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Les Stalles de la Cathédrale de Rouen

C. Elaine Block
Frédéric Billiet

Sommaire en anglais

Iconography of the Misericords at Rouen Cathedral

Elaine C. Block, Frédéric Billiet, Pierre Bureau, Michael Camille, Malcolm Jones, Brian Levy, James Ryan et Kenneth Varty

Texte intégral

1Fifty-eight misericords remain of approximately 88 in the original set of the cathedral of Rouen in Normandie. Of these, two were removed to make room for an Episcopal seat now on the south row of the stalls; several stalls were destroyed in a fire of 1514. Ten stalls were removed from the choir after the second world war and are now in the archbishop’s palace, (see article on the archbishop’s stalls). Others were severely damaged during the 1944 bombardment of the stalls and the only record that remains of these stalls are the drawings on the book by Langlois that is repeatedly cited in this issue of Profane Arts. Several stalls which suffered less damage in the bombardment were restored and reinstalled in the choir of the cathedral in the 1950s. They are briefly described in a following section on the fabric industry in medieval Rouen. An additional eight misericords were damaged to varying degrees during the tempest of December 26, 1999. These are now being studied with the intent to restore them and return them to their former positions in the choir of the cathedral.

  • 2 For a selection of dorsal panels remaining in France, see the Hospice St-Sauveur at Villefranche-de (...)

2In addition to the disappearances and the damages to the misericords of the choir stalls, other sections of the stalls have also been mutilated or vandalized and removed from the nave. There are no longer, for example, dorsal panels which at one time backed the high stalls. Such dorsal panels remain in several churches in the Savoy region of France and Switzerland, in several cathedrals in Spain and in the great cathedrals of Great Britain. Those at Rouen may have been quite plain, perhaps with Gothic arches and stylized foliage. They may have had statuettes to separate each dorsal panel or they may have been decorated with friezes, portraits or animals2. These panels protected the canons from the cold and drafty winds in the cathedral. Together with the canopy, which certainly topped such a great set of stalls, the dorsal panels provided a sounding board for the psalms that were sung there for the religious services.

3The stalls now have damaged arm-rests intended originally for the canons to hold when they stood or when they sat down. All of these small sculptures have been mutilated allegedly because they caught on the wide sleeves of the canons’ robes. What we see now are seated figures, some in religious and some in civilian garb, in action. One plays a portable organ – and the organ remains on the lap of a headless musician. Others have rosaries or baskets of food that they obviously display for sale. Other churches in the department Seine-Maritime have similar arm-rests and those at Blainville-Crevon, for example are in better condition. They may have been copied or at least influenced by the Rouen sculptures.

4There are also sculptures on the jouées, the end panels of the rows of stalls. They are mainly foliate designs and arches of later date, and not in keeping with the complicated program of the misericords.

5Within a few years there should again be 66 stalls with misericords in the choir of Rouen cathedral and an additional ten in the proposed Musée de l’oeuvre de la cathédrale situated adjacent to the north portal of the cathedral. There will still be twelve missing stalls, removed for the Episcopal seat, destroyed by fire or during the bombing of the cathedral.

The Iconographic Program of the Misericords

6The ensemble of misericords at the Cathedral of Rouen is one of the most important in France if not in Europe. It contains some elements that are present nowhere else and it lacks some elements that are widely seen in other sets of choir stalls.

7There are certainly varied sources for these sculptures. One of the most obvious is the north portal of the cathedral, Portail des librairies, which is decorated with hundreds of clover leaves in bas-relief. Many of the grotesques on the misericords may be found here, in almost identical detail, as well as the game of “la pannoye”. There is probably no way to figure out why certain of these bas-reliefs were transferred to the misericords while others were ignored. The canons may have indicated their preferences, the sculptors may have made the final choices, or there may be an underlying program not yet identified.

8There were also probably books of models and designs that the sculptors could copy. They did not invent, for example, the proverbs on the stalls. They are the same as those carved from the northern countries to Spain and even to Portugal. The little person sitting on the floor between two chairs at Holy Cross Church in Coimbra (Portugal) shows the same “indecision” as the man on stall NH-13 at Rouen. There are probably further proverbs that we have not yet been able to identify. The three at Rouen are all illustrated in Bruegel’s proverb painting now in the German National Gallery at Berlin.

9Engravings were also sources for misericords and while none have been yet discovered which match the scenes and the monsters at Rouen, the possibility is strong that some will eventually be discovered. Figured bibles were also sources, although the biblical scenes at Rouen are minimal.

10Certainly a primary source for the carvers was the daily life they perceived at Rouen. They saw barber surgeons prepare patients for bleeding. They saw musicians in the streets and therefore their representations of musical instruments are precise and unique. The impression they provide of life in medieval Rouen is astounding, offering insights that may not be evident in the mass of documents stored in local and regional archives.

11Possibly the most important narrative contribution of the carvers is the way they depict occupations in medieval Rouen. It is obvious that shoemakers played an important role in the city, that they worked in small shops and made shoes on order for clients. Their tools are displayed as well as different types of shoes.

  • 3 E.-H. Langlois, Les stalles de la cathédrale de Rouen, Paris, 1838.

12The fabric industry was also important, but most of the misericords presenting this work were destroyed in 1944. Fortunately, drawings of these sculptures remain in the study by Langlois.3 We also see a physician, several artists and a few illustrations of agricultural work that certainly bounded the city.

  • 4 The stalls from the Château of Gaillon (Eure) are now at the Basilica St-Denis.

13Occupations are depicted on several other choir stalls, a candle maker at Vendôme (Loir-et-Cher), a rope maker at Besse-en-Chandesse (Puy-de-Dome), an apothecary at Toledo (Spain) but they are isolated rather than part of a grand design. Other sets of stalls depict occupations on arm-rests rather than on the misericords. Gaillon, for example4 shows several entertainers and artisans, but no manual labor. The arm-rests at the cathedral of Amiens show just about every possible way a citizen of sixteenth century Amiens can spend his time, from the town crier, the teacher, the woman walking her dog and the town drunk.

14We learn little of the clothing at this time since most of the little people wear essentially the same garb, a belted robe, short or long and a hat. Their shoes are pointed à la poulaine, which was popular in the fifteenth century. The actors in these scenes are invariably bent over, their legs extended to fit into the space below the ledge on which the canons could perch when they tired of standing during services.

15Women are presented on the Rouen stalls to a greater extent than elsewhere. Women work in shops or sell items, probably at fairs or local markets. Two are servants helping to wash the dishes. A woman is shown working in the fields and her husband is nowhere to be seen. No woman is shown with a spindle, which is the most popular attribute of women on most choir stalls. These women are active and the sculptor does not try to hide them. One is also shown as a patient with a physician. Women are also shown at various stages of marital relationships, courting and in full blast of marriage as we see with the Lai of Aristotle and the Fight for the Pants in the Family (Lutte pour la culotte).

16Many sets of choir stalls focus on grotesques or monsters. Rouen is no exception but the grotesques are mainly of the same type, the hybrid. But one of the monsters have human heads. They may have bodies of quadrupeds, of birds or of unidentifiable animals. They may be nude, draped or clothed. My impression is that there is satire involved and probably a proverb or a pun.

