We all know what the former are, but perhaps not everyone has come across the latter. A misericord, from the Latin word misericordia, meaning act of mercy or compassion, is a modification to the stalls used by monks in the part of the church known as the choir or quire. Normally the monks would have been expected to stand when observing the many holy offices held throughout the day, but as a concession to elderly or infirm monks who found standing for long periods difficult, the stalls were modified to include a small hinged shelf on which they could lean. First appearing in the eleventh century, they continued to be made into the sixteenth century, and originally were simple and without decoration. As we shall see, later ones were elaborately carved on the underside depicting all manner of fables and animal imagery, some rather crude, but others beautifully carved and polished.
Misericords depicting molluscs are not as rare as one might expect. They are usually stylised depictions making identification difficult, with the exception perhaps being the scallop. Fig 1 shows a C15th example of this in St Peters church in Hackness North Yorkshire, a beautiful old church with Saxon origins. As well as the shelf, the supports are also carved with scallop shells. It is thought that these choirs originally came from Whitby Abbey. Another example of the scallop, illustrated in Fig 2, can be found in St Margarets church in Kings Lynn. Dating to the late C14th, they show the coat of arms of Robert de Scales, a prominent Norfolk family of that time.
A child issuing from a shell was said to symbolise innocence or virtue confronting evil. Beverly Minster in Yorkshire has 68 misericords, the largest number in the country, dating from 1520. One of them, Fig 3, shows just such a child emerging from a shell to confront 2 wyverns, while the shelf support has a man attacking a snail with a stick.
The misericords in Manchester Cathedral are considered to be among the finest in Europe. Fig 4 illustrates a C16th carving showing a child rising from a shell wielding a short sword to confront a dragon. Norwich Cathedral has a similar C16th example with a carving of a pilgrim emerging from a shell also holding a short sword or dagger, which is illustrated in Fig 5. (Incidentally, misericord is also the word for a small mediaeval dagger used to give the death stroke to a wounded foe).
In mediaeval times, some people believed that the soul of a newly born child could be placed in a coconut shell for safekeeping. In Durham Cathedral there is a misericord where the nut splits into two cornucopia shells overflowing with fruit and foliage, between which the childs well-fed body ends in swirling leaf formations.
There are many churches with misericords, and some have ones depicting shells. Next time you are out and about, and you come across a mediaeval church, pause a moment and see if it contains some of these rather beautiful carvings, perhaps you too will be lucky enough to come across a shell.
I would like to express my thanks to the following people who were very helpful with the composition of this article:-
Joanne Hooper and Canon Denby Manchester Cathedral Jane Myers Beverly Minster Ken Harvey (photo credit) Norwich Cathedral Shiela Coulson St Peters Church Hackness Liz James St Margarets Kings Lynn