Friday, September 14, 2012

Two very different kinds of medieval mercy

          The people of the Middle Ages had a very broad concept of mercy, or in Latin, misericordia. I present two expressions of mercy today.

A choir stall with misericords.
            The first is the misericord, or mercy seat: a small shelf that’s not quite a bench. You’ll find these in some choir stalls in medieval churches, especially those which were monasteries, collegiate chapels, or cathedrals. In the old, old, old days, monks and all the clergy were bound to pray all eight hours of the Divine Office standing up. As a concession, or “mercy” to the old and infirm monks and clerics, they were allowed to lean back in the stalls and rest their posteriors on a misericord as a respite from the tiring work of praying and chanting all day long. If a family wanted a monastery or chapter to pray for a deceased love one’s soul in purgatory, they compensate the church by donating a misericord. The craftsmanship for the misericords is quite intricate, owing perhaps to all the woodcarvers’ guilds competing with one another for God’s attention. 

How to use

A great many had imagery of, shall we say, questionable religious significance.

            The other kind of misericord is a dagger with a heavy hilt and a long blade. If you were wrestling a knight on the battlefield and had him pinned down, you could reach for your trusty misericord, wedge it between his armor plates, and give him a “mercy stroke”. The misericord was so associated with delivering a coup de grâce that if you saw an enemy wielding one, you were probably bleeding out and living out your last moments on earth.

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