Thursday, March 19, 2015

Henpecked husbands in medieval Europe

Some things never change. 

The image of a wife beating her husband with a cudgel is a common sight in medieval English cathedrals. You won't see them on the windows, or in the nave in plain sight of the faithful who poured in for daily worship. No, these were carved onto the misericords (literally, "mercy seats") that the canons of the cathedral leaned against or sat upon while praying the Hours through the course of the day. Because entry into this space of the church, called the chancel, was restricted to the clergy alone, the images on these misericords were only ever seen by them. They were rarely of explicitly religious scenes, as it was surely considered perverse to carve a holy image for the sole purpose of directly pressing one's buttocks against it. And so, the carvings tended to be flights of the artist's imagination, even inside jokes to help the priests get through the rigorous hours of prayer through the day. 

We can easily imagine the solace a priest took in his celibacy when looking upon this image, and perhaps, a reverently made sign of the cross in thanks for God's merciful deliverance from a life of henpecked husbandry.


  1. Have you read Chesterton's essay called "A Drama of Dolls" (about the medieval story of Faustus)? In it he explores this idea:

    "That other ancient and Christian jest, that a wife is a holy terror, occurs in the last scene, where the doctor (who wears a fur coat throughout, to make him seem more offensively rich and refined) is attempting to escape from the avenging demons, and meets his old servant in the street. The servant obligingly points out a house with a blue door, and strongly recommends Dr. Faustus to take refuge in it. "My old woman lives there," he says, "and the devils are more afraid of her than you are of them." (

  2. Sorry wrong link above. This is the correct one: