Much has been written on medieval misericords around Europe, but sculptures on English medieval choir stalls have received the most attention. Elaine Block's efforts in the field are notable. She established Misericordia International, an organization promoting the study of medieval misericords and iconography. In 1993 she founded the journal Profane Arts of the Middle Ages. And her corpuses of medieval misericords lay at the core of the Profane Arts of the Middle Ages series published by Brepols, which included corpuses of medieval misericords in France (2003), Iberia (2005), and Belgium and the Netherlands (2010). After Elaine Block passed away in 2008, her work was continued by a number of followers, including Paul Hardwick. The Leeds Trinity University College professor is co-editor of Profane Arts of the Middle Ages and of several books in the Profane Arts series (Medieval English Comedy, 2007, Profane Imagery in Marginal Arts of the Middle Ages, 2009, Meanings of Play and Plays of Meaning: Essays in Memory of Elaine C. Block, 2010).
Medieval misericords display an extensive array of images, including religious scenes and symbols, heraldic representations, depictions of vegetal elements, real or fantastic animals and scenes of everyday life. The identification of iconographical motifs is not always clear due to the state of preservation of choir stall sculptures, but the interpretation of such images is even more problematic. Much ink has been spilled on the numerous representations that puzzle the modern viewer and the apparent incompatibility of their original context (in church choirs) and their iconography (scenes from daily life, monsters and lay fables, scatological and even erotic images, parodies, and puns). Few original sets of misericords have been preserved intact or can be reconstructed. There are no direct sources on their intended reception, and this further complicates their interpretation. They seem to evade clear iconographical schemes and combine the most diverse images.
The present work argues in favor of a single, all-encompassing theory: misericord images must be interpreted in their original context of use, i.e. church choirs, and thus they hold religious and doctrinal meaning. Even if certain images seem profane to us, they were in fact religiously charged for their intended viewers, i.e. clergymen, reflecting the diversity of creation or holding moral admonitions. Whenever possible, the author argues for such interpretations with references to religious literary works of the era (especially sermons).
This general idea is illustrated throughout the six chapters that still reflect the modern need for systematization, recalling previous studies of various individual iconographic scenes or topics that have so far received diverging interpretations.
The first chapter dwells on representations of daily life: domestic comfort, monthly activities, games, and various occupations. On the basis of medieval texts, the author presents some novel interpretations of such images: the idea that every man's life is a pilgrimage, the positive connotations of hunting (seen as an activity that prevents laziness leading to vice), and the allegorical perception of ploughing (related to agricultural metaphors, the ploughshare of confession, and the hard labor of living a Christian life). Surprisingly, just two preserved misericords depict plowmen.
The second chapter turns to issues of doctrine and debate. The author discusses overtly religious representations including depictions of clerics, heraldic representations, images of angels and devils. The relatively small number of explicitly religious images on misericords is discussed in detail. Hardwick attributes this relative dearth neither to the improper position of misericords nor to iconoclastic destruction. Instead, he seeks to expand the label "religious image" to encompass doctrinal and devotional representations such as animal allegories. Hardwick relies on written sources to suggest that some other images might also refer indirectly to religious practices (such as the Elevation of the Host signaled by ringing a bell) and even doctrinal debate (such as the Lollard controversy).
The third chapter is more general, dwelling on possible sources for misericord images, with proven cases of motifs borrowed from prints. The author argues in favor of local misericord woodcarvers working on clerical orders and according to carefully selected topics. Image distortions and misunderstandings might have appeared due to images being reproduced from memory or sketches and carvers, unlike the educated clergymen, not grasping the symbolic didacticism of the representations. In my view, this discussion would have better fitted the introductory pages or initial sections of the book.
