A misericord is a small wooden attachment on the underside of a folding seat in a church. It provided a measure of comfort during long hours of prayer. That’s why they are sometimes known as “pity seats”.
Prayers in the early medieval church for the daily divine offices 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”). Seats could be turned up, the undersides being provided with a small shelf giving a few moments respite to the weary.
The earliest misericords appeared around the 11th century and continued to be made well into the 16th century. They are found all over northern Europe, though they were most popular in England. A lot of English misericords were destroyed or removed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, but many survived.
The vast majority of English misericords date from the 14th and 15th centuries and are most often depictions of secular or pagan images and scenes, entirely at odds with the Christian iconography and aesthetic of the churches they are found in. Animal themes are very common. Many are taken directly from the Physiologus or the bestiaries; these are often explicitly allegorical.
Some of the carvings merely imply the allegory by a simple portrayal of a beast displaying one of its accepted characteristics. A carving of a mermaid holding a comb and mirror would be understood to warn of the sin of vanity, and a carving of a lion fighting a dragon would be understood to represent the battle between Christ and Satan.
The misericords of St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle form one of the finest collections of 15th century carvings in England. Depicted on one of them is a fox in priest’s garb, preaching to a flock of geese. The fox represents cunning and falsehood, and the geese the gullible and foolish congregation. The sly fox would lull the geese into a false sense of security with his soothing words, enabling him to eat them for dinner. The moral of the story was that foolish people are seduced by false doctrines.
In the church, such representations were often used as warnings against the preaching of the Lollards, followers of a religious movement which began in the mid-14th century and continued until the Reformation. Usually, the fox is suitably punished for his treachery. In the Windsor misericords this is depicted as three friars and a fox with a stolen goose being trundled in a wheelbarrow into the mouth of hell.
In England some of the best of these treasures can be found at Ely, Exeter, Lincoln, and Winchester cathedrals, at Malvery Priory, and at Ludlow and Boston churches: seats of pity within seats of piety.