This account was written by Dr. Jenny Alexander after a visit to St Peters church in Thurgarton by the Friends of Nottinghamshire Historic Churches Trust. I’m grateful to Jenny for giving permission for her article to appear on this website. (Click on images for larger image).
“What attracted our attention inside the church was the unexpected sight of a pair of nearly naked wrestlers, the men in pants, carved on the underside of a medieval seat (Fig. 1).
Wrestling is one of the most ancient sports, making an early appearance in the Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia about 4,000 years ago, in which the king subdues a wild man by wrestling him to the ground, after which they became friends. There are plenty of ancient carvings that show the match, although the protagonists are usually shown in the nude. Clothed figures of Jacob wrestling the angel take us into the middle ages as an illustration of the story from the book of Genesis, of Jacob wrestling all night with a figure representing God, and getting his hip dislocated as a result.There’s no angel in the scene at Thurgarton, and this is a sporting bout, with two male figures grappling each other in a fierce embrace. They are nearly naked, dressed only in close fitting shorts but also wearing belts. Looking at medieval images of other wrestlers it’s clear that being naked apart from shorts was the preferred garb, although baggy ones were more common. The 14th-century Luttrell Psalter pair have long and more baggy shorts, as do many others (Fig. 2).
Figure 2 Wrestlers in baggy shorts, from The Luttrell Psalter, c.1325-50. British Library Add. Ms 42130, f.54v. © The British Library Board.
Wrestling moved into the upper echelons of society in the Renaissance, and there was even a manual written in the 16th century in Germany that showed young men the finer points of unarmed combat, but of course the illustrations showed them fully dressed in fashionable clothes. Wrestlers today tend to wear lycra outfits like other athletes, except in the case of Cumberland wrestlers who dress like 19th-century strongmen in combinations with decorated pants over the top. What the Thurgarton wrestlers have, apart from their shorts, is very prominent belts, the figure on the left has a belt made of twisted or plaited material and this is what his opponent is using to tackle him with (Fig. 1). A second, very similar pair of wrestlers, are on a seat in Nantwich church, dressed in the same way in little shorts with separate belts (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3. Nantwich parish church, misericord, the belted wrestlers. Photo Elizabeth Oliver
This was clearly an important part of the sport and even on the rare occasions when the men were fully dressed, as in the early 13th-century manuscript from Oxford, it’s the belts that are providing the grip (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4. Clothed wrestlers from an early 13th-century manuscript from Oxford. British Library Ms Arundel 157, f.95v. © The British Library Board.
This is a version of the sport that still exists today. Belt wrestling claims to date back into the mists of time and has its own rules, for bouts indoors, outdoors and even in snow, and has been formalised as a sport, but this is a more recent development, dating from 2005. The intention is to get your opponent to fall over by grappling with his belt. The evidence of these images is that it was certainly around in the middle ages.
So why are these wrestlers in a church, especially on furniture used by medieval clergy? The answer is that these are a sort of medieval secret. The carvings are under the seats called ‘misericords’, from the Latin word for ‘pity’, since they allowed the clergy to remain standing during long services but to have something to lean against. The carvings have a unique feature, which is that they are invisible for most of the time. A priest leaning on the seat would block the view of it, and when the seats weren’t used they were folded down and the carvings are out of sight. This gave the medieval carvers the chance to carve all manner of images and there’s a lot of mischief to be found, foxes dressed as clergy preaching to geese, angry wives beating miscreant husbands, and wrestlers”.