Misericords – Philip Sharpe and Andrew Judd

This lovely book wasn’t planned to be a post on this blog because until the 23rd November this year I didn’t even know it existed. On that day I was in Hay on Wye, which is the worlds first book town, and discovered a new shop that I hadn’t seen before. Balch and Balch (also trading as The Story of Books) specialise in books from Private Presses and although the main room was closed at the time as they were preparing for the Winter Festival to be held the following weekend Graeme kindly brought a selection of about eight titles for me to have a look at, top of the pile was this one. Now he couldn’t have known that I have a lifetime fascination with misericords and if ever I am in a medieval church or cathedral always check to see what delights are hidden away there in the choir stalls.

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So before reviewing the book, just what are misericords? The description as given at the start of the King Penguin book on the subject (written by M.D. Anderson and published in October 1954 as K72) is reproduced below.

An intelligent sightseer who wishes to understand the mentality of ordinary people living in the Middle Ages will find a rich reward for even a superficial study of the carvings on Gothic choir stalls, particularly those of misericords. The medieval priests, finding the physical strain of standing through a succession of long services beyond their endurance, devised a hinged seat with a corbel projecting from its under-surface which, when the seat was tipped up, allowed them to combine the comfort of sitting with the appearance of standing. In an age which was lavish in the use of fine craftsmanship it was natural that these corbels, although seldom seen, should be decorated with carvings and the work gave a rare opportunity for self-expression to carvers employed.

As implied there is a wide variety of subjects to be seen on misericords and a lot of the time you wonder what they are doing in a church, real and imaginary animals, people making beer or wine (and drinking it), various domestic scenes, knights in armour or even in New College Oxford a series depicting the seven deadly sins… What is rarely depicted is religious subjects. these carvings after all were intended to be sat on and it was not seen as suitable to have sacred images for that purpose. This brings us to the carvings in St Mary’s church at Ripple in Worcestershire, England which were used to inspire the illustrations in this book. Of the sixteen misericords in the church twelve depict ‘the labours of the months’ and Andrew Judd has produced some lovely linocuts of these to accompany not only a medieval poem but also twelve new works by Philip Sharpe that fill out the story.

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The book is printed in a limited edition of just 50 copies of which mine is number 45 by a private press called MKB Editions about whom I have unfortunately been able to find out very little other than it appears to be a Hereford based collaboration between Sharpe and Judd as everything I can find published by the press involves one or both of them. Of the 49 other copies of this book, two are held in libraries according to worldcat, at the University of Oxford and also, somewhat more randomly, the University of Arizona.

It really is a beautiful book, printed by letterpress on Zerkall paper it is quarter cloth bound with printed boards forming the cover. In total there are fourteen prints, one for each of the months along with one facing the anonymous medieval poem that formed part of the inspiration to the book and a further image making up the final page; all are based on the misericords in St. Mary’s. I admit to buying it for the prints rather than the poetry by Philip Sharpe which is OK but without the images I would not have looked twice at the book. There are several references to the River Severn (which flows roughly 100 yards from my front door) and also its propensity to flood, which living here I am all too aware of, so the verses ring true to my locality. But sadly other than the geographic recognition I don’t have a deep feeling for the text; but I will treasure the book nevertheless for adding to my love of the remarkable misericord and a chance discovery decades ago in childhood that has led to a fascination with old churches that I still retain today.

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The Book of Margery Kempe

The earliest autobiography in English and by that most marginalised section of the population in historical texts (especially medieval history) a woman.  The book is a remarkable document all the more so from the fact that it was ‘lost’ for many centuries. It was known to have existed because of a seven page extract published by Wynkyn de Worde circa 1501 but the original manuscript which dates back to the 1430’s was believed to no longer exist. However in 1934 a copy was found in the collection of an old Catholic family the Butler-Bowdens, it is not the original dictated by Margery (as she could neither read nor write) but certainly a very early copy and a remarkable survivor. The book was first published in 1936 and the manuscript was acquired by the British Library in 1980. It is split into two books, the first has eighty nine chapters but it turns out that the person she dictated that to had such terrible handwriting that nobody could read it. In the four years it took to find somebody to rewrite this main section she dictated another ten chapters that were added as book two.

