Bayeux Tapestry – Books, Part One
The Bayeux Tapestry seems so modern in its objectivity. It presents what happened, but you can never tell what side it’s on. No individual stands out as looking more handsome and heroic than any other, both armies are shown fighting bravely and also suffering casualties, and both sides are shown looting and rampaging.
So through the centuries, people have wanted to know who made it, and where. It used to be attributed to William’s wife Mathilda. Now the general consensus is that it was commissioned by Odo, William’s half-brother, who was bishop of Bayeux. I haven’t brought him up before, because I was trying to give just the bare outline of the battle, but he is in the Tapestry four times – once in the thick of the battle, on horseback, rallying the Normans.
It might seem like a bishop is the perfect candidate for commissioning the Tapestry, but he wasn’t your average bishop. After the Conquest, he became earl of Kent, and was periodically left in charge of all England whenever William had business back in Normandy. The chronicler Orderic “tells us that Odo ‘had greater authority than all the earls and other magnates in the kingdom.'” (Morris, Norman Conquest, more about this book tomorrow)
Odo was known to solve land disputes by taking the land in question himself, even church property. In 1072, the archbishop of Canterbury wrote about Odo’s land-grabs in a complaint to the king. The king agreed to investigate – so many properties were affected, that it took three days for the hearings. At a different abbey, Odo packed a court with witnesses so he could pry 28 properties away from it. And that is just a small sample of his handiwork.
I have a hard time believing that this man would bother to commission a linen and wool embroidery. If he ordered any hangings at all, I think he would have to have the best – silk, gold thread,pearls, and jewels – and, I think, he would make sure he was represented as the biggest, boldest figure of all.
So who else could have commissioned it?
Carola Hicks has put forward a very interesting possibility – someone who was known to be educated and artistic, someone who had run a royal embroidery workshop – Edith, Edward’s queen and Harold’s sister.
Perhaps following the example of her mother-in-law, queen Emma, Edith had commissioned a similar, public-relations type of book. It is now called The Life of King Edward, and it portrays Edward as saintly and celibate – it’s as if Edith is pointing out, “If he had done his duty and sired an heir, this Conquest business would never have happened! It is not my fault!”
Besides Harold, Edith had four other brothers – Swein, who abducted an abbess, murdered his cousin, and died on the way home from Jerusalem; Tostig, who, not content with being the mere earl of Northumbria, raised two separate rebellions, and was killed by Harold just weeks before William invaded; and then two more who died with Harold at Hastings. Given that tumultuous history, you might see why Edith wasted no time in offering fealty to William, and paying tribute. Her strategy worked – unlike most of the English, Edith was allowed to keep most of her estates, and when she died, William had her buried with honor.
Commissioning the Tapestry could have been another way for Edith to profess her loyalty to William, as well as include flattering references to the equally powerful Odo. The creation of a narrative intended for the eyes of the new order in England, both Norman and English, a court-based audience that included the kin of warriors who had fought on both sides of Hastings, is the only way to account for many of the ambiguities that divide commentators today. Did the Tapestry favor William or Harold? Was it made so that Normans could impress the subjugated foe? Or so that the English could flatter, yet secretly insult, the victors? These conflicting aims could be convincingly reconciled by someone with a foot in both camps, an English person who accepted the Norman occupation but who was still concerned to provide a dignified defense of Harold’s conduct. ( I don’t have page numbers, but this is e-reader Location 708 of 8023.)
Edith might also choose the events to justify Harold’s coronation – “Yes, King William, it’s true that he swore allegiance to you, but then, it was Edward’s dying wish that he take the throne! I was there! I know! What else could he do?”
If Edith was the patron, I also think that could explain the choice of materials. When king Edward was alive, Edith is recorded as making clothing for him, using gold thread and precious stones. If any of those expensive supplies were left, she might want to avoid bringing William’s attention to them. She might want to present herself as a humble subject, offering her time and effort to her new liege lord, without piquing his interest as to just how many rich materials she had tucked away.
There are many more mysteries and tales about the Bayeux Tapestry – Who is Ælfgyva and why is that cleric touching her face? Why are some of the scenes out of order? Did Harold really die from an arrow to the eye? – but those have been written about extensively.
