Martin K. Foys

title.none: Musset, The Bayeux Tapestry (Martin K. Foys)

identifier.other: baj9928.0609.009 06.09.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Martin K. Foys, Hood College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Musset, Lucien. Translated by Richard Rex. The Bayeux Tapestry. Woodbridge, UK and New York: Boydell and Brewer, 2005. Pp. 272. $47.95 1-84383-163-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.09.09

Musset, Lucien. Translated by Richard Rex. The Bayeux Tapestry. Woodbridge, UK and New York: Boydell and Brewer, 2005. Pp. 272. $47.95 1-84383-163-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Martin K. Foys
Hood College

The late Lucien Musset first began to study the Bayeux Tapestry in the mid-1940's, beginning a sustained career of study and access perhaps unparalleled in tapestry scholarship. In 1955 he had the chance to study the textile removed from its case, an opportunity he had again in 1984, when he examined the work's reverse before it was transferred to its new and current home in Le Centre Guillaume Conquerant. In 2002, he revised his own 1989 edition La Tapisserie de Bayeux , distilling six decades of work and thought on the famous eleventh-century celebration of the Norman Conquest. This new edition has now been made available to English readers in a translation by Richard Rex, and stands as an admirable counterpart to Frank Stenton and company's seminal The Bayeux Tapestry: A Comprehensive Survey from a half century before. Unlike a few recent (and much shakier) critical publications, Musset has no desire to revolutionize Tapestry scholarship and, with relatively few exceptions, he has approached the interpretation of the textile conservatively, threshing out wilder conjecture from more cogent and evidentiary speculation. The result is a magisterial survey in itself, on par with the editions of Stenton, D.M Wilson, and Simone Bertrand that have come before it.[1]

The edition is structured in two parts. The first is a set of brief chapters on "general issues" of the Tapestry, followed by a more detailed section-by-section analysis of the work's content, critical cruces, and possible solutions. In the first part, Musset provides basic discussions of the history, artistic context, inscriptions, ships, combat, architecture, borders, and so forth. Here the goal appears not to analyze the Tapestry, but rather to summarize the material and artistic analogues surrounding it. The structure of these chapters is reminiscent of Stenton's edition, and at times, Musset falls into a similar trap of using the Tapestry to tell us more about external analogues than the other way around-- this is most apparent in chapter III ("The style and spirit of the Tapestry"), and chapter VII ("The ships"). While it is nice to learn that an excavated artifact is "strikingly similar" (a recurring phrase in some sections) to one represented in the Tapestry, the specific value of such comparisons is never made clear. On the other hand, such background does build a broad and basic context for objects and styles found within the textile.

Throughout, though, Musset also relates aspects of Scandinavian art and culture to the work, an approach mostly lacking from Tapestry scholarship (with the notable exception of Wilson's 1985 edition). And only rarely does anything approaching overt interpretative bias inflect these discussions. In his chapter on historical background, however, it is regrettable that Musset rejects outright the possibility of an eleventh-century date for the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio , in spite of the fact that both critical editions of the poem (Morton and Muntz's 1972 edition, and Frank Barlow's 1999 edition) have presented sustained and generally accepted arguments to the contrary.[2] Similarly, the author's characterization that Harold "seized" the English throne in 1066 (p. 77) appears to eager too vilify Godwinson, and oversimplifies the circumstances. The political reality of the situation was more complex, as even Norman sources (including the Tapestry) note that Harold had been offered the crown, as the majority of English nobles appear to have preferred a home-grown ruler over a Continental one. As Pierre Bouet has recently argued, documents from the period immediately following the Conquest (1066-1069) tended to treat Harold more benevolently than later ones, as in a transitional phase William initially tried to both justify his rule yet assuage the English he had conquered.[3] As an early document, possibly manufactured as early as 1067-1069, the Tapestry's emphasis on and generous portrayal of Harold fits neatly into such a stratagem.

Happily, such lapses are few, and more the exceptions that prove the rule of Musset's careful scrutiny of the Tapestry. The real value of this edition, though, emerges in its second half, which considers the Tapestry's content episodically. To begin with, the edition reproduces the Tapestry more effectively than any other printed publication to date. Most previous treatments of the Tapestry tend to separate the reproduction of the Tapestry from its commentary by relegating the images to the back of the book. Additionally, the physical limitation of the printed reproduction demands some sort of compromise between the detail and scale of the Tapestry, with one usually sacrificed for the other. To avoid such problems, the layout of this edition lavishes the reader with images of the Tapestry, as a continuous frieze of the textile runs across the top of the commentary, generously overlapping from page to page to stay aligned with scholarly text. In addition, each page also includes close-ups of the Tapestry, frequently repeated in greater and greater detail for multi-page discussions of a single scene. The result both preserves the linear continuity of the Tapestry's narrative and permits more detailed examinations of key scenes. Short of a digital reproduction of the Tapestry, a more effective presentation is not likely to be found.

