A misericord (sometimes named mercy seat, like the Biblical object) is a small wooden shelf on the underside of a folding seat in a church, installed to provide a degree of comfort for a person who has to stand during long periods of prayer.
Prayers in the early medieval church for the daily divine offices (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline) 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”). Seating was constructed so that the seats could be turned up, the undersides being provided with a small shelf thus allowing a person a small level of comfort by leaning against it. Like most other medieval woodwork in churches, they were usually carved with skill and often show detailed scenes which belie their hidden position underneath the seats, especially in the choir stalls of the quire around the altar.
Misericords in English churches date from the start of the 13th century right up until the 21st century, although after the beginning of the 17th century they are viewed as modern copies with little or no historical importance. Remnant’s 1969 catalogue dismisses everything after this date as “modern”, rarely even affording it a description, but there are many wonderful carvings from the Victorian era, and even the modern day. The earliest set of misericords can be found in the choir stalls of Exeter Cathedral and date from the middle of the 13th century. The vast majority of English misericords date from the 14th and 15th centuries and are curiously most often depictions of secular or pagan images and scenes, entirely at odds with the Christian iconography and aesthetic of the churches they sit within.
Many of the stalls with misericords were once part of monastic or collegiate churches, but with the coming of the Reformation many were either destroyed or broken up to be dispersed amongst parish churches. Those that survived were subject to further depletion at the hands of the 17th century iconoclasts and the Victorian reformers. One set at Chester was destroyed by Dean Howson because he deemed it improper, although 43 of the original medieval scenes still remain. The woodcarvers came from Lincoln in the late 14th century and moved on to Westminster Hall when they had finished the quire, three years later. It is said that it was the apprentices who were allowed to carve the seats, while the masters did the more impressive works.