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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

The Seven Works of Mercy

A Medieval Morality

The Lyke-wake Dirge is a dialect poem from North Yorkshire¹, and it makes very plain the connection between acts of charity and the eventual fate of the individual soul. Fail in the obligations of the Seven (Corporal)² Works of Mercy and you risk passing through ‘Brigg o’ Dread’ and ‘purgatory fire’, as the Dirge has it later, only to come to Hell for ever.

This ae night, this ae night
Every night and alle;
Fire and fleet and candle light
An[d] Christ receive thy saule
When thou from hence away are paste,
Every night and alle;
To Whinny-muir thou comest at laste
An[d] Christe receive thy saule.
If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gavest nane,
Every night and alle;
The whinnes shall pricke thee to the bare bane;
An[d] Christe receive thy saule…
…If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
Every night and alle;
The fire shall never make thee shrinke;
An[d] Christe receive thy saule…¹,

The Works were as follows:

Two churches (Pickering and Wickhampton) still have all seven of their Works, and it is possible that others elsewhere are also complete. In Norfolk especially though, there are a number of churches with most of the seven left. In the table below are all those I have seen. On the page for Pickering (the most extensively painted church in England) there is also a short treatment (and a picture of the Harrowing of Hell, part of the very full Pickering Passion Cycle to be included here as soon as I can arrange it). There are more specific details in the pages on the individual paintings, but so far as their general theme is concerned they speak very eloquently for themselves.

¹ The Lyke-wake Dirge (Whinny-Moor Song) quoted here from Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, Yale, 1992, pp.358-9. I am not entirely certain that ‘An’ really is a shortened form of and here. Whether or not the dirge is pre-Christian in origin, this ‘An’ may, rather, be a remnant of Middle English usage, and mean ‘if ’, (or even before) a meaning that persisted as late as Shakespeare (e.g. Love’s Labour’s Lost, V, 2).
² The Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy were not generally the province of layfolk and they are not painted in the English Church (so far as I know).