My copy is the first Folio Society edition of 2004 and uses the edited, and updated from medieval English, version by professor Windeatt, which was first published by Penguin Books in 1980, it has a lovely cover by Chris Daunt who also provided a dozen engravings included within the text.

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In the medieval period a woman was effectively the property of her husband and this is illustrated many times in the book such as within chapter 51 when Margery is in York

Then the worthy doctor said to her “Woman, what are you doing here in this part of the country?”
“Sir, I come on pilgrimage to offer here at St William’s shrine”
Then he went on “Do you have a husband?”
She said “Yes”
“Do you have a letter recording his permission?”
“Sir” she said “my husband gave me permission with his own mouth”

As well as the need to have permission we see here Margery’s habit of referring to herself in the third person, when she is not doing so then she uses ‘this creature’ as the usual term regarding herself. Margery had by this time travelled to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago (Spain) on a couple of trips all without her husband. In fact he was probably enjoying the breaks from her presence as she has to be the most annoying person I have ever read about and frankly like a lot of her travelling companions I would also have spent a lot of time trying to get away from her.  On her way to Jerusalem from England her companions had abandoned her several times or insisted that she ate separately from them when she was present and in Italy they went so far as to book a ship across the Mediterranean and leave their lodgings without telling her in a desperate attempt to get away.

So why was she so irritating? Well Margery started having visions after her first child was born and would very loudly express them, calling out to all the members of the Holy Trinity and speaking to them as well as quite a few saints in churches dedicated to them. That she clearly believed that she was having these conversations is beyond doubt and she was no longer interested in anything else but aspects of her faith.

And those who knew of her behaviour previously and now heard her talk so much of the bliss of heaven said to her. “Why do you talk so of the joy that is in heaven? You don’t know it, and you haven’t been there any more than we have.” And they were angry with her because she would not hear or talk of worldly things as they did, and as she did previously.
And after this time she never had any desire to have sexual intercourse with her husband, for paying the debt of matrimony was so abominable to her that she would rather, she thought, have eaten and drunk the ooze and muck in the gutter than consent to intercourse, except out of obedience.
And so she said to her husband; “I may not deny you my body, but all the love and affection of my heart is withdrawn from all earthly creatures and set on God alone.

Alongside the visions she also took to weeping and crying whenever she was in a holy place or with a religious person regardless of rank and this would also be loud often involving throwing herself to the ground to bawl like a toddler. This naturally made her a difficult person to be around especially if you are trying to observe the peace of a holy site. When she got back from her pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Rome she would cry around fourteen times a day as she ‘remembered the passion’ as during a vision there she had seen herself with the body of Christ on the cross as though she had actually been present at the crucifixion.

For me, one of her most irritating features though is the total fixation on herself during the book. She travelled across Europe to Rome and onto Jerusalem taking well over eighteen months from late 1413 to Easter 1415 yet she records nothing of the places she went to or the trip itself. This journey alone would have made a fascinating book, she would certainly had a vast number of interesting experiences and a first hand record of Europe and the Holy Land from six centuries ago by an ‘ordinary’ woman as opposed to nobles and royalty would be invaluable to historians. She mentions that she spent twelve weeks in Venice before taking the boat to Jerusalem but that is it, who she met, where she went and what she saw during that time we learn nothing.

But that is not to say that book does not have a lot to recommend it, Margery’s responses to being challenged, even by the highest authority show a quick wit and can be quite funny and despite being frustrating at times to a modern reader, especially the passages where she is conversing with God I’m glad I read it. I’ll finish with a passage from chapter sixty which shows her at her feisty best…

There was a lady who wanted to have the said creature to a meal. And therefore, as decency required, she went to the church where this lady heard her service and where this creature saw a beautiful image of our lady called a pieta. And through looking at that pieta her mind was wholly occupied with the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the compassion of our Lady, St. Mary, by which she was compelled to cry out very loudly and weep very bitterly, as though she would have died.
Then the lady’s priest came to her, saying “Woman, Jesus is long since dead.”
When her crying had ceased, she said to the priest, “Sir, his death is as fresh to me as if he had died this same day, and so, I think, it ought to be to you and all Christian people, We ought always to remember his kindness, and always to think of the doleful death that he died for us.”

and that told him.