17There are a few biblical scenes, mostly of Samson whose strength, and fatal weaknesses obviously fascinated the carvers since he appears on misericords in Great Britain and Spain as well as in France. There is no scene from the New Testament, which is logical considering that these carvings are placed below the rumps of the canons. However, the cathedral accounts mention carvings of Old and New Testament scenes now destroyed. There is one misericord that probably depicts St George slaying the dragon, a saint popular in Great Britain, but of lesser importance in France.

18A few proverbs adorn the Rouen stalls, indicating that Flemish carvers were involved with the Rouen stalls. “Casting roses to swine”, for example, marks the path of the carvers from Flanders to Spain. There are also visions of violence on the stalls.

19All these themes will be explored in further detail in the following sections. We have invited several medievalists with different specialties and from different countries to comment on these misericords to present a unique points of view. We will start with misericords describing daily life in fifteenth century Rouen.


Work on Misericords

20The article by Kristine Lemé on the life of the cathedral canons in the fifteenth century stresses that these men lived a secular life. They lived in their own houses, purchased or rented. They had their own businesses and they were not required to take the vow of poverty. The misericords at Rouen cathedral include more scenes of work, both urban and rural, than any other set of stalls in any country. Perhaps the reason is, as Doctor Lemé suggests, that the main interest of the canons was in their local businesses. In fact, perhaps these scenes present the canons at their work outside the cathedral. The work that we see is mainly of an individual nature or work in small shops. The urban work is more important on these stalls than the agricultural scenes, which dominate in other regional churches: the Trinity of Vendôme, the Abbey de la Guiche (now dispersed to the churches of Herbault and Coulanges) (Loir et Cher), Boos and Estouteville (Seine-Maritime) and Gassicourt (Yvelines).

21The largest number of misericords is devoted to shoemakers. Perhaps they were the richest group since pilgrims needed shoes. The shoemakers of Chartres contributed more windows to that cathedral than any other corporation.


22NH-07, SB-09, SB-10, SB-11, SH-04, SH-05

23The shoemaker seems to have an assistant, either his wife or an apprentice. A woman, alone for the moment, is surrounded by samples of lasts from which her shoes will be formed. Several workers cut leather with a tool that may be exaggerated in size but only equal to its importance. The workers are generally at a bench and work on a table. All shoes worn by the people depicted on misericords are pointed, a popular style at the end of the fifteenth century. Shoes seem to be of leather or of wood, the latter useful for walks in muddy streets.

24Customers come to the shop and are fitted for shoes. This seems to be a difficult job since two misericords show a client, leg extended over the shoemaker’s lap as he adjusts the shoes.

Fabric Industry


26The fabric industry was booming in fifteenth century Rouen. However, only one misericord showing this industry, the needle makers, escaped the 1944 bombing of the cathedral. As far as we can determine no effort was made to replace these carvings. The themes of these lost carvings are known since they appear in the drawings of Langlois’ book.

27We could probably figure out how the fifteenth century needles were made because the machine operated by two men is quite detailed.

The Merchants

28NB-10, SH-16, NB-15, SH-17

29The workers, some of whom appear to be women, seem to be working alone in a stall. They wear the usual long robe and hat and work at a table. Money is involved since we see exchanges of coins and money stored in bags. One misericord that was injured in the tempest shows a woman with one arm extended, in fact stretched to our right, touching the lid of a container. The other arm, more relaxed, holds a dish over a plate of food. A similar arrangement is seen in Bruegel’s proverb painting and means, in effect, “to have your cake and eat it too”.

The Construction Industry

30NB-12, NB-17

  • 5 Frescos of Lorenzetti in the Townall at Sienna.

31Two misericords represent, at different levels, the construction industry that was also booming at this stage of urbanization. At the highest level we see the architect-mason leaning over an enormous carpenter’s square, essential to his job. The other construction worker is applying mortar with a trowel to build a wall. In the Good Government frescoes at Sienna,5 Italy, urban construction symbolized peace. Perhaps we find the same symbolism on the stalls at Rouen.

Artists as Wood Carvers

32SH-02, SB-06, NH-11 and #22 (palace) and #18 (Langlois)

33Artists are depicted on several sets of choir stalls and they usually represent the workers on the stalls. The little Jehan Trupin, discontented with his pay and working conditions carved himself on an arm-rest of the Amiens choir stalls with a graffiti message on a nearby partition. Two sculptors on the Toledo misericords, work on a statue reclining on a bench between them. At Plasencia the master carver, Rodrigo Aleman, carved his portrait twice at work in his atelier, once with his dog under his workbench.

34At Rouen two woodworkers energetically use their tools, one obviously to make a decorative molding for the choir stalls, the other, head now missing, sculpts a statue. On a third misericord, at the archbishop’s palace, a sculptor carves a misricord for the stalls. A fourth existing only in the Langlois book; is carving a gothic window, probably for a jouée panel. These artists are woodworkers, not engravers or painters. This concentration of carvers on a single set of stalls shows us that the misericords are telling us about life important to the choir stalls.


35NH-12, SB-15 and #86 (palace)

36Kenneth Varty

37Normally we look at a picture from left to right and when the main lines of a composition assist the eye to move in this direction, we follow with ease to the main object in the picture. Here (N-12) the main lines of the composition flow from right to left, so we begin with the tilted jug on the left, and are forcefully returned to it by the lines of the woman’s body and her outstretched arm. An alternative and attractive route the eye then takes is down the line of the bench to her outstretched left foot, then along the line of her left leg, thigh, and back to the bench top. In short this brilliant, dynamic intensity of the woman’s gaze brings us back again to the liquid being poured (so admirably carved!) into the bowl which she holds close to the jug.

38One servant scene (#86) is at the palace and the other was damaged in the tempest. (SB-15)

Physicians and Illness

39NB-04, NH-05, NH-01

40Irène Gnarra

41Three misericords show the art of treating illness in the Middle Ages. These show two medical consultations and, probably, a very sick person.

42During the era when artisans sculpted these misericords, there were epidemics, and the number of dead increased markedly in 1466, 1475 and again between 1482 and 1487. Women were accused of sorcery and charlatanism, curing without the necessary university diplomas. Pope Sixtus (1471 – 1484) repeated the injunction against the illicit practice of medicine, his Papal Bull ordered, under threat of excommunication, that all men and women, Christian or Jew, physician or surgeon, be qualified.

43The first carving (NB-04) shows the ausculation of a woman. She consults a lay specialist who is not wearing a physicians robe, and thus is not licensed. These two bourgeois people, apparently the same age, resemble each other by their features and costumes: long belted robes, hats and pointed shoes. The woman, seated on a low stool extends her right arm. The man holds her hand and places the fingers of his right hand on the artery at her elbow to measure the force and frequency of the pulse. Is he preparing his patient for blood-letting? That was the work of the barber- surgeon. Women had recourse to blood –letting several times a year to eliminate the excesses of heat and of passion which contributed to bodily irregularities.

