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Choir Stall Carvings & the Misericords - Lecture


Graven images, including themes of education and schooling, embellish choir stalls in many medieval churches. The subjects are carved on wooden panels, arm-rests, hand rests, and on brackets beneath the choir stall seats. The carvings are abundant, even though many have been lost over the centuries.

What remains is of an extraordinary diversity. Some of the imagery expresses spiritual aspirations; some of it recalls earthy episodes from the clamor of everyday life. Instances of violence, for example, appear frequently: boys attempt to protect their bottoms from the schoolmaster's paddle; schoolboys fight; wives beat husbands in a familiar role-reversal.

Fabulous instances abound: clever foxes learn to read and preach to gullible geese; apes imitate monkish scholars. Satiric scandal also appears: Aristotle, most learned of men, deserts his study to frolic with a wily seductress. In this marvelous melange of iconography, what are the main types of education imagery? How is it to be explained? To what extent is it comic, satirical, ironic?


Themes antithetic to those sung in the choirs were often sculpted into the stalls. This is as true of education themes as it is in general, and nowhere more so than in misericords. The misericord or "mercy" is a ledge and bracket affixed to the underside of a choir seat. It comes into position to form a secondary high-level support when the choir seat is tilted up. Whereas ritual required choir members to stand during the mass, indulgence allowed them to rest their corporeality on the misericord without offending church decorum.


The seating function of the misericord may help to explain why sculptors were tempted to decorate its bracket with themes featuring buttocks. Schoolboys suffer birching of their bottoms in the misericords of Norwich Cathedral, Sherborne Abbey, and the church of St. Botolph (Boston, East Anglia). In the Sherborne and St. Botolph carvings, the victims use books to intercept the blows. It is the interposition of the books, of course, that contributes a sense of comedy to an otherwise prosaically painful aspect of early modern school culture.

Boys who may not have applied themselves to their books have learned, cunningly, how to apply the books to themselves at critical moments. Is this an instance of satire? Who or what is satirized? The frustrated teacher? Boyhood in the classroom? The futility of corporal punishment? If the intention of the carver cannot be retrieved, if no target of derision is certain, the imagery itself declares at least a comedic spirit. No sense of tragedy hangs over the event; nothing in the imagery conveys a propagandistic thrust protesting an abuse of boys or books. Yet the misappropriation of the texts conveys something of the human comedy.

Not all misericord imagery of schooling exhibits attacks on derrières. In the Cathedral of Rouen, the teacher rather threatens a blow to the head, while in the Cathedral of Auxerre something rare is represented: a teacher and his students appear to concentrate on their texts unaccompanied by threatening gestures or instruments of punishment. In contrast, the theme of the birched schoolboy so pleased the canons of St. Juste (St. Bertrand-de-Comminges), they had it sculpted twice on hand-rests in the stalls where they might literally behold the imagery during divine services. Late twentieth-century sensibilities may be repelled by the suggestion of pederasty. It must be understood, however, that the medieval church also excoriated such practices. Hence, the significance of the imagery is elusive, whether satirical or ironic.

Schoolboy castigation is a subset of a larger theme of violence in choirs which divides into several categories, some of them overlapping. In the church of Brou (Bourg-en-Bresse), the boy birched by a woman, possibly his mother, may be a simple genre scene chosen on the basis of an association prompted by thoughts of the anatomical contacts of misericords. The symmetry of physical like-to-like is, ironically, asymmetrical along another dimension: the "mercy" accorded to the choir member by the misericord is not granted to the child.

Oh men, Oh women

An adult male, not a child, collects stripes on his behind in a Westminster Abbey misericord. The image can be read as a complex example of "mundus inversus," the world turned downside up, the natural order upended. Here, the male or husband is made subject to the female or wife. Birched by her, he is reduced to the status of childhood, an age-of-life reversal. She wields the scourge, a symbol of power and authority, while he reaches for the tools of women's work, a sex role reversal, according to the orthodoxy of the time.

Classical precedent for the theme, joyously renewed in the Renaissance, has been found in iconography associated with the tale of Hercules and Queen Omphale. (M.D. Anderson, Misericords (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1954, p. 26) The queen confiscated Hercules' club and forced him to spin wool. But this association is imperfect, recognizing that Hercules' enslavement stemmed from infatuation, and that the record of his humiliation is innocent of spanking.

That women secretly desired dominion over men was a suspicion confirmed by Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Many men hardly doubted it, if the proliferation of "henpecked husband" imagery is any indication. In numerous misericords, men are knocked on the head with kitchen pots, clouted with ladles and washing beetles, belabored with distaffs, pulled about by the beard, scolded by untamed shrews. It must be remembered, of course, that the contractors and carvers of the imagery were men. They left fewer examples of men beating women or of mutual violence between the sexes. Two notable examples remain in Stratford-on-Avon where Shakespeare went to church. On a single misericord a man and woman savage each other at the far left while on the right a man birches a woman and a dog bites her leg.

Domestic strife is a mainstay of the human comedy played out among the stalls. This broad theme ordinarily shares little with education iconography other than the motif of corporal punishment. An exception occurs in one scandalous iconic type wherein an adult female is seated on the back of a man who is on his hands and knees. Sometimes the imagery may refer to the domineering wife, but it usually illustrates an episode in specific medieval narratives allusive to issues in education.

