“In pre-11th Century English churches, it was forbidden to sit down: there were no seats in the part of the church or cathedral for the lay congregation; nor were there any for monks or canons. However, this practice eased during the 12th Century. Initially, leaning staffs were permitted for the frail. Later, seats were added to the stalls. In time a further act of mercy was allowed by adding to the underside of the raised choir seat a small ledge, which gave some support. Misericord in this context was taken to mean an ‘indulgence seat’.” (Source: medieval_terms.enacademic.com/2045/Misericord)
The installation of heating within historically unheated buildings, has presented the timber conservator with problems which the producers of the timber fabric could not have anticipated. To an untrained eye, the misericords at Christchurch Priory appear to suffer from splitting, but to Hugh Harrison who has been immersed in historic timber conservation for 45 years, the evidence points to something far more interesting, and to something which he is able to claim considerable knowledge and experience. After a recent condition survey, requested by the Abbey’s architect Jennie Schillig, it was discovered that what had previously been thought to be splits in many of the misericord seats were in fact areas of delamination, indicative of 16th century continental construction techniques. Many of Christchurch’s misericords then, appear to have been made by foreign craftsmen probably from northern France and the Flanders area. This attribution is based on similar findings at Ardingly, Sussex; St Cross Hospital Chapel, Winchester; and through reference by Dr Charles Tracy to the choir stalls in Henry VII Chapel in Wesminster Abbey.
The nature of their construction presents the Abbey with a conservation dilemma, one in which Hugh is resolutely qualified to address. Should something be done or should nothing be done? This very question has been looked at in some detail in an essay by Jonathan Ashley-Smith in the current edition of the Journal of the Institute of Conservation. (Ashley-Smith, Jonathan. The Ethics of Doing Nothing, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 2018, Vol. 41, No. 1, 6-15.) The solution in this instance will be a rather unique preventative measure which craftsmen working for Hugh Harrison Conservation have trialled at Sherborne Abbey.
Analysis of the Problem
One of the side effects of modern heating in previously unheated buildings containing timber is that the timber shrinks. The consequence is that the animal glue which is used to bond the timber laminate becomes brittle with age and gives way, resulting in the delamination seen at Christchurch.
“In our initial survey” says Hugh, “we considered the possibility of separating the laminated boards and re-gluing, but on closer inspection noticed that the glued boards were supplemented with square oak pins in round holes. The problem which we face is that even if we were able to extract these pins, the coherence of the whole structure would be compromised. Retaining the integrity of the structure is one of the fundamental precepts of our conservation philosophy. Therefore it is virtually impossible to conserve the joinery in its original form because the pins depend on their binding by crushing the arrisses (a technical term for the edges of the square pegs) against the walls of the holes. Even if you could withdraw the pin, because the arrisses are already crushed, you won’t be able to re-drive the pin to resecure the laminates because the pins will be too loose in the hole. Because they are the essence of the joinery, their survival as original components is historically significant. Therefore, the conservation we have recommended is to leave all of the original construction alone and insert bridge pieces underneath for the delaminated misericords to rest on.”
The process by which the conclusion “to do nothing” is arrived at, is a complex one. Multiple levels of analysis are undertaken, through long discussions with colleagues. In the end, the decision is a preventative one which requires no intrusive interventions, but hopefully – and time will tell – will protect the Abbey’s misericords for many more years to come.
Directly Below: Misericord seat showing three clear sections of laminate
Bottom left: Bridge piece designed and constructed to prevent further misericord lamination at Sherborne Abbey
Bottom right: The square peg in the round hole can be clearly seen on the breast of the winged creature