44From the second misericord (NB-05) one learns how wounds were treated. A man, the same age and in same costume as those on the other misericord consults a lay specialist. Seated on a low stool he places his right leg on a bench between him and the specialist. The client, like the spectator, can see the specialist and notes his youth, his comportment, his hat and his elegant clothing he reveals a lack of moderation in his comportment, one of the precepts of hippocratic medicine. This strange practitioner wears the costume of a barber-surgeon: a short robe to his knees, and with wide sleeves. He places his fine long fingers, (essential to a surgeon according to Lefranc) on the leg to examine the wound. What can he do? The barber had the right to practice blood-letting or to pull teeth, while the surgeon could incise abcesses, bandage and cauterize wounds.

45In spite of the papal bull and the interests of the professors at the University of Paris, practises changed according to time and place. In 1454, the city of Lyon hired a barber-surgeon who had been fired by master surgeons, he was charged, with a physician, to treat all the patients in the city hospital In addition, from 1473 medical texts were published at Lyon and the barber-surgeon could learn from the illustrations and the modern language how to treat wounds.

  • 6 See references included with the general bibliography.

46The third misericord (N-01), shows us a scene in which a dying person reclines on a wooden plank, colder than a mattress. According to the custom of the times, his head, stomach and hips are covered with a large sheet (called a bureau). His right arm, his left hand, both legs and one foot (the other is missing) are visible. In comparison with the upper half of his body, his legs seem swollen. (Is it an edema?) The arm and chest are emaciated and atrophied indicating the gravity of is condition. One understands that the old man suffers from malnutrition and paralysis (called also by the author of this treatise the fievre caulde) and probably of galloping consumption, The body consumes the fatty and lean tissue, as Galien explains. Because of liver problems, and of dehydration, the sick person is close to death. At that time, to cure him, according to the theory of the humors, one must try to reestablish an equilibrium among the organic liquids and offer opposing choices: medication, salves and a cold humid diet, above all with milk. Bernard of Jordan speaks of this illness in his treatise De Marasmode.6

47The arm and legs of this patient must be compared with the bodies of the patients on the other two misericords. They are plump and seem to be in good health which indicates that there was sufficient food in this region at this time. Is this reclining person a prisoner who only eats bread and water? Or a religious person who, for the love of Christ, is imitating Christ’s sufferings? Or is he an old man, eyes closed, who seems like an ape (according to the treatises) because he is toothless? Is he a dead person clad in his shroud and awaiting resurrection at the Last Judgment?

48The patients current place in the choir of Rouen cathedral enables him to listens to the prayers of the priests at the altar, his only hope for a cure.

Agricultural Occupations

49SB-07, SB-03, NB-16, #25 (Palace)

50It is a sign of the urbanization of Rouen that very few misericords deal with rural scenes.

51A woman gathers wheat in a field. Usually the field workers are men, as we see at Boos (Seine-Maritime), Herbault (Loir-et-Cher) and several misericords in Great Britain. This woman wears a long robe which looks quite uncomfortable for field work and a peaked hat that shades her face from the sun. Another misericord, damaged in the tempest, shows a man pouring water on the ground near a well. Perhaps he has washed himself or his vegetables in this water and does not want to return it to the well.

52One misericord shows two women filling a basket between them with fruit. In Langlois’ book the women are headless but the heads were replaced after the war, and hats with long tails down the back have been placed on their heads. There is a related scene on the archbishop’s palace, which shows a couple picking grapes for the vintage.



54Another misericord shows a blacksmith by his forge, a necessary occupation in a region dependant on horses to work the land. He heats the horseshoes in a brick oven and, although he is now missing an arm, we can see he is hard at work.

Entertainment on the Rouen Misericords

55NB-09, SB-13

56There does not seem to be much fun on the Rouen misericords, except for the strolling musicians. Most of the people are working, committed to city life. We see no children, except possibly one small mutilated figure.

57However, there is one fascinating image of entertainers, tied together vaguely at the waist so that they can tumble together; while one head is on the ground the other’s head is in the air. These are the tumblers of Rouen. They may have entertained on the public square before the cathedral gate. One strange bit about this misericord is that the tumblers can be viewed either vertically or horizontally. Thus, while the carver has sculpted two figures, four can be seen, with one head attachable to either the horizontal or the vertical body.

58The figures are dressed as others on the stalls, in long simple robes. One wears a hat and the other appears to be tonsured. There may be a message here on the necessity of the canons and the congregation to work together. Their expressions appear serious as if this is really not a game at all.

59Another misericord not far away, at La Trinité of Vendôme has a similar pair of illusionary tumblers. This pair appears to be Saracens since they each hold a scimitar, which forms a wheel that they tumble around. We know they are not real Saracens since they are cleans-haven who wear simple clothes; they are just entertainers who give the illusion of being Saracens.

60A third set of tumblers is at New College, Oxford, in Great Britain. Here also two figures can be seen as four. They are in quilted outfits and tumble over a head, which peers from under the figures. Why this iconography crossed the channel is a mystery. Other examples of this image appear in the art of other cultures. Another trick is to place a stick through a copy of the tumblers and when you turn them as a pinwheel you can see them tumble as they did before the church.

61One game shown at Rouen is “la pannoye”, a game of force. (SB-13) Two people sit facing each other, soles of their shoes touching. They hold a stick between them and each pulls on this stick. The loser will rise in the air while the winner remains seated on the ground. This game is seen on a number of misericords in France and also on several jouées. This misericord is being restored.

Miséricorde après la tempête.

The musicians and the originality of the musical scenes on the choir stalls in Rouen

62(NB-02), (SH-09), (SH-13), SH-15) and Langlois #73

63Frédéric Billiet

64Translated by Charles Whitfield

  • 7 Inventory completed at Rouen University by Frédéric Billiet (2002).
  • 8 See the articles by Frédéric Billiet published in the plastic arts joumal/Arts Profanes, vol. 7, 8, (...)
  • 9 For exemple Martin Agricola’s Musica Instrumentalis (1529), Sebastian Virdung’s Musica Getutscht (1 (...)

65Since the systematic inventory of the musical scenes on the medieval stalls of Europe7, it is possible to observe a certain consistency in the representation of musical instruments. Always present in the hands of various figures – minstrels, biblical characters, angels – or between the paws of animals or monsters, they are divided into thirteen types of well-known intruments8. These instruments were frequently used by musicians at the time the carvings were made on the principal ensembles of medieval stalls. The wind instruments, strings, percussion and portative organs correspond to precise models which the joiners probably carried from one building site to another. The bagpipes with a single drone, for example, remain an unavoidable model for 15th century wood-carvers whereas the two-drone bagpipes gradually became established to enliven feasts and Flemish fairs. The evolution of the instrument is noticeable in the treatises9 but the woodcarvers do not appear to have paid attention to this. Likewise, with few exceptions, the harp, the lute and the fiddle are similar in all the ensembles.

  • 10 Ref. the theory of representation in pairs proposed by Elaine C. Block in this publication.

