Jonathan Schofield

The glorious medieval woodwork of Manchester Cathedral is from the late-1400s and is full of playful wit and satire as well as deeper messages.

The quire in Manchester Cathedral is particularly special and starts with a gloriously ornate screen. Beyond this you are surrounded by the exquisite stalls, or seats, of the choir. These are surmounted by a myriad of superbly carved canopies: each an elegant mass of spires and crochets resembling a series of perfect churches, like a late medieval imagining of a new Jerusalem. There is symbolism everywhere – on the benches in front of the choir seats a lion represents Christ and a dragon represents the Devil.

Under the main seats are the misericords. These are brackets to help support occupants during long periods of standing. The carvings under these carry an impish sense of humour not often associated with the times. Here you’ll find men playing backgammon in a tavern, a woman scolding a man who’s broken her cooking pots and rabbits cooking the hunter. All have meanings beside the obvious imagery.

One shows a sleeping pedlar being robbed by monkeys. On one side there is a monkey with a baby and on the other is one with a bottle. This is a urine sample. Doctors said that with a urine sample they could diagnose illness – this satire says you might as well trust your sample or your baby to a monkey. Doctors are so useless all they are effectively doing is robbing you.

Next to that is a fox studying hard and then a fox teaching its cubs to study hard. The main carving shows a poor woman and her daughter in a house in Manchester. A fox is running away with her goose, representing the family livelihood and food. Guess what the nickname for a lawyer was? A fox. This misericord is saying be careful of lawyers with all their book-learning and clever arguments.

A poignant example of human vanity is the last in the sequence and the last to be carved, perhaps as late (or later) as 1510-1515. It shows the rabbits cooking the hunter, with the hounds in pots and the hunter on a spit. One rabbit appears to be reading from a cookbook. This is the world turned upside down. The priests in a Roman Catholic church at that time are saying they like the world as it is, Pope at the top, Kings and Cardinals below, all the way down to the churls. They are saying this is the right order of things, we don’t want the rabbits, churls or heretics, in control and everything upset.

There is a lesson for us here about the impermanence of history. If a young would-be priest of fifteen had a giggle at the carving of the rabbits cooking the hunter then before his fortieth birthday he would have found the joke had turned sour. The Reformation had come along, Henry VIII was the head of a Church of England. If that priest still considered the Pope the head of the Church he was committing treason, he was hunted. Nothing is permanent.

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