Bayeux Tapestry – Books, Part Two

Reading about the Bayeux Tapestry made me want to know more background information on the Normans – where did they come from?  Why did they want to expand into England?  I mean, the north of France is a pretty nice place, why weren’t they just content there?  So here’s what I read:

1)  Norman Conquest:The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England by Marc Morris.  This is my absolute favorite out of everything I read. It is structured almost like a novel, with the chapters alternating between England and Normandy, and chapter-ending cliffhangers, but what I love best is its informal tone and pithy remarks.

If we had to sum this new society up in a single word, we might describe it as feudal – but only if we were prepared for an outbreak of fainting fits among medieval historians.  The problem with the word feudal, they will tell you, is that it is not actually a medieval word at all, but a coinage of sixteenth-century lawyers…(p. 48)

Morris quotes from different source materials, explaining who wrote them, when, and why.  Some are copies of the same book, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, kept in different monasteries and therefore, annotated by people of differing loyalties.  He builds these varying viewpoints into a rich, lively account of how the Normans conquered England and what happened afterward.  I particularly like how he personifies the source books:

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, having dealt with the murder of Alfred, thereafter maintains a studious silence on political matters for the rest of Harold’s reign, commenting only on ecclesiastical affairs and the state of the weather.  (p. 38)

‘We do not know’, says the D version of the Chronicle, ‘who first suggested this mischief’, not for the first time infuriating us by hinting that there was some wider conspiracy at work, but failing to divulge anything in the way of details.  (p. 120)

(I keep picturing the Chronicle books as looking like the little Geico insurance box character in the commercials, raising their eyebrows and whistling while they keep their politically-incorrect opinions to themselves.)

Morris’ book explains the importance of the Tapestry feasting scenes that I found puzzling – the Normans were raiding the countryside deliberately.  William didn’t want to have to march his men to London, and risk them being spread out to be picked off.  He wanted to sit tight and make Harold come to him. In Hastings, the people were Harold’s own tenants – he had a special duty to protect them, so he rushed off to do so, possibly without a full fighting force.

Some of us have problems keeping history straight, in part because the same names and places recur so often – Morris does such an excellent job of distinguishing between people and making them memorable, that I feel that I actually know all the people (not that I would want to – most of these people were horrible to each other!).

2) The Normans: From Raiders to Kings, by Lars Brownworth.  I’m not sure this book even mentions the Bayeux Tapestry, but it is a very quick and interesting account of the background of the Normans.  It also goes beyond the Battle of Hastings to tell about other Norman families who supported the Byzantine emperors, and ruled Sicily.

3)  The Handfasted Wife, by Carol McGrath.  There are only three women in the main body of the Tapestry – Edith, the mysterious Ælgyva, and an anonymous woman fleeing a burning house.  This novel combines that anonymous woman with the historical character of Harold’s first wife, and mother of his six children. When Harold becomes king, he puts her aside while he makes a better match politically, and yet, after the Battle of Hastings, she is the one called to identify his body.

I wanted to like this book, but I just couldn’t lose myself in it.  I felt like it skipped over the big events (Harold’s wife and mother are in a tent close to the battlefield the night before…and then it’s the next day and the battle is just over), while making sure to regularly include authentic details of medieval life, as if there was a checklist.  “On Wednesday, we ate pottage and drank ale, oversaw the mead brewing, went to Vespers services, and spoke to the woodcutter.”  (That is my own totally made-up sentence, but it sums up my impressions.)

However, this book had some interesting plot twists  – for example, after the Conquest, Harold’s mother, Gytha, retreats to her city of Exeter and defies king William, withholding the tax money.  I was absolutely sure that the author had taken liberties with history here, in the interest of creating a strong female character – but no!  All of that is absolutely true!  And I didn’t learn that from the non-fiction books on the Normans, so it was worth my time to read this book too.

4) Bonus Video – Battlefield Detectives: Who Got Lucky at Hastings?  You’d think, that with the enormous impact the Conquest had on history (for example, 20 years afterward, only 8% of the land in England was still in the hands of its original owners – about a fifth of the English population had died; 200,000 Normans and French had moved in, the English language was no longer used in official documents, and castles popped up everywhere), that there would be a plethora of videos on the subject.  In all of Amazon, and Netflix, I could only find one.

It’s from 2003, and I think their “experts” are a little questionable – a modern day horse-trainer, a woman who is stitching her own replica of the Tapestry, and a professor who thinks that Harold is shown with an arrow in his eye to reflect God’s punishment for perjury (because losing your kingdom and getting hacked to death are not punishment enough?)  There is also a corporate trainer with a PowerPoint comparing Harold and William to CEOs.

However, they do a very nice job of explaining what the terrain was like in 1066, and why it took place where it did, so it was worth the 49 minutes of my life to learn that.

So now I know everything I need to know about the Bayeux Tapestry and the Battle of Hastings.  Except I just found a Battlefield Britain episode on IMDb, and I also found another novel by Georgette Heyer…