The fourth chapter focuses on the highly debated issue of sexual display on misericords, integrated in the wider topic of masculinity and power. Paul Hardwick argues that phallic images are in fact assertions of masculinity and such images on misericords can be discussed together with negative depictions of women and household discord. For example, a highly ambiguous image such as a woman with a penis in her mouth is interpreted as a metaphor for women appropriating masculine discourse. After discussing several other possible readings (of the image indicating women in total command of the male organ and virility or simply a woman drinking from a phallus- shaped vessel), the author finds some support for his symbolic interpretation in a representation of Reynard the Fox, master of devious speech, taken to the gallows, located in close proximity to the woman. This chapter is likely to raise the strongest debate among scholars, since such instances indeed pose serious interpretative problems. If male genital display is envisaged as intended to illustrate doctrinal authority, how could one interpret female genital display in churches? And considering the argued universal human reactions (such as humor and belief in apotropaic images), are we to believe that clerics in the choir missed the strong sexual connotations of a relief showing a woman with a phallus in her mouth? Despite the fact that instances of genital display remain ambiguous and highly debatable, Paul Hardwick's general discussion of masculinity and power opens an interesting line of research and remains valid in light of misericords' intended audience, with reference to several depictions of women associated with devils or usurping male authority in the household.
The fifth chapter is dedicated to exemplary animals and focuses on animals such as pigs, foxes, apes, and poultry. Medieval depictions of sows spinning or playing bagpipes, ape physicians, and foxes catching geese have been discussed before.  The author contributes novel interpretations, such as the possibility that ape physicians might remind viewers of Christ, the good physician, and of each person's duty to look after the health of his own soul, and the positive connotations of chicken that might remind viewers to remain humble.
The final chapter dwells on monsters such as the Wild Man and fantastic animals like the wyvern, the manticore, and the griffin. All are believed to inspire vigilance against sin, despite the fact that some might have held positive moral connotations as well. As in the case of previously discussed images on misericords, the author admits that they were ambiguous and their interpretation depends on the original context. Nevertheless, though having denied natural sexual responses to sexual images, Paul Hardwick supports the idea that the general medieval response to the various monsters depicted on misericords was one of pleasurable awe.
In the concluding part of his book, appropriately entitled "Looking both ways," the author states that "it is perhaps unwise to assume a singularity of meaning for the original audience [of medieval misericords]" (154) and that "the present volume has sought to relocate the study of misericords firmly within the profoundly Christian context in which they were designed, made, and initially viewed" (155). There is no doubt the book does accomplish its goals and it is a significant contribution to the study of medieval misericords, marginal arts, and popular iconography. Nevertheless, it is far from settling the debate on the function and reception of such images and offers just one possible interpretation, among others, no matter how tempting general keys of reading might be.
The book is completed by a gazetteer, briefly describing 59 sets of preserved English misericords in alphabetical order, located on an adjoining map. The bibliography is a useful and up-to-date research tool for specialists interested in both medieval iconography and popular texts.
The present work suffers from several drawbacks. The small number of illustrations accompanied by only brief captions lacking thorough descriptions of the identified scenes will frustrate art historians. Despite the fact that the book makes stimulating reading, there is too much interpretative virtuosity. One has the feeling that the author has sought at all costs to identify written sources to support allegorical and religious interpretations of what have previously been considered secular images. Paul Hardwick stretches the definitional borders of "religious image" to include scenes with didactic, moralistic, and doctrinal functions. Taken to extremes, such a method will attribute religious significance to every medieval image at least in part because of that period's allegorical frame of mind.
1. By authors such as Claude Gaignebet et Jean-Dominique Lajoux (Art profane et religion populaire au Moyen Âge. Paris: P.U.F, 1985), Christa Grössinger (The World Upside-Down: English Misericords. London: Harvey Miller, 1997), Malcolm Jones (The Secret Middle Ages: Discovering the Real Medieval World. Stroud: Sutton, 2002), Michael Camille ("At the Sign of the 'Spinning Sow': the 'Other' Chartres and Images of Everyday Life of the Medieval Street," in History and Images. Towards a New Iconology, ed. Axel Bolvig and Phillip Lindley. Turnhout: Brepols, 2003), and Ruth Mellinkoff (Averting Demons: The Protecting Power of Medieval Visual Motifs and Themes. Los Angeles: Ruth Mellinkoff, 2004).