The Bayeux Tapestry can be frustratingly ambiguous in parts, and in his close readings of the work's individual moments (such as, for example, the identification of the mysterious Aelfgyva), Musset does not force the Tapestry to take sides without considerable cause. Instead, he provides general summaries of how sections of the narrative have been read in the past, allowing or dismissing such interpretations on the basis of the evidence at hand--the analyses of evidence often containing a scrupulous level of detail. The discussion of Harold's visit to William's ducal palace in Normandy (pp. 118-126), for instance, occasions a description of the vanished Tower of Rouen and its outlying buildings, as well as comparisons of the Tapestry's architecture to other regional Norman halls. Likewise, in his treatment of Harold's oath (142-154), Musset goes into an impressive depth of information regarding the nature and history of relics and reliquaries at eleventh-century Bayeux.

It is here, in his drawing upon other French scholarship, and upon his own architectural research that Musset especially distinguishes his work from its English predecessors. In the past, English and American scholarship on the Tapestry has not really availed itself of French materials. As with the collected proceedings of the 1999 Cerisy colloquium on the Tapestry (also published in French and English versions) Musset's edition smoothly engages scholarship from both sides of the Channel.[4] As such, it serves as a significant reminder that the Tapestry was both an insular and continental cultural production, and that in its study modern scholarly work needs to follow suit. Over the course of the work, Musset's Gallic perspective also consistently highlights English aspects of the Tapestry's content and form often taken for granted by Anglo-centric scholarship. As a result, as one reads Musset's commentary in toto , a macro-argument on the Anglo-Saxon quality and character of the Tapestry gradually emerges. This "long view" of the work sustains the position that the early Anglo-Norman Tapestry was also a product of late Anglo-Saxon culture much more effectively than shorter, more explicitly focused theses ever could.

Regretfully, though a "new" edition, the 2002 version does not appear to integrate much of the scholarship that followed the 1989 publication, making few references to criticism from after 1987. And in places, errata and omissions remain. For example, Musset claims that Edward's death occurs about halfway through the textile and that such centrality "was no mere coincidence" (160). Edward's death, however, actually comes at around 38% of the way through the work--the real center, assuming only a few extra feet at the end, would be somewhere in the scenes of Norman shipbuilding. And with regards to the depiction of Edward's death in the Tapestry (p. 164-166), Musset's use of Osbert of Clare's 1138 account over the earlier and closely contemporary Vita Aedwardi (c. 1065-67) is puzzling.[5]

Such minor quibbles not withstanding, The Bayeux Tapestry is sure to be an enduring work of reference, both for the wealth of criticism it efficiently and judiciously distills, and for the balanced perspective it provides. Lucien Musset had a long tenure with the Tapestry, and his edition is exactly as one would expect from such experience: mature, careful and comprehensive, and with a level of critical depth that reaches well beyond the sum of its individual observations. English-speaking scholars are lucky to have such a resource at their disposal, and it should serve as a sturdy foundation for new and more adventurous scholarship for decades to come.


[1]. The Bayeux Tapestry, a Comprehensive Survey , ed. Frank Stenton (Phaidon, 1957, 1965); Wilson, D.M. The Bayeux Tapestry (Knopf, 1985); Bertrand, Simone, La Tapisserie De Bayeux Et La Manière De Vivre Au Onzième Siècle (Zodiaque, 1966).

[2]. The Carmen De Hastingae Proelio of Guy of Amiens , ed. Catherine Morton and Hope Muntz, (Clarendon Press, 1972); The Carmen De Hastingae Proelio of Bishop Guy of Amiens , ed. Frank Barlow (Clarendon Press, 1999).

[3]. Bouet, Pierre, "Is the Bayeux Tapestry Pro-English?" The Bayeux Tapestry: Embroidering the Facts of History , (Presses universitaires de Caen: 2004), 197-216. [4]. The Bayeux Tapestry: Embroidering the Facts of History , ed. Pierre Bouet, Brian Levy and Françoise Neveux (Presses universitaires de Caen: 2004).

[5]. Vita Aedwardi Regis Qui Apud Westmonasterium Requiescit , ed. Frank Barlow (Clarendon, 1992).