The Seven Works of Mercy: Part I

In the church of All Saints North Street, in York, is a fifteenth-century stained glass window that depicts the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy. The window was donated by the family of Nicholas Blackburn and shows Nicholas, with his distinctive bushy beard, performing six of the seven Corporal (or bodily) Works of Mercy.


Nicholas Blackburn (left), visiting the sick. (All photos copyright L.Varnam)

This charitable schema was derived from the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:34-44 when Christ declares to the saved:

“For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me. Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee? And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.”

Based on this, with the addition of burying the dead from the Book of Tobit, the Seven Corporal  Works of Mercy were as follows:

  1. Feeding the hungry
  2. Giving drink to the thirsty
  3. Giving hospitality to the homeless
  4. Clothing the naked
  5. Visiting the sick
  6. Visiting those in prison;
  7. Burying the Dead

In the window at All Saints, Nicholas Blackburn performs the first six (the window itself, donated by his family, could perhaps be seen to perform the seventh, burial- or at least commemoration of- the dead).


Feeding the Hungry


Giving drink to the thirsty


Giving hospitality to the homeless


Clothing the naked


Visiting the sick


Visiting prisoners

The Corporal Works of Mercy were matched by the Spiritual Works of Mercy which were focused on less practical matters: instructing the ignorant, counselling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving injuries, comforting the sorrowful, and praying for the living and the dead. (For more on this, see Cullum in the references below).

The Works were portrayed in stained glass windows, as we have seen, and in church wall paintings, such as at Pickering in Yorkshire (see for details). Such visual depictions helped the laity to keep these charitable actions in mind when in church and they could be referred to by parish priests during their sermons.

The Works were also the subject of a carol by the fifteenth-century poet John Audelay (see Stylisticienne for a definition of carol; Audelay’s book is edited for TEAMS by Susanna Greer Fein here). The carol’s burden or chorus declares “Wele is him and wele schal be, / That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé” and the carol lists the primary corporal works (in bold) plus one of the spiritual works (in italics).

Fede the hungeré; the thirsté gif drenke;
Clothe the nakid, as Y youe say;
Vesid the pore in presun lyyng;                    [visit, lying]
Beré the ded, now I thee pray —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him and wele schal be,
That doth the Seven Werkis of Mercé.

Herber the pore that goth be the way;          [shelter]
Teche the unwyse of thi conyng;                          [ignorant of your wisdom]
Do these dedis nyght and day,
Thi soule to heven hit wil thee bryng —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him etc.

In the second part of the poem, Audelay goes on to explain why it is advisable to have “peté” [pity] on the poor:

And ever have peté on the pore,
And part with him that God thee send;          [share what God sends thee]
Thou hast no nother tresoure,
Agayns the Day of Jugement —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him etc.

The pore schul be mad domusmen               [judges]
Opon the ryche [rich] at Domysday;
Let se houe thai con onsware then,                 [how, answer]
Fore al here [their] reverens, here ryal aray— [royal array]
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him etc.

In hongyr, in thurst, in myschif — wellay! —     [allas!]
After here almus ay waytyng:
“Thay wold noght us vesete nyght ne day.”
Thus wil thai playn ham to Heven Kyng —
I cownsel thee.
Wele is him etc.

It is advisable to share what we have with the poor because there is no other treasure that can be offered up on Judgement Day. The poor will judge the rich and if the poor have been “after here almus ay waytyng” [for their alms ever waiting], they will “playn” to the king of heaven that the rich “wold nought us vesete nyght ne day” [would not visit us night or day]. In Middle English the verb ‘pleinen’ means to complain, to appeal to, but it also means to make a legal complaint or accusation (MED here). The poor will not just lament their pitiful state before God, they will express a legal grievance against the rich.

In the second part of this post (to follow), I will show how the Seven Works of Mercy, and the attitude towards the poor recommended by Audelay’s carol, is crucial to the advice given in the fifteenth-century romance, The Awntyrs off Arthur, by the grisly ghost of Guinvere’s Mother!


All photos of stained glass taken by Laura Varnam.

John Audelay, ‘Works of Mercy’ carol, from TEAMS edition here

P. H. Cullum, ‘”Yf lak of charyte be not ower hynderawnce”: Margery Kempe, Lynn, and the Practice of the Spiritual and Bodily Works of Mercy’, in Arnold and Lewis, eds., A Companion to the Book of Margery Kempe (Brewer, 2004), 177-93

Seven Works of Mercy wall paintings:

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