The Medieval Review 11.10.12

Lewis, Michael J., Gale R. Owen-Crocker and Dan Terkla. The Bayeux Tapestry: New Approaches. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2011. Pp. xiii, 196. $90. ISBN 978-1-84217-976-5. . .

Reviewed by:

Catherine Karkov
University of Leeds

This book comprises the proceedings of a conference held at the British Museum in 2008, and includes nineteen papers along with the abstracts of four papers that were published elsewhere. The papers are diverse in both subject matter and approach, but the editors have attempted to achieve a sense of unity by grouping them into sections dealing with "Patronage," "History," "Materiality," "Figures," and "Detail." Naturally there is overlap between sections, and the book really does not have any sense of overall unity. That said, the individual papers are so rich that unity is not necessary.

In "The Patronage of Queen Edith," Carola Hicks suggests that the Tapestry was made at Wilton at the behest of the widowed Queen Edith, possibly as a present for the Conqueror himself. As evidence she cites Edith's well known skill at embroidery, her patronage of Wilton, the presence of her family in the visual narrative, and her commissioning of the Vita Ædwardi Regis, a text that parallels the Tapestry in some of its narrative details. The purpose of the commission, Hicks argues, was to reconcile the English and the Normans, and convey her loyalty to the new king. George T. Beech, on the other hand, argues that the Tapestry was made in France. His "The Breton Campaign and the Possibility that the Bayeux Tapestry was Produced in the Loire Valley (St Florent of Saumer)" repeats the argument of his earlier book and articles that the Tapestry was produced at William's orders in the monastery of St Florent of Saumer, where the abbot was a good friend of the king's. He concludes by addressing and rebutting some of the objections that reviewers have raised with his earlier publications on the subject.

Two papers explore aspects of the later history of the Tapestry. In "Decoding Operation Matilda: the Bayeux Tapestry, the Nazis, and German Pan-Nationalism," Shirley Ann Brown focuses on the context for and nature of the study of the Tapestry undertaken by a group of researchers between 1939 and 1945. The Tapestry was important to the Nazis not so much because it documented a previous conquest of England, but because it documented the common roots of the English and German empires in an area that was believed to have preserved the pure traditions of the Normans' Scandinavian homelands. It therefore offered a precedent for Nazi attempts to recreate a unified Germania. Richard Burt's "Backing up the Virtual Bayeux Tapestries: Facsimiles as Attachment Disorders, or Turning Over the Other Side of the Underneath" jumps forward in time to the late twentieth and twenty- first century phenomenon of proliferating facsimiles of earlier facsimiles. He is concerned in particular with critiquing the 2009 exhibition of photographs of the restoration of photographs of Stothard's drawings of the Tapestry made 1816-18, and secondly the British Museum exhibition that the conference behind this volume accompanied. He proposes a new facsimile edition on DVD or as a "Blu- ray DigiBook," with accompanying book and (perhaps) online component. Such a facsimile might provide the viewer with the ability to peel away layers of the Tapestry and its backing to uncover its appearance at different moments in time.

Sylvette Lemagnen opens the section on "Materiality" with "The Hidden Face of the Bayeux Tapestry," a study of the rarely seen back of the Tapestry. She includes an excellent account of damages, repairs, and the way in which the embroidered panels, backing and lining all fit together. Also concerned with repairs and changes is David Hill and John McSween's "The Storage Chest and the Repairs and Changes in the Bayeux Tapestry." The authors point out that scholars cannot rely on the Tapestry as it looks today, and that the photographs, drawings, and facsimiles made over the centuries show that details of scenes and repairs vary over time and according to the subjective eye of the recorder. They also provide information on the box impregnated with cedar oil in which the Tapestry was stored for six hundred years, and which certainly was responsible for its preservation. The chest might also help us in establishing the Tapestry's original dimensions, a topic pursued by David Renn in "How Big is It--and Was It?" Different studies of the Tapestry have established different measurements for its length, width, and individual panels. Renn seeks to determine which figures are correct, and how much has been lost, as well as whether or not it was begun as a tribute to Edward or Harold, and changed into a paean to the Normans mid-course. Some of the questions he asks cannot be answered, especially as regards intentions and losses, but the different accounts surveyed are rich in suggestion.

