Wooden Images: Misericords and Medieval England

Wooden Images: Misericords and Medieval England

Wooden Images: Misericords and Medieval England

Wooden Images: Misericords and Medieval England


Carved images found on English misericords are the basis for examining a number of social issues during the late Middle Ages. This innovative methodology allows the perspective of the common medieval person to be understood in a manner that has not been explored to date. The misericords form a historical record of the experiences of ordinary men and women that is unrivaled. Illustrated.


Art is the manifestation of emotion, and emotion
speaks a language that all may understand
W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence

One of the defining characteristics of the Gothic period (approximately 1200 to 1500) was the tendency to embellish and decorate the surrounding environment with a lavishness that can only be described as exuberant. the groundwork laid by previous art forms, particularly the Byzantine and the Romanesque, provided the impetus for the new French Gothic style to emerge, but its adoption and creative spread in England owes much to the long reign and taste of Henry iii (1216–72). the active part of his reign from 1227 onward, coincided with what has been characterized as the crucial decades of Gothic expression in France, between 1220 and 1270. While France was preeminent in Gothic architecture during Henry’s reign, his active support of the parallel development of a distinctive English Gothic style prepared the way for rapid expansion of the Gothic style in England and, finally, the ascension of English Gothic over French Gothic in the fourteenth century (Kostoff 1985).

Gothic architecture was not introduced into England by Henry iii, however. That distinction goes to his grandfather, Henry ii, who commissioned the French architect, William of Sens, to rebuild the choir of Canterbury Cathedral after it burned in 1174. William suggested that, rather than try to re-create the choir as it was before it burned, they should begin anew in the French style, which later came to be known as “Gothic.” the work was begun by William of Sens in 1175; but when he fell ill, it was taken over by an English builder, William of England, and finally completed in 1185.

Although the design for rebuilding the Canterbury choir was originally French, it took on a distinctively English version of Gothic, which soon spread to the cathedrals at Winchester, Ely, Salisbury, and Exeter, and within fifty years had developed into what is known as the Early English style of Gothic architecture, which differed from the French style (Janson 1971; Beckwith 1985). When high Gothic peaked in France in the mid- to late thirteenth century, England took the lead and maintained it for the next century, producing cathedrals at Wells, Gloucester, Worcester, and York (Kostoff 1985).

It is generally acknowledged that this succession in architectural dominance was due to the influence of Henry iii. Not only did Henry endorse the Gothic style he found so charming in France, but his determination to build equally beautiful structures in England resulted in a massive building effort that went on throughout his long reign (1216–72). the king’s patronage and initiation of many new churches and palaces during his reign not only . . .

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