Brother Cadfael – Ellis Peters

Finding myself abroad last week, but having fallen and badly sprained my ankle so forced into inactivity, I picked up a copy of the Brother Cadfael Omnibus volume two which my host owned. I chose this because I have the Cadfael stories in their individual volumes at home so if I didn’t finish a book then I could do so on my return. Omnibus volume two consists of books four to six of the series i.e. Saint Peters Fair, The Leper of Saint Giles and The Virgin in the Ice and I finished the first two and got most of the way through The Virgin in the Ice which I have now completed. I have read all twenty one of the books in the series several times so knew I was in for a fun time even though I could remember most of the plots.

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For those people unfamiliar with the stories Brother Cadfael (the name is Welsh and pronounced Kad-vile) is a monk at the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury, Shropshire and the books are almost all set from 1137 to 1145 during the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin Empress Maud for control of the English crown. The one exception is A Rare Benedictine which is actually a collection of three short stories exploring Cadfael’s life before the first book going back as far as 1120 when he was a crusader. This book is also not included in the standard numbering of the series, it should be number sixteen but is skipped in the sequence by most publishers and when the omnibus editions were put together it was assigned the final place in volume seven further emphasising that it is not really part of the story arc. Apart from that the books follow on from each other so this is one series where it really does pay to read them in order. The character is a herbalist within the monastery and is seen by his superiors as a useful link to the secular powers such as the sheriff and especially his deputy Hugh Beringer due to the long time he spent in the world before withdrawing to the monastic life. His knowledge of herbs and remedies is also very useful both within the abbey and to the town and the surrounding area and this leads him to be involved in poisonings and murders as the basis of a lot of the plots.

I would be very surprised if the Estonian medieval detective tales of Apothecary Melchior tales by Indrek Hargla  were not heavily influenced by the Cadfael stories as although they are set a couple of hundred years later the two characters are very similar in skills and ways of approaching crime.

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Ellis Peters was one of the pseudonyms used by Edith Pargeter for her in excess of seventy five books along with dozens of short stories written between 1936 and her death in 1995. She lived almost her entire life within 5 miles of where I now reside being born in the small village of Horsehay and dying just 3½ miles from there in the town of Madeley at the age of eighty two, so she was very much a local celebrity round here. There is even a window dedicated to her memory in Shrewsbury abbey (about fifteen miles from here) and the Cadfael trails around Shrewsbury are still a popular tourist draw to the town. As well as a novelist she was a historian and translator and it is her historical interests that adds so much character to the books. Numerous real people are mentioned including the two abbots and the prior of the abbey who were indeed there when she says they were

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The covers I have included are from my own copies, there are numerous sets of covers that you can get the books in, I particularly like this version although it is mildly annoying as you cannot get all the books in exactly the same format as the publishers (Futura) decided to change it to include the book number on the cover near the end of the series which messed up the design. However the ‘parchment’ background with decorated lettering I think is very satisfying for books set in a medieval monastery. The books have fallen out of popularity since Pargeter’s death and the TV series which ran in the late 1990’s but they are well worth a read and you will also learn quite a but about ‘The Anarchy’, a period of English history that also doesn’t seem to be known about in modern times.

Apothecary Melchior

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The Apothecary Melchior series by Indrek Hargla is pretty well unknown in the UK but very popular in his native Estonia. He is probably best known there for his fantasy and ‘alternative history’ stories but Melchior is Hargla’s foray into medieval crime making him the closest Estonian equivalent of Ellis Peters here in the UK with her Brother Cadfael tales. The Melchior novels are set in the capital, Tallinn, in the early 1400’s as the city was going through a massive building programme, with the city walls mostly constructed along with some of the significant buildings but others parts are clearly still being worked on including the main square.

