Misericords are small shelf-like structures attached to the underside of folding church seats, which serve as a partial reprieve from long periods of standing and praying during church services. These medieval mini-benches are sometimes called “mercy seats,” since they mercifully offer church-goers a rest from being on their feet for hours at a time.
In the Middle Ages, many misericords were intricately carved with both religious and secular tableaus. Some of the most impressive examples still around today can be found at St. Botolph’s Church in Boston, Lincolnshire, which locals call simply the “Boston Stump” after its iconic tower.
Within the many fantastic features of this church is a fantastic collection of 62 late medieval misericords. The variety and quality of the wooden carvings are amazing. Among the depictions of mythology and everyday scenes are some quite unexpected subjects. One is a famous carving showing an adult, possibly a schoolteacher, beating a boy on the buttocks with a bundle of birch twigs (a punishment known as “birching”), while the boy tries to protect himself with a book and three other boys look on. Another carving depicts two jesters each squeezing a cat under his arm and biting the animal’s tail.
While the meaning of these strange sculptures may be lost to history, the artwork itself has thankfully survived the last 600 years. The 14th-century misericords at the Boston Stump are among the finest examples in the world.