host, representing the silencing of doctrinal debate after the fourteenth century – is intriguing but less satisfying.

‘Influence and Invention’, the third chapter, looks at the sources to which carvers turned for inspiration. The central argument involves the potential for symbols to be misinterpreted by carvers who frequently worked from memory, resulting in changes to both image and meaning. In the case study, a ‘fool who thinks he is wise’, flanked by geese in Beverley Minster, is presented as a misinterpretation of a lost image of a fool flanked by a pelican and a griffin, a warning to preachers to avoid heterodoxy. While the general argument about the potential for misinterpretation is convincing, the case study remains a hypothesis in the absence of any surviving evidence of such a source.

Chapter 4 reveals that, while images like the mermaid and the ‘warning to gossips’ are to be found, depictions of women on misericords are relatively scarce. This, together with the presence of some surprisingly lewd images, is explained against a background of clerical misogyny, and anxieties regarding the threat posed to clerical authority by lay people, particularly women. The author seems, at times, to characterize the late medieval laity rather too broadly in terms of anticlericalism, Lollardy, and reform, and to present the relationship between clergy and laity as one of general mutual opposition and mistrust.

Chapter 5 deals with symbolism and allegory in the world of animals, with considerable space...


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pp. 210-212
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