66However, some representations of musical instruments such as those in Rouen are remarkable for their originality. They astonish by the exceptional nature of certain organological details, but also by showing musicians playing these instruments, particularly the two misericords each depicting two costumed musicians10.

67The Rouen ensemble originally contained six musical scenes: a portative organ player on an arm-rest (mutilated); a shepherd bagpiper on a misericord of the honorary stall; two scenes showing instrumentalists on misericords; a stringed drum player on a misericord that has disappeared but, fortunately, exists in an illustration by Langlois’ daughter; a hybrid bird-woman playing the harp. The instruments and their players are described here simultaneously.

The portative organ (arm-rest)

  • 11 Homo-Lechner, Catherine, Les instruments de musique au Moyen Age, Paris, Fayard, 1999.
  • 12 The verb «toucher» has long been used to denote the playing of the hands on a keyboard. In the 18th(...)
  • 13 The carving reveals the black and white keys of the manual making a chromatic scale possible.
  • 14 Oblong opening towards the exterior characteristic of pipes called «à bouche».
  • 15 ADELINE, Jules, Les sculptures grotesques et symboliques (in and around Rouen), Rouen, 1879.

68The portative organ appeared towards the end of the 12th century to provide the tones for liturgical chant in the small chapels or choir enclosures. Officially admitted by the cathedral chapters and the monasteries, the organist played this chant-guide instrument daily when he did not go up to the loft to fill the nave with the sounds of a more powerful instrument. The texts allude to the construction of an organ in the loft of Rouen cathedral in 138611. However, the woodcarvers preferred, as everywhere else, to show the small pipe instrument, suspended by a shoulder-strap across the chest of the musician working the bellows with his left hand, his right hand placed on the keyboard. Generally given to angels on pendants or arm-rests, the portative organ was nevertheless played by other figures. A woman wearing a head-scarf (misericord on the stalls of Saint-Chamant) «touches»12 with one hand the chromatic manual13 of a portative organ with two ranks of six pipes and with the other pumps a bellows while looking in another direction. It is once more a woman’s hairstyle worn by a hybrid monster which may be observed playing the portative organ on a misericord in Barcelona (Spain). The same instrumental gesture can be seen on an arm-rest in Rouen but played by a headless figure. The portative organ displays a single rank of six pipes on which the flues14 are visible. The instrument is held in profile which could be justifiable for an arm-rest (see the angel on the organ in Worcester cathedral (G-B) but the same disposition may be observed on a misericord in Mortain, in a decoration on the stalls in Amiens cathedral (1508-1522) and in the medallion of the Calendes portal in Rouen cathedral15. The direction the figure is facing does not therefore depend on the support but doubtless corresponds to the way the instrument was actually held.

The bagpipes


  • 16 Idem.

70In the Middle Ages, the bagpipes were represented in various situations. The instrument may symbolize lechery, gluttony, death by hanging or, on the contrary, be involved in Nativity scenes. However, it is often difficult to distinguish on the misericords between the shepherd and the bagpiper if the costume or the scenery do not offer further information. Thus, the presence of sheep makes it possible to identify shepherds on a misericord in Rouen cathedral resembling in every respect a partition in Auch cathedral (16th century). The shepherd is not blowing into the wind pipe because the bag seems to be full of air already, but the position of the fingers on the chanter shows that the instrument is capable of producing sounds. Dressed in similar attire, a fool carved in wood in the entrance-hall of the Palais de Justice in Rouen16 is playing the bagpipes while in the same hall, another bagpiper is taking part in a Nativity scene. These ambiguous musical scenes do not facilitate our understanding of the presence of musical instruments in medieval art.

The stringed drum

71(Langlois #73)

  • 17 According to the expression used by Viollet-le-Duc in his Encyclopédie médiévale.
  • 18 Mentioned by Catherine Homo-Lechner, op. tit., p. 757.
  • 19 Idem.

72A professional musician, or minstrel, placed on a misericord that has disappeared from the stalls in Rouen, wearing a belted gown and a cap with a folded brim, is seen playing a drum with two strings; the instrument is sometimes known as the Béarn drum or «choron»17. A drawing by Langlois shows how the instrument was held and played by striking the strings with two sticks. This manner of holding the instrument is similar to that of the hybrid accompanied by a hurdy-gurdy player on the stalls of Basel cathedral (Switzerland). In a text entitled La Vieille (c.1349), Jean Lefèvre spoke «of a great noise [boise]; when one strikes it above the string/in tune with the others rings»18 Jean Gerson19 considered it «an instrument of the vulgar, with a rough sound and strings thicker than those of the harp». It is nevertheless given to an angel carved on the back of a chair, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon. Yet another angel may be seen playing the instrument on the North portal of the church of Saint-Maclou (Rouen). The instrument is sufficiently rare to call attention to its presence on the upper border of the Tapestry of the Apocalypse in Angers where it is also played by an angel.

The kettle-drum


  • 20 BILLIET, Frédéric, La vie musicale à Amiens au XVe siècle, Amiens, CRDP, 1982.
  • 21 Idem.
  • 22 Snare (timbre): a band stretched over or under the skin so as to vibrate simultaneously with it, bu (...)

74The bedon (kettle-drum) on the Rouen stalls is, as far as we know, the only representation of this instrument on the medieval choir stalls of Europe. It rarely appears in the iconography of the other arts although it is mentioned more often in chronicles from the early years of the 15th century onwards20. Thus in the Amiens municipal archives, we read that in 1571: «Two big drum players who were being escorted as prisoners by the sergeants of the night-watch because they had been found sounding their drums accross the town between ten and eleven in the evening, without any permission from the authorities»21. The term is derived from «boudiné», a rounded belly, to illustrate the shape of this large drum with two skins. On the misericord, and according to usage, a musician - the «bedonneur» - is striking with a felt-headed drumstick both skins of a drum carried by another person. The «V» shaped lacing connecting the two skins is visible between the instrument and the ledge of the misericord. The «Y» shaped lacing allows a leather ring to be slipped over the tension ropes in order to modify the tuning of the skins. The exceptional degree of precision in this carving enables an organological detail of great importance to be located. Indeed, a snare22 fitted with four bells is stretched accross the skin of the instrument to make the sound even more resonant for open-air processions.

Pipe and tabor, cymbals


76On another misericord of the same ensemble, the snare has no bells. The instrument is struck by a person wearing the same hooded bonnet who, with the left hand, is probably playing a pipe that has disappeared. Curiously, a hybrid playing a pipe accompanied on a tabor appears in a quadrilobe of the Libraires portal (1238) where the instruments represented are not unlike those in the quadrilobes of the stalls in Cologne.

77His companion on the cymbals is dressed in a gown and a fur cap (toque). This percussion metallophone is so rarely represented in medieval art that it seems important to mention its presence in a nearby ensemble: the angel with the cymbals on a misericord on the stalls at Venables (Eure). In these two ensembles, the way the instrument is held conforms to contemporary practice, different from that of today since, at that time, the discs were clashed horizontally. This detail did not escape Viollet-le-Duc who made a sketch of them in his Encyclopédie médiévale.

