You wouldn’t think to look if you didn’t know they were there, which may be why the carved figures under the seats of the choir stalls in Boston Stump have survived when so much medieval church art has not.
Medieval church services were sung standing up, several times a day for those in religious life. Thus was born the idea of the misericord, a little wooden shelf on the underside of a folding seat that provided the old, infirm (or less motivated) with something to lean their backsides on when they were supposed to be standing at prayer. Its a very human solution, pragmatic and realistic as mediaeval people often were. It’s name derives from the Latin for an act of mercy.
Because a misericord was rarely seen, the carpenters who made them were allowed more freedom in their work. So, rather than saints and biblical scenes, they carved animals, heraldic symbols and scenes of everyday life. The result is a rich picture of life in the Middle Ages, full of humour and interest – and St Botolph’s church in Boston has as fine a set as you can see anywhere.
There’s a boy being whipped by his teacher, protecting himself with a schoolbook; a bear baited by a man with two dogs; a man and a woman sitting beside a cooking pot; a hunter pursuing a deer with a fearsome arrow; and much more. And if Ernest Napier, author of an excellent guide to the Boston misericords hadn’t told me about them, I’d have left without discovering the wonderful art hidden below the seats.