George Beech

title.none: Beech, Response to Coatsworth (George Beech)

identifier.other: baj9928.0605.013 06.05.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: George Beech, Western Michigan University (emeritus),

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Beech, George. TMR 06.05.13, RESPONSE: Beech on Coatsworth on Beech. Pp.. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.05.13

Beech, George. TMR 06.05.13, RESPONSE: Beech on Coatsworth on Beech. Pp.. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

George Beech
Western Michigan University (emeritus)

Inaccuracies and omissions in Elizabeth Coatsworth's April 21 review of my book, Was the Bayeux Tapestry Made in France? The case for St. Florent of Saumur , (New York, 2005), prompt me to respond. As the title suggests, I am here presenting evidence leading to the hypothesis that the Bayeux Tapestry was produced at this Loire valley abbey. In her review Coatsworth questions a number of the elements in my hypothesis.

With regard to my point that the unusually detailed depiction of the Breton campaign--a sequence of 6 scenes, one tenth of the tapestry as a whole--reflects the designer's close personal acquaintance with the region, from which he may have come, she writes:

However, this is to ignore the obvious fact that both Normans andEnglish (including Harold and any companions) would certainly haveknown the three sites mentioned, including the very distinctiveMont St. Michel (of which William was a patron), and witnessed theevents portrayed: the Normans in particular could hardly have beenunaware of troublesome fortresses on their border, or of thedetails of their own campaign.

I wrote that the naming of five (not three) different sites in this sequence is most unusual--in all the rest of the tapestry the designer names only six additional ones--and the best explanation for this is that, "more likely he was better acquainted with this region than with any other." (Beech, p. 80) Coatsworth passes over in silence several other features in the depiction of the Breton campaign which form part of my argument: the artist's detailed depiction of 3 motte and bailey castles each different from the others, as well as the newly reconstructed abbey church of Mont-Saint-Michel, his curious portrayals of 3 individuals performing unusual actions, his detailed presentation of five different stages in the Norman advance, his denial of the comital title to Conan of Rennes. It seems to me much less likely that a Norman or English artist in Canterbury would have designed the Breton campaign in this way than someone from that region. Coatsworth then notes:

More importantly Beech ignores the part played by this sectionwithin the narrative of the tapestry itself. It shows the positivetreatment of Harold, who was apparently present throughout thecampaign, by Duke William, leading up to the oath which Haroldswears to the Duke, and which in the Norman view Harold laterbetrays. This interpretation is fully in accord with that in theGesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers.

No. Not only do I not ignore "the part played by this...", it is one of the central themes of my chapter on the Breton campaign which occupies one quarter of my book:

With 6 scenes the Breton segment occupies about one tenth of thewhole, admittedly only a small part, yet this campaign has puzzledmodern scholars as much or more than any other episode in theentire tapestry due to its apparently incomprehensible deviationsfrom the standard contemporary written source for the events itportrays. Indeed these disparities raise a question about thefunction or place of this sequence in the tapestry as a whole. Whywas it included? What purpose was it intended to serve in thestory of William's conquest of England? (Beech, p. 61)

Coatsworth accepts as an established fact that the func function of this episode is to "show the positive treatment of Harold" as does William of Poitiers, but she does not mention that I examined this possibility, that I expressed my doubts about it, and that I demonstrated that William of Poitiers cannot be relied on for much of this episode:

For several scholars one of his (i.e. the designer's) main concernsis depicting the relationship between William and Harold. No onecan question the prominence of Harold in the Couesnon scene inwhich, I believe, the designer wants to stress his contribution toWilliam's campaign, but after this the Englishman does not appearnor is he mentioned again. (Beech, p. 84)

Then in order to correct my interpretation Coatsworth asserts that:

..the account of the campaign on the tapestry centres on thedefeat of the enemy, Conan, Duke of Rennes, not at all on thealliance with the lords of Dol (Conan is mentioned by name,Rivallon of Dol, father of Abbot William not at all), and on thefreedom and honourable treatment accorded to Harold, who is shownrescuing some of the Normans from the quicksand.

But I had already advanced this view in my book: "The artist presents this campaign as the Norman pursuit and capture of Conan Count of Rennes whereas William of Poitiers sees it as Duke William contenting himself with putting down a Breton rebellion threatening his frontier." (Beech, p. 94) Coatsworth then concludes on the Breton campaign:

It is difficult to see what interest Abbott William would have hadin showing this. The tapestry account of the campaign thereforefits the Norman view of the run-up to the Conquest of England, anddoes not show any special knowledge which could only have comefrom the lords of Dol.