The musicians

  • 23 DELSALLE, Lucien-René, Rouen au XVIe siècle, Connaître Rouen, t. IV, 1979.
  • 24 Arch. Dép. Seine-Maritime, série G 2131 du 17 mars 1447.

78These last two scenes seem to relate to the same event. Two musicians on misericords, dressed in similar costumes and wearing hats, recall the professional musicians organized in guilds and corporations from the 15th century onwards in provincial towns, even if the missing registers of the Rouen municipal archives prevent formal proof of this. Lucien-René Delsalle23 has attested to the existence of a brotherhood of players in the Hôtel Dieu de la Madeleine under the patronage of Saint-Julien, probably created by delegation of the king of the Menestriers de Paris by way of a royal decree dated 1407. They are found in other ensembles such as in Barcelona, or in certain British ensembles. The pipe and tabor player often appears among the musicians and it is no surprise to discover him on the panel from the stalls in Gaillon (Eure) now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The transport of the kettle-drum also probably suggests that the musicians were taking part in a procession. The timbre of the cymbals could thus add greater brilliance and volume to open-air musical interludes. We know that the clergy did not maintain regular instrumentalists in the choir-school except for an organist. City waits were frequently called upon to enliven the great patronal feasts. The departmental archives suggest that the Rouen confraternities also maintained, either permanently or occasionally, jester-musicians: «the canons of Rouen cathedral must forbid young choristers from going in the evening, after the supper of the brothers of Saint-Romain, to sing a motet in front of the portal to Saint-Romain given, they said, that the brothers have professional jongleurs and must be satisfied with them»24. All these professional musicans were requisitioned for major staged events such as the Mystery of the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ performed in Rouen in 1474.

The Tale of Aristotle and Phyllis


80Brian J. Levy

  • 25 There are other examples in the stalles of Monbenoit, Isle Adam and Verteuil (France), Aarschot (Be (...)

81The impressive image of the great philosopher, Aristotle, crawling on all fours like a horse, signals the popularity of the tale it illustrates: the Lai of Aristotle, popular in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It inspired the carving at Rouen, just one of many examples on choir stalls from Belgium to Spain25.

82!The moral of the legend is that the wisest of men can be seduced by the artifices of a woman. All the illustrations of this tale show the central scene. The philosopher, madly in love, is humiliated by crawling on all fours so that the sly séductrice can mount him. Perhaps this is a tribute to the intellectual supremacy of the Aristotelian schools of knowledge from the XIIth to the XIIIth centuries.

83The European version of this legend, came into being at the start of the XIIIth century by two very different, but almost contemporary authors. One version is an exemplum strictly moralized, the work of the renowned preacher Jacques de Vitry, and is included in his Sermones dominicales et communes. The other Lai of Aristotle, is a spirited work in the form of a fabliau by the poet Henri d’Andeli from the University of Paris. Henri invented the classic outline of the story: the young Alexander falling in love with a pretty young girl, first named Campaspe and later, Phyllis. Alexander’s mistress, put aside, decided on a course of revenge. One summer day, dressed seductively and singing entrancingly, she strolled under Aristotle’s window. The great philosopher was immediately attracted to her; he ceased his studies and became a slave to his passion. The girls promised him sex if he would let her ride him as a horse. The philosopher agreed and passed, crawling on all fours, saddled like a palfrey, mounted by the beauty, under the windows of Alexander who looked at him secretly and then confronted his tutor.

84Aristotle had learned a difficult lesson. But he would not have been the greatest philosopher of his age if he could not derive a good moral from this event. He told Alexander that this misadventure just reinforced his advice. In effect, if an old sage could be so easily seduced by a woman, what chance has a young man?

85In addition to the choir stalls, artists illustrated this tale in many different media: romanesque capitals, bronze water pitchers, silver chalices, engravings, manuscript illuminations, ivories and murals.

86At Rouen, a ravishing Phyllis is mounted on an elongated Aristotle, emphasizing his importance. The scene is viewed slightly from above. We are thus present at the level of Alexander’s windows as we watch, with him, the humiliation of the great philosopher. Therefore the moral is directed at the spectator as well as at Alexander.

The Fight to Wear the Pants in the Family


  • 26 Cité de P. Bureau «La dispute pour la culotte: variations littéraires et iconographiques d’un thème (...)

88Pierre Bureau26

  • 27 Cf. Cl. Gaignebet et J.-D. Lajoux, Art profane et religion populaire au Moyen Age, Paris 1985, p. 4 (...)
  • 28 Langlois, E.H., Les stalles de la cathédrale de Rouen, Rouen, 1838.

89The «dispute for the pants in the family» is a favorite theme of the carvers. One of the best known carving on this theme is a misericord in the set of choir stalls at Rouen. It is often reproduced27, but has systematically been cut from its context. What we wish to call to your attention here is precisely the idea according to which the misericord of the «fight for the pants» is expressly inserted into an iconographie program. Thanks to the XIXth century designs in the book by Eustache-Hyacinthe Langlois, it is possible for us to have a faithful vision of the misericords in the choir stalls of Rouen Cathedral28 before they were restored and replaced following the bombardments of the second world war! The «dispute for the pants» shows a man and a woman, standing diametrically opposite, in the process of pulling viciously, each on his side, of an article of clothing. The designs of Langlois highlight a detail that is difficult to see today on this misericord: the man holds a knife in his right hand. Is this one way of showing that the man would be ready to cut up the object under contention rather than to let is wife profit from it? The general sense of this scene is that of the strong rivalry between the spouses to know who will "wear the pants in the family".

90What is significant here is the place of this misericord in relation to the others which border it. In effect, the «dispute for the pants» is placed precisely at the crossing of two groups of misericords: on one hand, on the lower section of te stalls, a series of misericords focuses on work, specifically of te production of material, of clothing, and of costume. On the other hand, on the upper level, the focus is specifically on combat.

  • 29 See section by Brian J. Levy.

91To the right of the «dispute for the pants,» a man is shown on all fours while his hands are crushed by a woman. The following misericord (SH-08) tells the story of the Lai of Aristotle29. To the east, (SB-13), on the lower row this time, one finds a scene of combat with qualities of a game: «pannoy», which consists of unstabilizing one adversary, while each pulls on his side of a stick. Consequently the «dispute for the pants» is situated at the junction of representations tied to textiles and those relating to combat. In a word it is the pin that provides the context for the organization so methodically established on the choir stalls.

Violence on Misericords

92NB-03, NH-02, NH-08, SH-01, SH-12

93At least five misericords show violence either with one person attacking with a sword or with two people battling with each other. In one (NB-03) a long-robed man runs, hat trailing behind, sword raised toward an unseen enemy, and protected by a shield. On a second misericord (SH-01) the man is half kneeling, wooden stick held with both hands, either to prevent another person from approaching. Two other misericords show two armed men. One (NH-08) shows one man leaning towards another, head down and pushing a knife up the opponent’s sleeve. The other man, seated, head thrown back in effort, tries to push him away. In another confrontation between two men (SH-12) one man has just slapped a sword on the shoulder of another. The rage these two misericords show is great. Two men on a misericord at the archbishop’s palace fight with their hands and no arms. The last of this violent set shows a person whipping the bare rump of a child. The child is on all fours and the whipper is holding him down by the neck. These misericords show anger among men and the use of any kind of arm as an instrument of revenge.


