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Group]Lectures in Medieval History

The Bayeux Tapestry

It is not an easy matter to provide an outline of an essentially pictorial lecture, so I'll simply offer you some background and suggest some sites that provide an opportunity of viewing the tapesty itself. There is an extraordinarily fine site, the Bayeux Tapestry virtual tour, which shows the tapestry in Quick Time. You will need QT software to view these pages, but you can download this free of charge from [www.apple.com/fr/quicktime/download/]. The site allows you to view the tapestry as a continuous roll, the way you would viewed it if you were to visit the Museum where it is now displayed. By contrast, The Hastings 1066 site provides several thumb-nail images as an index of the tapestry so that you can quickly access whichever panel you want to examine more closely. Another good site is the Victorian copy of the Bayeux Tapestry at the Museum of Reading, England.

The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most important pictorial works surviving from the middle ages, and certainly the most important from the eleventh century. It is not really a tapestry, but an embroidery of colored wool on an unbleached linen background. It comprises a series of connected panels two hundred and three feet in length, with each of the panels about eighteen inches high. Much of what we know about its origins is a matter of guesswork. It was almost certainly the work of English embroiderers, and was most probably produced in the famous embroidery works of Winchester. The best guess is that it was commissioned by Odo, bishop of Bayeux, William the Conqueror's half-brother, and one of the leading figures in the invasion of England. It was perhaps completed on 1077 in time for the consecration of the new cathedral at Bayeux. Or perhaps it was finished in 1083. Historians can argue endlessly about such things. Some have suggested that it was hung around the nave of Bayeux cathedral on feast days, but it doesn't seem to have made for that specific purpose since it is not long enough to reach completely around the nave.

During the French Revolution, it was hauled out to cover a wagon-load of ammunition being sent to the northern front where the Republican French were being attacked by Monarchist enemies. A young lawyer of Bayeux pulled the tapestry from the wagon and replaced it with a oiled and waterproof cloth much better suited for the purpose. He carried the tapestry home, and hid it in his attic, where it remained for the next thirty years. When it as brought out, it was turned over to the bishop of Bayeux, who placed it in the bishop's palace. It has remained there, except for a short time when the Nazis took it to Paris for scientific examination. The bishop's palace is now a museum in which the tapestry is on permanent display and viewed by thousands of visitors a year. Americans form a large portion of the crowds, since the beaches on which US troops landed on 6 June 1944 to begin the Allied invasion of Europe lie only a couple of miles north of Bayeux and there is a large cemetery of American war dead not too far away. If you get to Bayeux in late September, you'll be in time for the Calvados season. Calvados is Norman cider. Go at it easy; it'll tear your throat out and leave you with a headache that you'll never forget, if you somehow manage to live through it.

The first half of the Tapestry depict the adventures of Harold Godwinson, who was wrecked in Ponthieu in 1064 and was ransomed from the count of Ponthieu by William, duke of Normandy (1046-1087). Its portrayal of these events is entirely from the Norman point of view and serves as a justification of William's invasion and conquest of England in the Autumn of 1066. Harold is portrayed as a usurper who foreswore his sacred oath to support William as the successor to Edward the Confessor, king of England.

The second half shows William's preparations for the invasion of England, the decisive battle of Hastings -- in which Harold was killed -- and ends with the retreat of the defeated English. The last part, perhaps some twenty-five feet, of the Tapestry is incomplete, and its account may have continued to the point at which William was crowed king at Westminster Abbey, near London. Since this was apparently the place pictured in the first panel, such a conclusion would had a significant symmetry. The entire work would then have commenced with old King Edward seated in state at Westminister and would have concluded with the new King William seated in state at the same place. This is entirely guesswork, however. One of the advantages of missing or incomplete documents is that they offer some scope for the exercise of one's imagination.

One cannot use the Tapestry as a source for political history, since it is biased, and also because it is a very complex "document." The upper and lower borders are mostly simply decoration, but sometimes show scenes that may be comments upon or clarifications of the story unfolding in the middle section. Some of these scenes can be identified as being from the Bible or Aesop's Fables, but the sources of others are unknown and the significance of the scenes obscure at best. One might use as an example, the panel that portrays Harold and his men eating and drinking in an upper room while waiting for a fair wind to the Continent. The Norman account of these events claims that King Edward had told Harold to go to Norman and announce to Duke William that the childless Edward wish William to succeed him as king of England. Harold, however was not only the greatest noble on England but was also ambitious. It was not difficult for his followers to convince him not to reveal King Edward's will to Duke William, to bide his time, and - as soon as Edward was dead - to seize the royal treasury at Winchester and have himself crowned king.

There is nothing in the human figures or in the text to suggest that this was what was going on, but a small picture in the lower border clearly suggests that this was the case. The picture is that of an ungainly bird sitting in a tree under which an animal (a leopard judging by its spots) is lying. They are looking at each other with their mouths open, and there is some object in the air between them. It doesn't take a genius to recognize the scene.

The Fox and the Crow

A Fox once saw a Crow fly off with a piece of cheese in its beak and settle on a branch of a tree. "That's for me, as I am a Fox," said Master Reynard, and he walked up to the foot of the tree. "Good-day, Mistress Crow," he cried. "How well you are looking to-day: how glossy your feathers; how bright your eye. I feel sure your voice must surpass that of other birds, just as your figure does; let me hear but one song from you that I may greet you as the Queen of Birds." The Crow lifted up her head and began to caw her best, but the moment she opened her mouth the piece of cheese fell to the ground, only to be snapped up by Master Fox. "That will do," said he. "That was all I wanted. In exchange for your cheese I will give you a piece of advice for the future.

"Do not trust flatterers."

Although the tapestry portrays a leopard in place of a fox, the moral is the same and the reason for pointing to this particular fable at this particular place is quite clear. Harold's vanity would lead him to try to be what he was not and, as a consequence, to lose everything he held dear.

The Tapestry is most revealing in its details. One can see how a castle was built and discover that they were originally wooden stockades constructed on artificial mounds, trace the process of building warships from the felling of the trees to the launching of the vessels, view Edward, king of England, sitting in state at Westminster long before there was a Parliament sitting there, watch the death of a king and the coronation of a usurper, see a a bunch of soldiers pillaging the countryside, and many other things. Even better, many of the places pictured in the tapestry still exist and can be compared with their depiction in the Tapestry. A comparison of the the tapestry's depiction of the famous monastery of Mt.-St.-Michel with a modern photograph of the same place can be a great help in understanding how the designer of the tapestry pictured the world about him (or her). It would be well worth your time to study the scenes portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry carefully. They offer a rare glimpse into the lives of both high and low in northwestern Europe in the middle of the eleventh century.

There is a great deal of material on the web about the tapestry and the events it portrays. Perhaps the best coverage is provided by the Introduction to the Battle-1066 site [www.battle1066.com/intro.shtml].


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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