A misericord (or ‘miserere’ or ‘mercy seat’) is a small wooden hinged bracket or ledge on the underside of folding seats in a church, usually of the medieval period. When the stall seat is folded up, the projecting misericord forms a ledge for leaning on while standing. Although it does not quite form a seat, the miserere usually offers support to anyone who would lean on it. This was useful for the aged and infirm when it was necessary to stand during long services – particularly in the Roman Catholic faith – as it reduced their discomfort.
The term derives from the Latin ‘misericordia’ which means ‘pity of the heart’ as allowing people to use them was regarded as an act of mercy.
Misericords in English churches date from the 13th century to the present. They are often boldly carved with leaves, foliage, animals and small figures and can be found in nearly all churches that still have ancient pews. A typical example in a 13th century style is to be found in Henry VII’s chapel, Westminster, London. Exeter Cathedral also has them in choir stalls dating from the middle of the 13th century. However, most English misericords date from the 14th and 15th centuries. Many were destroyed during the Reformation, especially if they had been part of monasteries or collegiate churches.
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