The Old Testament

94(NH-09), (SB-12), (SH-10), (SH-11), (SH-14)

95Only three sets of misericords, two in France and one in Belgium devote their entire ensemble of misericords to illustrations of the Old Testament: the cathedral of Amiens, the Abbey of St Victor of Paris, destroyed during the Revolution and the Dominican church at Louvain (Belgium). One row of stalls, that is one fourth of the misericords of the collegiate church at Champeaux (Seine-et-Mame) are devoted to the life of Job. These sets are remarkably like some of the figured bibles produced in the north of France in previous centuries. The reason for including the Old Testament episodes in bibles and on choir stalls is that they are intended to prefigure and thus validate the New Testament. Joseph, who appears in forty-six episodes at Amiens Cathedral, is a precursor of Christ. He was a leader of his people, revered his family, who had been more than unkind to him, and in effect, saved the world of his time. In addition, Joseph in Egypt is a good story. It includes prescient dreams, sibling rivalry, a bit of sex, brotherly love, and a man who made his way from a slave to the second in command of an important country. Job on the other hand, represented faith through interminable trials, including loss of wealth, family and health.

96Several of these biblical stories include women heroines. Judith was a leader of her people and Suzanne preserved her chastity against insurmountable odds. David, although he had his faults, was of the house of Judah from which Christ descended. These are the main figures in the biblical stories on misericords.

97In addition to sequences of biblical misericords a number of ensembles of stalls mingle isolated Old testament incidents with proverbs, scenes of everyday life and monsters. Such is the case with Rouen cathedral and a number of other cathedrals, especially in England. There are five Old Testament scenes at Amiens.

David Slays a Lion


99A young man in short belted coat and tight cap is astride a lion and rends its jaws. This action is congruent with the biblical description of the young shepherd David who slays not only a lion but also a bear to protect his flock. This feat earned him the right to fight the giant Goliath, not depicted at Rouen. Two other lion-killers are represented on misericords, Samson and Hercules. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish along them. If a bear is in the scene it is definitely David. However, David is the youngest of the three and appears clean-shaven and short-haired. He is dressed conservatively or in a shepherd’s cloak, as in the St Victor – now at Fontenay-en-Parisis (Val d’Oise) set of choir stalls. David would not appear in mid-eastern garb with fillet in his hair nor in a Roman type toga. Nor would he be nude. Hercules appears more often on misericords in Spain than in other countries. This image therefore appears to be David who slays the lion.

Samson Slays a Lion


101At Rouen three misericords illustrate events in the life of Samson. He is generally the most popular biblical charter in an isolated scene. No ensemble illustrates his heroics in a sequence. Here the figure has long hair coiffed by a turban. His lion is rather small and he is not astride it. Therefore it is possible that this is Hercules. However, Samson was young at this time, on the way to his betrothal feast, therefore it is likely that he would be unbearded. The incident of slaying the lion relates to a subsequent return to the site and finding honey in the lion’s mouth. This incident is considered to prefigure Christ’s trip to Limbo and the Harrowing of Hell. The Biblia Pauperum which pairs the typological incidents of the Old Testament with the anti-types in the New Testament shows this relationship.

Samson Carries the Gates of Gaza


103The incident at Gaza, where Samson escapes from the city at night by ripping off the gates of the city is not as popular with misericord carvers as the scene with the lion. Here Samson prefigures Christ removing the stone from his tomb so that He can escape. Both episodes required a tremendous amount of force. The Gaza scene therefore prefigures the Resurrection of Christ.

104The Gaza scene at Rouen is particularly beautiful. Samson wears essentially the same clothing that he wears when he fights the lion, except that he is bare headed. His hair, partly hidden, appears long and his face is, once more, clean-shaven. The details of the scene are typically French since the gate on his back is Gothic, with designs similar to stained glass windows. The door to the city is a Gothic arch bounded by towers. The entry to the town is more like a house.

105The Gaza scene at Ripon (Great Britain) follows closely the woodcut in the Biblia Pauperum. Samson wears shorter garments and high boots. He carries one rounded gate under his arm and the other over his shoulder. The Gaza scene at the cathedral of Toledo (Spain) is similar to the Ripon Samson without the details of the town of Gaza. Only in France do we see a Gothic gate.

Samson and Delilah


107A scene of Samson, asleep on the lap of Delilah and unaware that she is cutting his hair, is less popular on misericords than the Gaza scene, probably because it focuses on a woman rather than a typological prefiguration. However, This scene is also on a jouée in France, at the Abbey of Monbenoît (Doubs).

108We can no longer tell if Samson here is bearded or if his head is ornamented with a turban or a fillet. His face is brutally mutilated and Delilah’s head is totally gone. Samson still wears the same simple clothing, typical for the Rouen misericords. From the bit of Delilah that is still visible we see that she wears a lovely dress with V shaped neckline. She is cutting Samson’s hair, rather than following the biblical passage where she calls a Phillistine to help. The fickle nature of women and their danger to men is apparent in this incident and probably the reason for its inclusion on misericords.

109Brian Levy proposes that this scene is sometimes compared to a misericord at Lincoln cathedral which has been interpreted as a young wife beating her old husband, or alternatively as Judith about to decapitate Holophernes (it depends on whether she is holding a wooden ladle in her upraised right hand or a scimitar). In both cases too the format of the misericord stresses the man’s horizontal position along the seat, and contrasts it with the strong verticality of the woman acting as an upright side-support to the set.

The Riches of the Promised Land


111The two spies from Canaan, Joshua and Caleb, carrying a huge bunch of grapes on a pole which rests on their shoulders, is probably the most frequent of the isolated images from the Old Testament. The scene is depicted on the stalls of many countries, not only on misericords. In Stendal, Germany, for example it is on the interior of a high jouée. At Toledo Cathedral it is on a dorsal frieze just above the headboard of a base stall. In this scene the two spies appear to be rather tired. They have laid down their burden and are resting on the ground. On all other scenes the two figures are standing, one at each end of the pole. They may both be facing front or the leader may be facing the rear. They are dressed in varied attire. The two men may represent the Old and New Testament, especially if the leader faces the rear. Carrying the grapes may prefigure Christ carrying the Cross, Baptism or the Eucharist. On the typological window of Chartres Cathedral the scene prefigures the Eucharist and in the Biblia Pauperum it prefigures the Baptism.

Prophets – Bearded Men in Long Robes

112(NH-14), (NB-07), (NH-10), (SB-16), (SB-05), (S-14), (#55 palace)

113Each of six Rouen misericords shows a bearded man in a long robe and with an ornate hat. These are the only bearded figures on the choir stalls and imply that these figures represent Old Testament prophets. The prophets in the Double Credo on the dorsal panels of the Savoie and the Spanish misericords all have beards.

