And the Mercy Seat is Waiting
September 22, 2013 5:10 AM   Subscribe

"Sometimes called a ‘mercy seat,’ the misericord was the small ledge that protruded from the undersides of folding seats in a choir stall in a medieval church or cathedral. Medieval liturgical services were conducted eight times a day, and the clergy who attended and performed the services had to stand during the entire ritual. Developed in the 13th century, the misericord allowed the clergy to rest while appearing to stand during services." More misericords in British cathedrals.

More origins: "Prayers in the early medieval church at the daily divine offices (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline) were said standing with uplifted hands. The old or infirm could use crutches or, as time went on, a misericordia (literally "act of mercy"). " (Take that, Starbucks.)

A timeline and gazetteer of misericord development.

A Handbook of Medieval Misericords.

Dishonest Alewife gets sorted by devils with faces in their knees and a bagpipe (scroll down). (I quite like pig with bagpipes; scroll down.)
posted by MonkeyToes (42 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
 

Thanks MonkeyToes. This post is one of the reasons I love Mefi. I like finding out about obscure, interesting things. Plus I now have a new vocabulary word!
posted by Jalliah at 5:19 AM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


FWIW: 'misericordia' is 'mercy' in Spanish.
posted by signal at 5:43 AM on September 22, 2013


Latin too.
posted by lumensimus at 5:50 AM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks! That's very welcome, as to date I was aware of only one other such medieval "merciful" accessory. Same origin, one letter and a whole lot of difference.
posted by hat_eater at 5:59 AM on September 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


From every stormy wind that blows,
From every swelling tide of woes,
There is a calm, a sure retreat;
’Tis found beneath the mercy seat.
Stowell, 1828.
posted by The White Hat at 6:10 AM on September 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


There is just something so quintessentially British about an obsessive recording of a minor detail like this. I love it.
posted by drewbage1847 at 6:32 AM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


MonkeyToes, is it a coincidence that today is Nick Cave's birthday?
posted by kimota at 6:44 AM on September 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


MonkeyToes, is it a coincidence that today is Nick Cave's birthday?

Timing! Had no idea. But how apt!
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:49 AM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Cave certainly knows the Misery Chords.
posted by colie at 7:09 AM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ha! I was born in Misericordia Hospital outside of Philadelphia. Nobody in my family knew it meant Mercy and I hadn't thought of it decades. It's now been renamed Mercy Hospital. (I'll text my mother this fact, and she'll claim that she knew all along, but trust me, we didn't.)

Thanks for the fabulous links!
posted by kimberussell at 7:18 AM on September 22, 2013


Interesting, the French wikipedia has an unsourced yet credible description of the name for that misericorde dagger linked by hat_eater: "Selon certains, cette arme fut nommée ainsi parce qu'elle obligeait l'un des combattants à crier « miséricorde ! » lorsqu'il l’avait sur la gorge." Translated: "According to some, the weapon was so named because when an adversary put it to another's neck, the other would have to cry 'miséricorde !' ". This is indeed still A Thing in French, crying mercy with that term.

Meanwhile the Mercy Seats are also called miséricorde with an e, or also "patience" or "crédence" (as in "credenza", same Latin root of "credens"). List of misericords in France – it's huge and has plenty of photos.
posted by fraula at 7:40 AM on September 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Reynard, the cunningest of foxes, disguised as a priest, preaches seductively and draws the geese closer until he can grab one. On the left, a rabbit contemplates escape...."

This has to be one of the most subversive works of art ever to appear in a medieval cathedral.
posted by darkstar at 8:03 AM on September 22, 2013 [4 favorites]




that elephant is represented far more accurately than i would have expected for the period. i wonder if maybe the guy who carved it had seen one in the crusades or something
posted by titus n. owl at 8:50 AM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


great, now Peter Gabriel is stuck in my head...
posted by The otter lady at 9:34 AM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not only that hymn, The White Hat, but this one as well from the The Hymnal, 1982, as common in The Episcopal Church in the USA.

My God, how wonderful Thou art,
Thy majesty, how bright;
How beautiful Thy mercy seat
In depths of burning light!

Words: David Faber, 1849.
Tune: Windsor, Westminister
posted by grimjeer at 9:55 AM on September 22, 2013


If you ever visit Ripon Cathedral, the volunteer guides love telling everyone that this misericord was an inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

As I was trying to find a picture of the blemya (thought to be another inspiration for Carroll, particularly the image of Alice shrinking), I stumbled on this detailed history and description of all the Ripon misericords. It's a pretty interesting read. I particularly liked this part:
Experiment quickly demonstrates that most British misericord seats are now unusable as such. They are set so low that perched on the under-seat one's legs splay forwards bearing little weight, an excruciatingly uncomfortable position and certainly no improvement on standing upright. Perhaps in the course of repair and refurbishment over the centuries either the stalls have been cut down or the floors raised; in some instances the seats themselves have been reset in newer stalls. Returning to the suspicion that some later sets may have been made largely for display, perhaps they have always been this height, but I have no evidence for this supposition.
posted by paisley sheep at 10:14 AM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Love this. Will definitely have my eyes open next time I get to one of the cathedrals.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:30 AM on September 22, 2013


Perhaps in the course of repair and refurbishment over the centuries either the stalls have been cut down or the floors raised...
Or perhaps over the past few generations people have, generally, become taller.
posted by islander at 10:33 AM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


They are still in use. We had them at the monastery where I was a postulant many years ago.
posted by janey47 at 10:41 AM on September 22, 2013


