This Post Carries Swine Flu (Mmm… Marginalia #39 or Mmmm… Misericords #1)

This blog has featured a lot of filled-in blank spaces over the last year, almost all of the manuscript variety. So, to switch it up, this week’s Mmm… Marginalia is going to concern a different sort of decorated hidden spot–the space beneath a medieval parishioner’s ass.*

Medieval Christians went to church a little bit less often than your modern Baptist, which is to say quite a lot. And during long parts of the service, as well as during some private devotional time, they were expected to stand. But because medieval Christians were nothing if not practical, they cheated and installed little shelves to discreetly sit upon when they were supposed to be standing. We call these shelves “misericords”, or “mercy chairs.”

Just as the medieval manuscript maker didn’t like letting all that blank space around the text go to waste, the medieval church architect didn’t like leaving all those discreet ass-shelves bare. So they decorated their misericords with little images–often as bizarre, sacrilegious, and/or scatalogical as those you’ve seen in manuscripts. In fact, they’re often the same pictures, just carved instead of painted.

Now, this blog as been accused of having a simian fetish, so to break with the monkey-based monotony, today I’ll concern myself with a thoroughly respectable subject: pigs.

There were basically two sorts of pigs that the savvy medieval church-goer wanted under his or her slightly elevated derriere. Some chose to go with the bloody but practical “Pig Being Slaughtered*”. This little piggy comes from Ripple Church in England:

Be sure to note the pig on the left screaming in horror.

Those more squeamish about the source of their bacon might instead opt to rest their weary churched-out hind quarters on pig option #2: pigs playing musical instruments. Here are but a few of many. The first is a pig playing an organ (both pig and organ now housed at Paris’s Museum of the Middle Ages):


Pigs make awesome organists, naturally, but their true love remains the bagpipes, as shown here, in a misericord from Ripon Cathedral:

Dance, my piglets, dance!

Sadly, there really is very little call for piggy bagpipe soloists,** so many times the misericord’s porcine piper is forced to make ends meet by giving lessons, even to that ungrateful marginal scene stealer, the monkey***:


Apparently, however, pigs make poor bagpipe instructors, as evidenced by this monkey’s technique:


Experts agree that the first step in playing the bagpipe is being able to distinguish a bagpipe from a dog.****

*One of these cropped up in a medieval calendar a few months ago, if you’ll recall.
**Basically just your occasional Renn Faire.
***Oh, yeah, I was supposed to be not talking about monkeys this week. I always get that confused with talking about monkeys. My bad.
****OK, OK, that’s actually a bear in the picture, not a pig, and rather than giving lessons he’s dancing. Both carvings appear at the same place, Beverly Minister Cathedral. That particular carver’s bears look a lot like his pigs, though. Comparative anatomy, it wasn’t his strong suit.

NOTE: Mmm… Marginalia has been running consistently half a week behind, I know, and some weeks there’s been no marginalia at all. I’m really falling down on the job. This post was originally meant to run the week of Kalamazoo, but finishing my paper for K-Zoo got in the way. After a week of running on my blog’s front page, I’ll probably move it back to the K-Zoo week for purposes of historical inaccuracy.

FURTHER NOTE: See, I told you I’d do it.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • 3pennyjane

    Not only does the sow have to pump the bellows, she suckles one of her shoats at the same time? Mm, Marginalia, subset: Mm, multitasking.

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