Aristotle at Church

The woman who wallops the flanks of a man whom she rides like a horse in many European churches is celebrating a victory over Aristotle, the principal personage of medieval higher education. No henpecked husband he, Aristotle was known to the Middle Ages as "the philosopher," as logic personified, and eventually as the very emblem of the university curriculum. He was also believed to be the tutor and moral counselor of Alexander the Great. In one of the best known tales of the thirteenth century, Aristotle's efforts to disengage the infatuated King from a beautiful courtesan conclude with Aristotle himself falling prey to her seductive charm. She promises to indulge his urgent desire, if he will first indulge hers. Eagerly, he agrees, unaware that the foxy lady had arranged for Alexander to witness the humiliating ride in the garden.

Aristotle, victim of feminine wiles and his own concupiscence, was a story first told to Europe by Henri d' Andeli in the "Lai d'Aristote" and by Bishop Jacques de Vitry in a sermon later circulated in written form. The resulting imagery became a visual commonplace throughout Europe over a span of several centuries. Aristotle's outrageous degradation evidently satisfied a variety of purposes. Rhetoricians of the cathedral schools saw the university scholastic brought low. Students at the University of Paris, stuffed on Aristotle's works, saw the master from a new angle: mundus inversus, the teacher being taught a lesson. From an Augustinian point of view, Nature was seen to triumph over Naturalistic Ethics (=Aristotle), even at its most prudential. What hope was there for the Heathen, after all? If you were convinced that Christian education, faith and prayer are necessary to preserve a man from subordination to fleshly lust and its humiliations, then Aristotle on all fours made fine stuff for sermons.

Animals at Church

Animals are numerous in choir stall carvings, but only a few belong to the iconography of education. A rare example on a misericord in the Manchester Cathedral reveals little foxes (left side) managing an open book with their paws, their noses pointed toward the pages. They are watched over by a larger fox who shoulders a hefty scourge. At the far right, a second large fox, isolated from the others but facing them, also holds an open book. A more complicated situation is depicted on the base of the misericord. There a fox makes off with a goose slung over his back, running past a woman outside a house where a smaller figure, presumably a child, stands in an open doorway. The scene approximates a passage in Chaucer's Nun's Priest's tale in which Russel Fox steals a poor widow's rooster. The name "Russel" is a variant of "Rossell," son of Reynard the Fox. Reynard once told Grimbert, the Badger, how he teaches his children, Rossell and Reynardin, in Caxton's popular History of Reynard the Fox (1481). These observations raise questions about the Manchester carver's knowledge and intent which cannot be answered conclusively for lack of evidence. It can be noted, however, that he worked in a milieu in which Reynard stories were exceedingly popular, and that many earlier and contemporaneous church carvings clearly illustrate episodes described in these tales. It can also be observed that the images on the misericord allow a coherent interpretation: lesson read or lectured (right), lesson studied under supervision (left), lesson demonstrated (center).

The wolf goes to school more often than the fox, although seemingly not in choir stalls. He gets his instruction in other parts of churches, e.g., on column capitals, friezes, and tiles. Unlike the studious foxes of Manchester, the wolf is unable to concentrate on an academic curriculum. His imagination is always full of fatted geese or tender, juicy lambs. An incorrigible student, the anecdoctal record from Italy, Switzerland, France, Netherlands and Germany testifies consistently to his lack of aptitude. Whenever a would-be teacher asks him to recite the ABC's, the wolf blurts out "lamb." In the Cathedral of Parma, his teacher is accused of being an ass, perhaps for having accepted so unlikely a candidate. The wolf fails just as surely in other Italian churches, and does no better across the Alps in the churches of St. Ursanne and St. Urban in Switzerland. He does still worse in the Freiburg Münster in Germany. There he deserts his lesson to leap upon a lamb. Why the wolf's vicissitudes at school seem not to be represented in choir stalls is unclear.

Animal imagery in the Middle Ages, particularly in churches, usually symbolized some trait of character and a moral message. The crafty fox is a symbol of cunning, the rapacious wolf, a symbol of forceful violence. The basic assumption was that animal nature is fixed; external efforts to change it will fail. Isengrim, the twelfth-century wolf, could learn no more at school than Daun Burnellus, the famous twelfth-century ass, could learn from seven years at the University of Paris. Clever foxes may profit from schooling, but their capacity is natural. Brunellus, wrote Nigell Wireker, explaining his fable, "signifies those who do not have minds trained or even capable of learning the alphabet." Wireker's counsel was addressed to individuals, particularly to those vainly striving to become something their nature disallowed. He had no advice for parents or teachers trying to decide for educational purposes whether the children before them were foxes, wolves, or asses. Nor did he answer questions concerning implications for institutional regulations of access to schooling.

Apes in choir carvings sometimes hold books. They seem to satirize clerics similarly positioned rather than convey some moral distinctly related to education. Strictly speaking, book-holding by clerics or others does not necessarily imply reading. In any case, not all reading is done to advance the reader's education. Some additional evidence, verbal or visual, is required to establish auto-didactic intent.

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