Medieval mermaids are a long way from Ariel in the Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Little Mermaid. There’s quite a sting in the tail (oh dear – sorry).
Mermaids feature in medieval church decoration, often on capitals and misericords. Sometimes they have one tail but often they are depicted with two . They always seem to be wild haired despite the fact they are often depicted with comb and mirror which, if you were a medieval cleric, represented pride and luxury. I particularly like this misericord depicting a mermaid in Cartmel Priory Church. Her carver has left her with her hair half done. If you look to the right of the carving, you can see that one side is carefully plaited.
As for the mermaid herself she represented one of the seven deadly sins – lust. The mermaid and the siren (and perhaps its no surprise that the french for mermaid is sirene) both tempt men to risk not only their lives but also their souls.
Mermaids even made their way into the royal family during the reign of King Edward IV when he married Elizabeth Woodville. Her family claimed descent from Melusine, a two-tailed mermaid, who married Raymond of Poitou. Consequently, and somewhat bizarrely given a northern european tradition of mermaids being representative of sinful women, the french heraldic tradition includes double tailed mermaids and mermen being used on the field of the shield to symbolise eloquence.
As the centuries progressed the image of the mermaid continued to be used as an insult and euphemism for a prostitute. The people of Edinburgh depicted Mary Queen of Scots as a mermaid when she married Bothwell in May 1567, a few short weeks after Lord Darnley was murdered.
Gary Varner’s book entitled Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life and Death explores the folklore and traditions of mermaid. He speculates on their origins in prehistory as well as some of the symbolism attached to them.
Misericords from the Latin word meaning pity are also known as ‘mercy seats’. These are the ledges or rests in choir stalls so that clergy singing the divine offices could rest their weary legs. The clerical perches were often hinged so the misericord carving could only be seen when the perch was raised. Many oak choir stalls with their misericords were placed in churches during the medieval period; their carvers are largely anonymous and the meaning behind the carvings sometimes lost but they remain a fascinating glimpse of the past.
Hemingborough in Yorkshire has some of the earliest examples of misericords in this country and Exeter Cathedral has a complete set dating from the Thirteenth Century.
The carvers used their imaginations when they created each misericord. Some scenes come from the Bible; others like the foliate green men sporting leaves from their mouths come from an earlier folklore; some images such as elephants come from medieval bestiaries. Hyenas were popular because not only were they an exotic species but they had legendary status as well according to Richard Hyman in that they were supposed to disinter and eat corpses…lovely. In addition they represented “vice feeding on corruption.” (Hyman: 21) Other inspirations came from everyday life; from animals realistic and fanciful and from mythical creatures such as mermaids. A carver in Fairford captured a woman raising a ladle to hit her unfortunate spouse . In Ludlow a man warms himself in front of his fire and in Manchester a game of backgammon can be spotted. Less amusingly in Lincoln a knight tumbles from his hours mortally injured.
Sometimes it is possible to spot a carver who has travelled around a locality. Greystoke Parish Church has some delightful misericords that are matched by similar examples in Dacre and also in Cartmel. Carlisle Cathedral has some impressive examples as does Hexham Abbey. Perhaps the man who carved them travelled from one church to the next in search of work.
Further south Ripon, Richmond and Chester have some intriguing misericords as does Wakefield, Halifax, Gloucester Cathedral, Worcester, Southwell Minster and Ludlow. In fact these lovely little works of art not only give an insight to medieval craftsmanship and mindset but they can also be alarmingly addictive…you’ve been warned and I’ve not even started on bench ends, corbels, capitals, grotesques and gargoyles.
This misericord from Cartmel depicts a rather alarming two-tailed mermaid with her mirror and comb. In medieval times a mermaid symbolised lust and temptation. I’m not sure that the Cartmel mermaid would tempt anyone with that ribcage!