Art Through Time: A Global View
History and Memory Art: “Many fall in battle and King Harold is killed” (detail) from the Bayeux Tapestry
The two-hundred-thirty-foot long textile we now know as “the Bayeux Tapestry” is, in fact, not a tapestry per se but, rather, linen embroidered with woolen thread.
Using eight different colors of thread, all dyed with rich pigments that have held over time, the embroiderers of the work depicted a narrative that chronicles the eleventh-century contest between Harold, Earl of Wessex, and William, Duke of Normandy, for the throne of England. The Bayeux Tapestry, which consists of three main elements—a central story told through images, brief explanatory text, and illustrated borders with secondary content—comprises in many ways its own distinct genre of recorded history.
The tale told in the central band of the Bayeux Tapestry outlines events leading up the decisive Battle of Hastings in 1066, at which Harold was killed, ending the Anglo-Saxon era in England and ushering in French Norman rule. The scene shown here represents the moment of Harold’s death, depicting the cause as an arrow shot through the eye. Other episodes recorded by the tapestry include the death of the English king Edward the Confessor, who left no heirs to the throne; the oath supposedly taken by Harold to champion William as successor; and preparations for the passage of the Norman army across the English channel. Together, these scenes point toward a history told through the point of view of the victors (there is no documentation, for instance, that Harold ever swore to support William). It is generally accepted, therefore, that the patron of the work was Norman, possibly Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who is mentioned several times by name on the tapestry and was William the Conqueror’s half brother.
Although the Bayeux Tapestry would appear to have been made for a Norman audience, most scholars agree that its makers were most likely English (perhaps English women who were renowned for their embroidery skills). Among the evidence for this attribution is a tradition of English textile narratives based on Scandinavian precedents, linguistic clues within the embroidered text (e.g., the appearance of Old English words among the Latin), and the content of the tapestry’s marginalia. The borders of the Bayeux Tapestry include three different types of imagery—decorative animal motifs, elements from the central strip that have crossed their containing boundaries, and vignettes based on scenes from classical fables. The latter, which seem to comment on and in some places undermine the main narrative, offer a possible counter-narrative to the Norman perspective. The work is, therefore, not only a document of social and political history in medieval Europe, but also a reminder that history is, so to speak, in the eye of the beholder.
Expert Perspective: David Bernstein Professor of European and English History, Sarah Lawrence
“The Bayeux Tapestry, one of the most famous works of art from the European Middle Ages, was made to commemorate the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The aged King Edward died without heir, leaving a contested succession. There were two claimants—one an Englishman named Harold and the other, William, Duke of Normandy. With about 6000 soldiers, William, the Duke of the Normans, came to England to exercise what he said was his legitimate right to be the king of England. Not only does it depict political and military affairs rather than the lives of saints or scenes from the bible, it depicts one of the turning points in all of European history.
What we now believe on much evidence is that the master designer and the embroiderers were English. So here we have a paradox of the conquered commissioning the conquered people to commemorate a victory over the English, a victory which meant the loss of their property, the loss of their independence, and having new overlords from France. The fact that the English made the tapestry raises many interesting questions about whether or not the English were including an alternative narrative to that which was being promoted by the Norman propagandists. One example is that when Harold, the English claimant, is shown in the tapestry he is always identified as Harold the King, Harold Rex. Whereas the Normans described him in their written propaganda accounts as Harold the Usurper, Harold the Tyrant.
In the borders sometimes we have animals telling stories and these stories come from the fables of Aesop. Aesop was a slave. And he wrote his animal stories as a way of criticizing those who were more powerful. The fact that the English designers include many Aesopic fables raises the question of whether or not we have a counter-narrative to the themes that justify William in claiming the English throne.”
Bloch, R. Howard. A Needle in the Right Hand of God: The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry. Random House: New York, 2006.
Bernstein, David J. The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Brilliant, Richard. “The Bayeux Tapestry: A Stripped Narrative for Their Eyes and Ears.” Word and Image 7 (1991): 93–125.
Lewis, Suzanne. The Rhetoric of Power in the Bayeux Tapestry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
McNulty, J. Bard. Visual Meaning in the Bayeux Tapestry: Problems and Solutions in Picturing History. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.
Musset, Lucien. The Bayeux Tapestry. Translated by Richard Rex. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell, 2005.
Wilson, David MacKenzie. The Bayeux Tapestry. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.