The section of papers dealing with "Figures" is both lengthier and more diverse--not surprisingly, as the Tapestry's narrative and its context have always received the most scholarly attention. Pierre Bouet and Franois Neveux's "Edward the Confessor's Succession According to the Bayeux Tapestry" is an in depth study of Scenes 25- 31, which cover Edward's death through Harold's coronation. The authors provide a close reading of the textual and visual details of each scene and then compare their results with the information contained in eleventh- and twelfth-century English and Norman chronicles. They do not read the Tapestry as conveying a pro-Norman viewpoint, and make the point that Harold's legitimacy was not disputed by the Normans in the immediate post-Conquest period. They conclude that despite opposition by some Anglo-Saxons, Harold was Edward's legitimate successor, and his coronation was valid. Ann Williams also focuses on Harold in her "How To Be Rich: the Presentation of Earl Harold in the Early Sections of the Bayeux Tapestry." Williams's paper examines what the Tapestry's visual narrative suggests about Harold's relationship with his retinue, with Edward and with Guy of Ponthieu, as well as Harold's dress, and reads this evidence against what is known from the historical record. She also considers the title dux Anglorvm, which is given to Harold in the scene of his journey to Bosham, in light of the Anglo-Saxon charter evidence, concluding that it is an appropriate title, and not one bestowed on him simply to put him on a par with Duke William. Patricia Stephenson's "Where a Cleric and Ælfgyva..." takes on the vexed question of just who and what is depicted in the notorious episode that separates the Tapestry's Scene 14 from Scene 15. She identifies Ælfgyva as Abbess of Wilton and Harold's sister, and suggests that the scene depicts the proclamation of a miracle that Harold is recounting to William. She interprets the abbess as standing in the gate of Wilton Abbey, and the cleric as drawing the viewer's attention to Ælfgyva's eyes rather than fondling her face. Wilton, she argues, was important to many of the figures depicted in the Tapestry, and this is why the miracle scene is included. Just where the famous nudes in the border beneath the scene fit into this interpretation is not addressed.

Three papers are devoted to the representation of individual knights involved in the battle. David S. Spear, "Robert of Mortain and the Bayeux Tapestry," argues that the standard bearer who points to William raising his helmet in the heat of battle is William's half- brother Robert of Mortain rather that Eustace of Boulogne. He details weaknesses in the arguments supporting Eustace and evidence in the written accounts of the battle and Conquest that suggest that the figure is indeed Robert. He also identifies Robert as one of the riders accompanying William and Harold on the Breton campaign, and as one of the men sitting in council at Hastings with William and Odo. Hirokazu Tsurushima's "Hic Est Miles: Some Images of Three Knights: Turold, Wadard and Vital," seeks to identify the role and status of the three named knights both within the Tapestry and in the socio-political world of Normandy. This paper examines landholdings, patterns of patronage, and the relationship of all three to Bishop Odo of Bayeux, and concludes that the three knights were vassals of Odo of Bayeux, and that all three may have served as informants of the designer of the Tapestry. Michael R. Davis focuses on Harold's brothers in "Leofwine and Gyrth: Depicting the Death of the Brothers in the Bayeux Tapestry." The prominence of the deaths of the two brothers has long been noted, and Davis suggests that the inclusion of the scene may have been due to Odo's imprisonment (the tapestry is thought by many to have been made during that imprisonment), and his consequent desire to soften William's attitude towards him. The deaths of the brothers could have served as a lesson in brotherly loyalty, picking up on the themes of fraternal (and familial) loyalty that run throughout the Tapestry.