114Several of these prophets hold a long banderole and gaze at it. (NH-14) This parchment is now empty but possibly at one time a message was painted on it. Another prophet sleeps comfortably, his head resting on one hand. (NB-07) A prophet now in the archbishop’s palace, purse at his waist, holds a plant or a tail. (#55) A fourth prophet prepares for a fight. (NH-10) His legs behind him as if he has been running, he holds a tiny shield in one hand and a small knife or sword in the other. Another battling prophet, damaged in the 1999 tempest, holds a club (SB-16).

115The most curious prophet, again on his knees as if running, grasps a dog’s neck with one hand and raises a whip to strike with the other. (SB-05) The reason why this man strikes a dog is obscure. Perhaps it relates to a legend that, since the Jews did not eat pork, they ate dogs. A similar image is so identified on the stalls of Walcourt (Belgium).

The Saint on Rouen Misericords


117There is only one misericord at Rouen that could be interpreted as a saint. (NH-15) and that may be St George. He is the patron saint of England and appears frequently on the choir stalls of Great Britain, always slaying the dragon, symbol of evil. At Exeter he is attired in the best armor of the day. At Rouen, however, he is dressed in ordinary clothing, with cap tied under his chin. He bends to fit under the little ledge and extends his sword into the mouth of a wyvern, (a two-footed dragon). Saints on choir stalls are usually depicted on jouées or dorsal panels rather than under the rumps of the monks or canons.

118George is one of the few saints on French misericords, except for the New Testament series at Saint-Sulpice de Favière. St Catherine and St Martin are at Champeaux (Seine-et-Marne); St Barbara and St Roch are on misericords at Aarschot, Belgium.

III - Monsters and Hybrids

119(NB-01), (NB-02), (NB-05), (NB-13), (NH-04), (SB-01), (SH-03) and (#15 palace), (#69 palace), and (Langlois #21. #24, #56, #70, #---)

120The monsters on the Rouen misericords invariably have human heads and these heads appear to be mainly of women. Some of them are copies of the bas-reliefs on the north portals. These figures with human heads have rear quarters of a snake, a bird, a quadruped, or a lion. Little attention is paid to the texture of their skin. They have no fur and only vague outlines of feathers. One monster, now in the palace, has the face of an ape, instead of a human face.

121Each of these monsters is garbed in some way. One has a drape covering its hair and outstretched arms. Another has a hat in addition to its draped arms, the one with a lion’s tail and a baby monster, wears a talf hat. The bird figure wears a short-sleeved blouse and holds a blazon.

122Monsters on other sets of choir stalls are mainly recomposed animals with tails of one combined with claws, bodies and beaks of others. No other set limits its monsters to forms with human heads. Is it possible, therefore that the Rouen monsters were satires of specific figures or that they were puns involving some of the canons who occupied these seats.



124Malcolm Jones

125Aware of the danger of overinterpretation and anachronism, perpetual temptations of the iconography specialists – I am inclined to think of hybrids man/animal as a game with no symbolic message. It would be interesting to know if the shield on the misericord (SB – 01) was originally decorated with the coat of arms of a patron of the cathedral.

Sirène-oiseau à la harpe


127Baudouin Van den Abeele

128Appearing by the pen of Homer, as the Song XII of the Odyssey, the siren was fist represented as a bird-woman whose melodious song charmed, according to legend, the sailors she led to perdition.

129Through the tracts of the Physiologus and the bestiaries, the Middle Ages inherited the theme of te siren-bird and a metamorphosis was under way. In the Romanesque era the sirens had acquired, in most cases, a fish tail and reigned in the seas. It was between the VIIth and the Xth centuries that the mutation occurred, which affected also literary witnesses that showed illustrations but one notes where the siren-bird persisted.

130This misericord takes up once more the theme of the siren-bird: she sings accompanied by a harp extremely well rendered. It is not rare to come across in miniatures and in sculptures the musician fish-siren playing a horn (Stuttgart Psalter, Ashmole bestiary 1511 at Oxford, capitals at Conques, at Ripoll and at Vezelay), of the fiddle, bagpipes, drum (fresco at the Episcopal Palace of Beauvais, Psalter of Guide Dampierre) or of the harp (bestiairy of the Arsenal, 3516 and of Trinity College Cambridge, 14.9). The siren-bird musicians are rarer: thus the Physiologus of Brussels (BR, 10066-77) shows one that plays a fiddle, but in the mode of an ancient lyre. The Oxford bestiary, Bodl. 602 shows one that plays a harp, as on the misericord in question. According to the moralists, the sirens represent the dangers of lust, feminine seduction, worldly solicitations. The instrument for profane music is associated naturally to alert the Christian, in this particular case to a canon to their dangerous destinations.

A Glimpse of Saracens and the Feast of Fools


132Michael Camille

133Saracen Hybrid Swings Censor If there is such a word as “misericordness” this is its embodiment. Here is a creature that both ridicules and is itself ridiculous, that is, both human and hybrid, evoking numerous inversions within a single monstrous body. A half-man, half-beast, with webbed front feet and a human naked behind fills the field with his expansive sweeping form. His great cape does not hide the transition between human and animal but serves to reveal his hairy loins – a sign of masculine luxury. This youth is thus both beardless and bearded at the same time. This fits with the general anti-Muslim sentiments of the image. He wears a turban-like headdress, which, attached to such an obscenely bent rearend suggests the sodomitical sins attributed to the Saracens in particular and the threat of the Muslim enemy of Christendom in general. It is a double threat, from the front and from behind. The thick shield that it holds in front contrasts with the exposed rear-end perhaps recalled to some viewers some proverb about “front” and “back” (protecting your nose when your ass is exposed).

134But what is perhaps most striking about this anti-Arab animal is its pseudo-sacred self-fumigation of its own anus with a liturgical object – a swinging censor. This points to a practice of playful youthful subculture not practiced by the pagan “other” but with the space of the choir itself. Contemporary descriptions relate how on the Feast of Fools, which was very important at Rouen Cathedral, the choirboys would burn their sweaty socks on the altar, although here the notion of an even more evil-smelling form of anti-incense is suggested. These acts were lost long before the twentieth century, probably during the French Revolution or shortly thereafter when the choir was made visible to the congregation.

IV-Proverbs on Rouen Misericords

135(NB-06), (NB-18), (NH-13)

136The three obvious proverbs on the Rouen misericords are all of Flemish origin and appear in the Proverbs painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder. Casting roses to swine (NB-06) exists on misericords in Germany, Belgium, and Spain as well as in France. At Rouen the farmer overturns a huge basket of roses to the awaiting pair of swine. The man who tries to outgape the oven (NB-18) kneels, mouth wide open, before a tiny brick oven. His long robe sweeps along the floor and he brandishes a long parchment. Perhaps he is try to break a record and will record it on this banner. The man out gaping the oven is also on misericords in all the countries on the route of the Flemish carvers. Still another proverb, to fall in the ashes between two chairs (NH-13) is popular on the carver’s route. This man, in his long robe and fur brimmed hat, appears perturbed, or at least thoughtful as he tries to decide on which chair he should sit.