Why didn't they just pray and ask god to give them strength? "I am your rock, sayeth the lord" etc.
posted by marienbad at 10:42 AM on September 22, 2013


I was born in Misericordia Hospital outside of Philadelphia. Nobody in my family knew it meant Mercy

My only previous encounter with the word was in a D&D handbook, where it was described as a dagger used to finish people off. I think I'd have had serious reservations about a hospital bearing the same name.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 11:00 AM on September 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Okay, I've looked at a lot of the links and somewhere they were described as being like theater seats, but I still don't understand how. Are they hinged? Where? Is there a picture of one in the down (or up, or whatever) position? Meaning the position they'd be in if you weren't sitting on them?
posted by HotToddy at 11:12 AM on September 22, 2013


HotToddy, here's a picture of both the seat up (showing off the misericord) and then down (like a theater seat, and how one would be sitting "properly" in it).
posted by paisley sheep at 11:15 AM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


To elaborate, when you were actually sitting fully down, they'd just look like a plain seat. When they were in the up position showing all the fun carved bits, you'd be standing and just sort of leaning your butt on it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:23 AM on September 22, 2013


So when the phrase comes up in English Protestant hymnals, it's not talking about the architectural feature from old cathedrals. It's a poetic reference to the blood sacrifices made in the old Jewish temple, used as a symbol for Jesus' death (much like the more familiar phrase "washed in the blood of the lamb.")

"Mercy seat" is the traditional English translation for a Hebrew word that referred to some sort of cover or lid on the Ark of the Covenant. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest would sprinkle blood from a sacrificial animal onto it as a sort of payment or atonement for his sins.

In some Protestant traditions, this is seen as a type — a kind of prophetic or symbolic foreshadowing — for Christ's own death which served as payment for the sins of the whole world.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 11:24 AM on September 22, 2013


So when the phrase comes up in English Protestant hymnals, it's not talking about the architectural feature from old cathedrals.

Previously, semi-unrelated: The Mercy Seat. Mapping out a Multifaceted Iconography.
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:33 AM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


To 'plant' a symbol of the old religion right in the hidden centre of the new. Feels very subversive.
posted by fingerbang at 12:06 PM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Of course, Nick Cave's mercy seat was the electric chair - and a reference to the original meaning of the term "mercy seat": "an object which rested upon the Ark of the Covenant, and was connected with the rituals of the Day of Atonement." Likewise, Stowell, Faber et al. are talking about the Ark, not these little benches.
posted by two7s_clash at 12:21 PM on September 22, 2013


titus n. owl, there's a crocodile in the Elder Lady Chapel at Bristol Cathedral that makes me wonder the same thing. That, or, maybe the craftsmen were from the Middle East or North Africa? Is that even possible?

Couldn't find a picture but this is in the same chapel.
posted by glasseyes at 12:35 PM on September 22, 2013


As a clergyperson who is recovering from this morning in a recliner, I approve of this post.
posted by 4ster at 12:36 PM on September 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


darkstar: Preaching foxes were a common theme in medieval religious art (one two three four and five). They're warnings against following heretical preachers, which are of course only the devil in disguise. (Sort of echoing Matthew 7:15).
posted by reynaert at 12:45 PM on September 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


paisley sheep, aha, thanks! I don't know why I was confused, it seems perfectly obvious now.
posted by HotToddy at 12:58 PM on September 22, 2013


Pig with bagpipes does not disappoint.

I wonder if all this detail was carved into the bottom of ledges down near the floor so children could have something to look at, as they stood in the cathedral with their parents during services.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:20 PM on September 22, 2013


that elephant is represented far more accurately than i would have expected for the period. i wonder if maybe the guy who carved it had seen one in the crusades or something

Henry III had an elephant in his menagerie, given him by Louis IV of France in 1255. The elephant at Exeter is this elephant.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:00 PM on September 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Because everyone now has this rolling round their heads:

AN EYE FOR AN EYE A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH
BUT ANYWAY I KNOW THE TRUTH
AND I'M NOT AFRAID TO DIE
posted by Sebmojo at 2:27 PM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


From the song, which I never really listened to apart from "the mercy seat is waiting", I just figured it was an electric chair, because it's Nick Cave and that's the sort of thing he sings about. So it's cool to know what it is.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:40 PM on September 22, 2013


I've seen rows of hinged wooden seats where the undersurface of each seat had a short vertical panel extending downwards. I thought the panels were meant to hide the legs of people in the row behind, but that didn't seem like a much of a reason. Now I can see that they are a sort of vestigial misericord: they were too low and flimsy to be actually useful, but if the seat proper were a bit higher I could definitely imagine them being used as a sort of buttocks-rest. Huh.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:30 PM on September 22, 2013


When I'm in the mercy seat
I smile and lay my weapons down.
posted by SteelyDuran at 9:30 PM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wonder what the footsore medieval clergy would have made of the Treadmill Desk? They were not the only ones living in strange times.
posted by rongorongo at 5:57 AM on September 23, 2013


Oh just to add -- sure there are mercy seats to lean against from time to time, but there are no kneelers. You just plop down on the tile floor. It literally took years for the calluses on my knees -- built up over a mere six months -- to abate.
posted by janey47 at 6:35 AM on September 23, 2013


...sure there are mercy seats to lean against from time to time, but there are no kneelers. You just plop down on the tile floor.

I remember the first time I encountered pew kneelers, at a wedding in an Episcopal church when I was about 4. I thought they were tiny trundle beds just for meee!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:28 PM on September 23, 2013


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