As a matter of fact, Carola Hicks says that there were over 500 books and articles written about the Tapestry, as of 1999, so I may not have found the Ultimate Source. But here is a little about the books I read, if you want to learn more.
1) The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece, by Carola Hicks. It is extremely well-researched and balanced. While Hicks proposes Edith as its patron, she also gives the evidence for other possible patrons.
I was most interested in the first three chapters – The Plot, The Patron, The Project. The rest of the book covers the history of the Tapestry over the years, and that is fascinating too. Dickens and Tennyson saw it, Napoleon and Himmler took it. She also has chapters on the Tapestry’s use in movies, political cartoons, and ads.
2) A Needle in the Right Hand of God, by R. Howard Bloch. This book also has a wealth of information about the production of the Tapestry, down to the twists per meter in the warp and weft, and descriptions of the embroidery stitches.
Most of the book is explaining the multicultural sources for the images, from Scandinavian images of boats to Byzantine silks of lions and griffins. I found these chapters very “listy”. Bloch would say something like,”Aesop’s fable of the Crane and the Fox is also seen in The Baysdowne Psalter of 1306, Pope Pius XIII’s cope for Ascension Day services, and Duke Ormondier’s sword hilt,” (I made all those up, by the way), but there wouldn’t be pictures of any of them, or even information as to where you might find those items to see for yourself. I ended up skimming a lot.
Also, Bloch’s theory is that the Tapestry was made especially to unify the disparate elements of English society:
…the Tapestry interweaves elements associated with Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, and Norman culture. And in this way, the surface of the textile expresses a desire for reconciliation among the principals to a bitter and extended struggle. (e-reader Location 2995 of 3276.)
The Bayeux Tapestry is inclusive…It is the artistic embodiment of a pluralism within the sphere of social relations, giving expression to competing claims in England, while working toward a synthesis by which they might converge at some moment in the future. (e-reader Location 3008 of 3276)
To me this seems to be attributing too much good will to the makers of the Tapestry – I can see Edith justifying her family to the current rulers of England, or even Odo commemorating his career, but I just don’t see someone creating the design with an eye to making everyone feel included in the new regime. I think the victors usually commend themselves for the conquest, without worrying about the feelings of the conquered.
Alright, well this ran longer than I thought – but, Hey,people! I have read something like 1400 pages on this topic! – so I will finish reviewing resources tomorrow.
Thank you doing all that reading and summarizing so we don’t have to! Although you really have piqued my interest and I may give the Hicks book a whirl. I really like the reasoning you do about the origins of the piece!
The Hicks book is really good. You can tell she learned her stuff about textile techniques!
The “tapestry” is a beautiful work that stands on its own merits and tells an amazing story whoever commissioned it. Thanks for featuring it. I think you should write a book of history told through the prism of historic textiles. Why were those subjects considered important enough to memorialize? Why were those materials used? (This point alone is a book on fiber, weaving, embroidery, tapestry, the cloth industry, etc.) Why/how has it survived?
Thanks for thinking I could write a book!
I have a big book on textile history, and yet it only gave the Bayeux Tapestry a paragraph! So once I started looking, I was surprised – and glad – to see that all those other books have been written on it.
They think the main reason it survived it because it is so plain- things with gold threads were burned to extract the gold. Gives you hope for the everyday things we make, doesn’t it? 🙂
I am planning a post on a book I picked up that is sort of similar to what you have in mind, but it looks more at how the textile arts have been represented in painting, sculpture, and literature, and their role in religion.
I was looking for your posts on Elizabeth Barber, found this one, and remembered that my friend Alison Kinney wrote a very highly praised piece on the Bayeux Tapestry a while ago that you might like: http://www.berfrois.com/2015/05/alison-kinney-bayeux-embroidery. I still haven’t read it, but Paris Review praised it, and she’s married to a medievalist, so I’m sure her history is responsible, and she’s generally a great writer.
I don’t think I had read that one before. It is interesting how she ties to the Bayeux Tapestry to such a wide range of other monuments, and the thoughts she has on monuments in general and how they inevitably only tell a small part of the story. I am always amazed at people that can go so deep into history and culture from any starting point! Thanks for the tip.
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