Iconographic conclusions

137It should be evident from the above discussions that the misericords of the cathedral of Rouen provide rich data on the life of that city during the fifteenth century. The carvings are based, for the most part, on real life rather than on fantasy and cover many aspects of life rather than a limited view.

138It has also become evident to this viewer, that many of the misericords may be considered in pairs. There are two sets of servants washing dishes, two sets of couples at the vintage, two sculptors, two sets of courting scenes and so on. We feel that if the missing stalls were still in the ensemble, this relationship would be even clearer.

139The question remains as to why these pairings, unique thus far in the analysis of choir stall carvings, exists and what do they mean? The pair of vintage scenes shows the gathering of grapes at different moments in the process, filling the basket and then emptying it. The people in the scenes also differ, a man and a woman and two women. Perhaps the restorations are incorrect or perhaps the sculptor is showing the various possibilities for this one act.

140There is also a difference in time with the two dish-washing scenes. On one the dishes are mainly being washed and in the other they are being dried. The same people may be in both scenes.

141The two scenes that may show courting present two approaches to the courting of a woman, one more elegant than the other. Yet it is possible that these two scenes were meant as a pair.

142Another area that merits exploration is the possible relationship of the Rouen misericords to English influences. It is a fact that some of the carvers at Rouen were Flemish and they left Flemish influences on the stalls. Were any of these carvers ever in England and did they work on English choir stalls, or even see models of them? Perhaps we will never know but there are some “Anglicisms” on these stalls. The primary influence is the shape of the ledge over the carvings. It is pointed in front and curved toward the sides, like almost all the ledges on XVth century English choir stalls. The shape of this little seat in France is usually straight on the front and with an "ess" curve at the sides. Several churches in the Aveyron also have this pointed seat, but are slightly different from those at Rouen.

  • 30 See E.C. Block “Half-Angel Half Beast: Images of Women on Misericords;” Renardus, vol. 5, 1992, p. (...)

143There at least two iconographic patterns at Rouen that are rare in France but that appear on misericords in Great Britain. One is the courting scene where the man places his hand beneath the woman’s foot, in a fifteenth century version of the saying “prendre le pied”. The man is estimating the sexual compatibility of the couple and the calm demeanor of the woman eliminates the usual interpretation of this scene as a marital battle. The same iconography is apparent at Fairford (Gloucestershire) and at Malvern Abbey (Worcestershire) in England30. At Fairford, as at Rouen, the woman raises a ladle with which the couple will share their marriage feast. At Malvern the woman, obviously rejects the man’s proposal, and tosses her spindle at his head.

  • 31 E.C. Block «Les culbuteurs de Vendôme», L’art sacré, vol. 12, 2000.

144The other iconographic pattern is the pair of tumblers, attached vaguely at the waist. They can be viewed either horizontally or vertically, thus two carved figures can appear as four. This image appears also, with fake Saracens as the tumblers, at La Trinité de Vendôme31. The same pair of illusionist tumblers appears in Great Britain at New College, Oxford. However, these are the only such tumblers on English choir stalls. Why does this duplication exist? Rouen, situated on the great river Seine certainly had contacts with England and perhaps one result is the shape of the choir stall seat and some connected iconography.

145The analysis of the pairs of misericords at Rouen cathedral, and the possible influence of English carvers, are examples of the mysteries that still remain hidden in choir stall images and forms. The misericords of Rouen cathedral still hold a mine of information that we must uncover.


2 For a selection of dorsal panels remaining in France, see the Hospice St-Sauveur at Villefranche-de-Rouergue (Aveyron), St-Claude, north stalls (Jura), St Marie of Auch (Gers), St Bertrand-de-Comminge (Haute-Garonne). Most others have been destroyed and some were replaced in the nineteenth century ie La Trinité de Vendôme (Loir-et-Cher) and the cathedral of Amiens (Somme).

3 E.-H. Langlois, Les stalles de la cathédrale de Rouen, Paris, 1838.

4 The stalls from the Château of Gaillon (Eure) are now at the Basilica St-Denis.

5 Frescos of Lorenzetti in the Townall at Sienna.

6 See references included with the general bibliography.

7 Inventory completed at Rouen University by Frédéric Billiet (2002).

8 See the articles by Frédéric Billiet published in the plastic arts joumal/Arts Profanes, vol. 7, 8, 9, ou Renardus and in the Acts of the Colloque Musique et arts plastiques at the Sorbonne University (Paris IV), PUPS, 2001.

9 For exemple Martin Agricola’s Musica Instrumentalis (1529), Sebastian Virdung’s Musica Getutscht (1511) and Michael Praetorius’ Syntagma musicum (1615).

10 Ref. the theory of representation in pairs proposed by Elaine C. Block in this publication.

11 Homo-Lechner, Catherine, Les instruments de musique au Moyen Age, Paris, Fayard, 1999.

12 The verb «toucher» has long been used to denote the playing of the hands on a keyboard. In the 18th century, certain treatises are still entitled «l’art de toucher le clavier».

13 The carving reveals the black and white keys of the manual making a chromatic scale possible.

14 Oblong opening towards the exterior characteristic of pipes called «à bouche».

15 ADELINE, Jules, Les sculptures grotesques et symboliques (in and around Rouen), Rouen, 1879.

16 Idem.

17 According to the expression used by Viollet-le-Duc in his Encyclopédie médiévale.

18 Mentioned by Catherine Homo-Lechner, op. tit., p. 757.

19 Idem.

20 BILLIET, Frédéric, La vie musicale à Amiens au XVe siècle, Amiens, CRDP, 1982.

21 Idem.

22 Snare (timbre): a band stretched over or under the skin so as to vibrate simultaneously with it, but also to augment the sound impact while veiling the sound.

23 DELSALLE, Lucien-René, Rouen au XVIe siècle, Connaître Rouen, t. IV, 1979.

24 Arch. Dép. Seine-Maritime, série G 2131 du 17 mars 1447.

25 There are other examples in the stalles of Monbenoit, Isle Adam and Verteuil (France), Aarschot (Belgium), Lausanne (Suisse). Dordrecht (Pas-Bas), Oviedo, Toledo and Zamora (Spain).

26 Cité de P. Bureau «La dispute pour la culotte: variations littéraires et iconographiques d’un thème profane (XIIIe-XVIe siècle)», in C. Rivals éditeur, Le. Miroir des miséricordes, Les Cahiers de Conques N° 2, Mars 1996, p. 106-108.

27 Cf. Cl. Gaignebet et J.-D. Lajoux, Art profane et religion populaire au Moyen Age, Paris 1985, p. 48; D. et H. Kraus, Le monde caché des miséricordes, Paris, Ed. l’Amateur, 1986, p. 65.

28 Langlois, E.H., Les stalles de la cathédrale de Rouen, Rouen, 1838.

29 See section by Brian J. Levy.

30 See E.C. Block “Half-Angel Half Beast: Images of Women on Misericords;” Renardus, vol. 5, 1992, p. 17-34.

31 E.C. Block «Les culbuteurs de Vendôme», L’art sacré, vol. 12, 2000.

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