The final section of papers, "Details," explores the depiction and role of objects, animals, architecture, and faces within the Tapestry. In her "The Bayeux Tapestry: Faces and Places," Gale R. Owen-Crocker looks closely at the faces in the Tapestry to try and determine whether or not they are the work of one artist, or whether, if they are the work of multiple artists, different hands might correspond to different sections of the linen. She finds that there are differences, though in some cases these might be due to one artist changing facial features to correspond with narrative circumstance rather than to differing artists. She also finds that differences do not correspond to the different sections of linen, and that no attempt was made to maintain facial consistency, even in the portrayal of the Tapestry's main characters. Michael J. Lewis, "The Bayeux Tapestry and Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11," argues that while Canterbury manuscripts are known to have been influential on certain details of the Tapestry, its relationship to the Junius 11 manuscript has been wrongly neglected. Not all scholars agree that Junius 11 is in fact a Canterbury manuscript (nor is the dating of the manuscript to 960-90 generally accepted), but Lewis's argument assumes that to have been the case, albeit with some reservations. He concludes that there is no evidence that complete scenes were borrowed from Junius 11, but that there are some details of the manuscript's illumination that may have had an influence on the Tapestry "if the Tapestry was made in Canterbury, and if the designer referred to the illuminations...[and] only if Junius 11 was produced there" (111). "Dining with Distinction: Drinking Vessels and Difference in the Bayeux Tapestry Feast Scenes" by Carol Neuman de Vegvar explores the way in which drinking horns, like other objects depicted in the Tapestry, are used to distinguish the Anglo-Saxons from the Normans, and to mark them as morally inferior to the conquerors. This paper offers a close analysis of the way in which details of the two feast scenes (Harold's feast at Bosham and the Normans' feast before the Battle of Hastings) work to identify the Anglo-Saxons with sin and secularity, and to endow the Normans with sacred overtones. Jill Frederick offers a new reading of the scene in which Harold rescues William's men from the River Couesnon in "Slippery as an Eel: Harold's Ambiguous Heroics in the Bayeux Tapestry." There is scholarly agreement that the scene is meant to show that while Harold is both noble and brave he is not to be trusted. Frederick looks closely at the details of the border directly beneath the scene, which shows a series of animals pursuing a man who is himself pursuing eels, arguing that it is intended as a commentary on Harold's character, and that he is shown to be an ambiguous, duplicitous, and potentially treacherous figure.

The final two papers in the volume focus on doorways. In "The Bayeux Tapestry, Dendrochronology, and Hadstock Door," Jane Geddes examines the accuracy of the Tapestry's depiction of the doorway of the building that separates the scene in which the Normans set fire to a house from that in which they prepare for battle. Somewhat confusingly, Geddes identifies the building as being in scene 46 of the Tapestry, but the images at the end of the book identify it as Scene 47. That problem aside, this paper compares details of the embroidered image with those of the near contemporary door of Hadstock Church, Essex, demonstrating that the artist was remarkably accurate, and that particular care was taken to get details of the doorframe, hinges, and ironwork right. She concludes that whoever designed the Tapestry must have had a passion for such technical architectural details. An appendix provides a full description of the North and West doors of Hadstock Church. Finally, Linda Elaine Neagley's "Portals of the Bayeux Tapestry: Visual Experience, Spatial Representation and Oral Performance," offers a provocative "re-examination of spatial representation in the Bayeux Tapestry, especially the creation of architectural space and its relationships to the oral performance of the narrative" as a means of understanding how the Tapestry might have been experienced by a medieval viewer (136). She reads the portals depicted in the Tapestry as "sites of visual access" directed towards the viewer and locating her/him as a witness to the unfolding events of the narrative (137).

This collection really offers something for everyone. One major quibble is the use of a single "facsimile of the Bayeux Tapestry" at the back of the book to which all the authors refer (though supplementary images are included in individual papers). The facsimile is in black and white, so details of color are lost, but more annoyingly, each scene figure and detail is numbered. For readers who know exactly which detail they are looking for this presents little problem, but if not the task of tracking down a specific image can prove daunting. One might assume, for example, that image A539 would appear towards the end of the Tapestry, but it is actually the hawk that Harold holds as he rides towards Bosham in Scene 2. One can also quibble with the overall failure of the authors to engage with each other's arguments, but all of the contributors bring new ideas and fresh eyes to both the tapestry and scholarship on it.