Here Coatsworth is inaccurate in several ways. Central to my discussion of the Breton campaign (pp. 72-84) is the fact that the tapestry account portrays two campaigns which do not figure in William of Poitiers' Gesta Guillelmi (the only written source presenting the Breton campaign): 1. the march to Rennes, and 2. the march to and conquest of Dinan. In these it does not "fit" the Norman view as expressed by William of Poitiers, and it does show "special knowledge" about these campaigns. Finally I do not claim that this could have come only from the lords of Dol but I believe this is a good possibility and I summarized my views on it in my conclusion:

(this)...led to questions about the designer's understanding of themeaning of the campaign, why he had included it in the tapestry,the purpose he saw it serving in the story of William of Normandy'sconquest of England. The findings were unequivocal. The artistpresents this campaign as the Norman pursuit and capture of CountConan of Rennes whereas William of Poitiers sees it as Duke Williamcontenting himself with putting down a Breton rebellion threateninghis frontier. Since the lords of Dol, Breton allies of the Normanduke, and the only other faction involved in this campaign, held asimilar anti-Conan bias, this led to the supposition that AbbotWilliam of St. Florent, senior member of that family after 1066,used his authority over his abbey's textile workshop, the presumedplace of production of the Bayeux Tapestry, to influence thedesigner's presentation of this sequence. Both the inclusion andthe orientation of the Breton sequence may thus have resulted fromthe direct personal intervention of the abbot of St. Florent ofSaumur in the planning of the tapestry in the interest both ofjustifying his family's rebellion against Conan in 1064 and inrecording its long range contribution to the Conquest of England.(Beech, pp. 94-5)

Viewed as a whole, Coatsworth's criticism of my presentation of the Breton campaign (which I consider to be the most important element in my hypothesis about St. Florent and which occupies one quarter of my book) amounts more to her restatement of what she holds to be the standard views on the subject than to an examination of my evidence. Readers of this part of her review will have little idea of the nature of my argument.

Another, minor, element in my St. Florent hypothesis concerns Baudri of Bourgueil's description of a Conquest of England tapestry in his poem (1099-1102) to Countess Adele of Blois. Although most modern scholars have rejected the possibility that Baudri could be describing the Bayeux Tapestry, the most detailed recent study concludes that he could not have written his poem without a close knowledge of it. If this is accurate, and if my hypothesis about Saumur as the place of the tapestry's production is correct, then Baudri could have come to know it at the abbey of St. Florent, only 25 km from Bourgueil, whose abbot William was his friend. I wrote, "assuming a Saumur origin for the tapestry explains how Baudri of Bourgueil could have known the tapestry." (Beech, p. 96) Coatsworth's comment on this subject reads: "Neither is it necessary to assume that Baudri of Bourgueil could only have seen the Bayeux tapestry while he was a monk in the Loire to say that Baudri of B. could only have seen...or that he must have seen it in a particular place is to pile speculation on speculation." My citation of my own words on this subject make clear that I did not say that Baudri of Bourgueil could ONLY have seen it...or that he MUST have seen it.

Coatsworth is also critical of my description of the textile workshop of the abbey of St. Florent:

The account of the SF workshop has other difficulties. If, asBeech says, it is a late twelfth century text, and the period towhich it refers is the late tenth, early eleventh century, it isnot a contemporary description, and the period to which it refersis not contemporary with the period in which the Bayeux tapestrycould have been made.

Here Coatsworth writes as if this was something I had missed, but in fact she became aware of it through my own discussion of the problem, and it is noteworthy that she neither summarizes nor refers to that discussion:

....its next reference to the textile workshop comes in a detaileddescription of the 2 great hangings, one featuring the 24 elders ofthe Apocalypse, made at the order of Abbot Matthew (1125-55) to behung in the choir and the nave of the abbey church on festiveoccasions. The SF author thus does not speak of textile activityat the abbey in the 1070's and 1080's when the tapestry known asthe "Bayeux" would have been produced there if the hypothesisadvanced in this book is correct. His silence with regard to a SFtextile workshop in those decades does not mean, however, that noneexisted then. This historian is only interested in recording theproduction of tapestries made for use at his abbey, St. Florent(see pp. 10-11, his inventory of hangings at the abbey under AbbotRobert, and then again under Abbot Matthew, p 16). After itscompletion at Saumur the "Bayeux" tapestry would have been sent toKing William for display somewhere in Normandy or England and wouldnever have figured among the holdings of St. Florent. Though theHistoria furnishes no proof of tapestry production at SF atthe time, the existence of an active workshop both prior to andafter this period would seem to justify the assumption that suchwas the case. And the St. Florent historian's comment that certainof the earlier textiles had survived to his own day (i.e. throughthe fire of 1026) suggest an uninterrupted tradition from the early11th to the later 12th century. (Beech, p. 16)