Although there are now six novels in the series only two have so far been translated into English and are published by Peter Owen however as can be seen from the covers these don’t look like part of a series. It seems an odd choice by the publisher to make them look so unlike and they are also translated by different people.

  • … and the Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church – Original title Apteeker Melchior ja Oleviste mõistatus published 2010 – translated in 2015 by Adam Cullen
  • … and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street – Original title Apteeker Melchior ja Rataskaevu viirastus published 2010 – translated in 2016 by Christopher Moseley

I was first introduced to the books by my Estonian friend who gave me the second book for my birthday last year, it had to be book two as she couldn’t find a translation of the first one in Estonia. One of the problems I have found with translations from Estonian is their variable quality; so whilst I enjoy the books I have read in translation, quite often I find myself having to reread sections to be sure I have understood what is being said. This was not a problem with The Ghost of Rataskaevu Street, I sat and read it quite quickly, especially on the one day when out in the Estonian countryside there was just torrential rain so getting out and enjoying the area was not possible. Unfortunately the translation of The Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church is not as good so this may explain the change of translator for the second novel. The book is still perfectly readable but the flow of the narrative seems forced at times and I’m inclined to blame the translator rather than the author here as Hargla had been writing for many years before these books and they both came out in the same year so it’s not a case of the original authorship style changing.  My friend also loves the series and I doubt she would have if she had started with this one.

Melchior is in the classic tradition of the amateur sleuth who finds himself drawn into mysteries and providing assistance to the city authorities and through him we learn about the power conflicts in the city as the Teutonic knights in their castle are slowly losing control to the expanding city council along with the rivalries between the various religious bodies that still held enormous influence at the time. Whilst reading it, the first book appears to be misnamed for a long time, as very little appears to happen at St Olaf’s and it is only at the conclusion that the church’s role in the story is explained. At the start the book seems like a simple mystery as to who murdered one of the knights in the castle itself. Melchior gets involved due to his specialist knowledge as an apothecary making him one of the few scientifically trained people in the city and he sees it initially as a way of currying favour with the city fathers who need the murder solving quickly to keep the knights happy. In turn he looks for their assistance in opening the main city pharmacy which would catapult him up the social standings in Tallinn. The book is set in 1409, thirteen years before such a pharmacy was actually opened in the city so we know he isn’t going to get anywhere with that plan soon. Without giving any of the plot away, the story moves around the city introducing each of the power brokers in the place and ultimately reaches a denouement at St Olaf’s at the other end of Pikk, one of the longest streets in Tallinn.

The Ghost of Rataskaevu Street starts out much closer to home for Melchoir as this is where his home and small shop are situated. The tale is darker than the first book with rivalries between senior families leading to some pretty horrific situations for some of the protagonists, it is also more character driven than the first. We see a greater strata of the city’s population from the highest nobles of the Merchant Guilds to shop and bar keepers, sailors, servants and serfs. The Guilds are now getting more powerful, as would be the case all over Europe at this time but especially in the Hanseatic League which included Estonia and whose merchants controlled large parts of international trade in Northern Europe. By 1419 which is when this book is set they had recently built a guild house in the centre of the city and this alongside the City Hall was where power was slowly drifting away from the knights in their castle on Toompea Hill. The families involved in the story are senior guild members and this makes solving the crimes more difficult as Melchior must be very careful not to annoy the very people he is investigating.

One of the joys of reading the books after visiting Tallinn is that most of the places mentioned are still standing and the city looks much as it did 700 years ago, except obviously a lot cleaner that it would have been at the time.

A general view of the city from the castle on Toompea

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The Long Leg gateway, entrance to the castle seen from the end of Rataskaevu Street

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St Olaf’s church on Pikk

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The Guild Hall

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and finally the Apothecary in the main square that Melchior so wants to found. As said above this opened in 1422 and it is now the oldest still working pharmacy in the world.

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Seek out the Melchior stories, I hope that Peter Owen will get round to the others soon.

According to a chart in the i newspaper last week Estonian’s spend more time on average reading books than any other nation in Europe and Estonian authors certainly produce a wide range of work which I will be dipping into again in future blogs.