Then Coatsworth reproaches me for having failed to distinguish between weavers and embroiderers in my commentary, as well as for my failure to comment on the word trapezetae:

this (trapezetae) and other odd words in the passage surelyrequired comment when so much is made to hang on them. The author,in his commentary in this passage as opposed to his translation,refers to these workers interchangeably as weavers or embroiderers,for which I can see no justification, and indeed appears to make nodistinction between practitioners of the two techniques.

Here I acknowledge the accuracy of her criticism: I am not a specialist on textiles and did not claim to be so. Further she charges me with an "unwarranted inference" in my interpretation of a passage describing hangings made of wool on linen:

He also speculates that if the woolen hangings referred to in thepassage were 'woolen embroideries on a linen base', this would meanthey were producing hangings 'of the same composition as the Bayeuxtapestry at the beginning of the 11th century'--but there is morethan one unwarranted inference here.

I do not understand what is unwarranted about this inference. Coatsworth continues her criticisms with the accusation that:

...the author does not in fact engage with the arguments which havebeen put forward to show that resemblances (i.e., of the BayeuxTapestry) with particular late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are close inboth composition and stylistic detail.

Categorically wrong. On p. 97 I wrote; "Hart's argument is convincing: the designer (of the Bayeux Tapestry) must have had access to and have borrowed from the Canterbury mss." Finally I am guilty of having rejected summarily the claims of art historians that the designer could not have drawn some of his animal fables in the borders of the tapestry from Ademar of Chabannes' manuscript of Aesop's fables:

He dismisses out of hand the work of art historians who see theanimals in the borders of the tapestry and those in a manuscript ofAesop's fables by Ademar of Chabannes as unrelated, and probably,according to the only detailed study of this question, not evenfrom a common source.

Inaccurate. She fails to mention what I wrote, namely, that none of the art historians (three) in question made anything like a full examination of the issue:

.....G. Thiele, writing in 1905, dismissed Comte's suggestion (thatthe tapestry designer had borrowed from the Ademar ms) in a singlesentence and did not give the possibility serious consideration.In 1934 H. Chefneux made the first detailed analysis of the fablesin the tapestry and was equally brief in rejecting the Leiden msof Ademar's copy of the fables as a possible source. (Beech, p. 50)

The only comparison of Ademar's drawings with those of the tapestrywas made by D. Gaborit Chopin in 1967, but her objective was not toask whether the Bayeux designer could have borrowed from Ademar--she apparently assumed that the question had already been settledby Chefneux's negative assessment. (Beech, p. 49)

I would contend only that the convergences between these two visualportrayals of the fables are striking, that the earlier rejectionof Ademar as a possible source for the tapestry fables lacked firmfoundations and was thus premature, and that the question needs athorough examination by expert observers. (Beech, p. 58)

In the course of rejecting my hypothesis Coatsworth makes about a dozen criticisms of my book (as mentioned above) and I am struck by the fact that every one (with the exception of my failure to distinguish between textile workers) is marked by her misrepresentation of my arguments, first by misstating what I have written, secondly by her silences about essential elements in the cases I was making. Needless to say I find her review irrelevant and I can only ask myself how something like this could happen. Not that I think that my argument for St. Florent as the place of origin is beyond dispute. I have presented an hypothesis, not proof, favoring Saumur, an hypothesis sufficiently sound, I believe, as to merit further consideration. In my conclusion I wrote:

I anticipate that my hypothesis will be greeted initially withskepticism if not disbelief. How could it happen, it will beasked, that after decades of intensive searching for the origin ofthe tapestry, scholars have never found a hint of evidence leadingto St. Florent of Saumur? ...How could an art work of suchmagnitude have been produced at an abbey utterly unknown forartistic activity at this time? (Beech, p. 91)

An initial reaction (article in Guardian, June 17, 2005) to a pre- publication article on this book in the Times Higher Education Supplement June 17, 2005 hinted at the possibility of an instinctive English bias against a thesis proposing a non-English origin for the tapestry. Whether or not I have run up against this here is not clear. In any case I am still awaiting a critical examination of my hypothesis.