Elizabeth Pastan

title.none: Owen-Crocker, King Harold II (Elizabeth Pastan)

identifier.other: baj9928.0709.014 07.09.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Elizabeth Pastan, Emory University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Owen-Crocker, Gale R., ed. King Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry. Series: Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies Volume 3. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 202. 90.00 1-84383-124-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.09.14

Owen-Crocker, Gale R., ed. King Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry. Series: Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies Volume 3. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 202. 90.00 1-84383-124-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Elizabeth Pastan
Emory University

Those who seek to keep up with the ever-expanding literature on the Bayeux Tapestry will be interested to learn, as was its present reviewer, that the new anthology, King Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry, edited by Gale R. Owen-Crocker, has in fact already received a substantial critical review. This review is by H.E. J. Cowdrey, and is found on pp. 9-15 of his Introduction written for the volume. Cowdrey's contribution was added to the others that were (with one exception) presented at a conference at the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies in 2002. This fact lends Cowdrey's comments a certain detachment, which, added to his own substantial insights on the Bayeux material, make for an invaluable commentary. Among Cowdrey's observations is the fact that the articles in the volume either discuss Harold II (namely the first four contributions), or the Bayeux Tapestry (the seven remaining art-historical discussions), but that these are largely separate endeavors. So it is left for Cowdrey himself to pose what the title suggests might have been the key question about King Harold and the Bayeux Tapestry, namely: "what light does the presentation of Harold shed on the purpose of the Tapestry and on the public to which it was addressed?" (9).

At first look, the historical pieces, namely those by N. J. Higham and Ian Howard, which treat issues of succession to the English throne, and those by Gillian Fellows-Jensen and Stephen Matthews, which consider the post-Conquest legends that Harold survived Hastings, do not interlock with the art-historical contributions in any substantial way. It is only Cowdrey's suggestion (11) that the Bayeux Tapestry's resounding representation of Harold's death may have been intended to discredit the cult emerging around the survival stories of King Harold that bridges the two portions of the volume. However, the implications of Higham's article, "Harold Godwinesson: The Construction of Kingship," for the Bayeux Tapestry should not be overlooked. As Higham ably demonstrates, the chain of events unfolded in the embroidery speaks directly to only one of the many potential claimants to the English throne, William of Normandy. Moreover, the emphasis on Harold's oath in its narrative, which Higham terms "an exercise in dynastic advantage in the aftermath of victory" (20) positions the Bayeux Tapestry quite narrowly in the broader picture, given that perjury was neither uncommon in the period nor consistently discussed in Conquest accounts. Although Harold's candidacy for the English throne cannot be documented before 1065/6, by taking the long view going back at least to his father Earl Godwine's machinations in the 1040s, Higham convincingly gathers together evidence within England to show that Harold's coronation was "less a sudden triumph than...the ultimate fulfillment of ambitions" (34). By building his complex case for Harold's pragmatic approach to Anglo-Saxon politics, Higham shows, without insisting on the fact, what a partisan and Norman-centered account the Bayeux Tapestry is. This point is also made in a largely complementary fashion around the Danish interest in the English throne in Ian Howard's account. He argues that, "our understanding of events is enhanced if it is acknowledged that William of Normandy conquered Anglo-Danish England" (36). While Howard documents the depth of Danish ties to England, and thus reminds us of how important the Danes might have been in power dynamics "had they been available," he cannot argue a cause-and-effect case.

Three other outstanding contributions are those by Sarah Larratt Keefer, Michael Lewis, and Catherine Karkov. Keefer's article, "Body Language: a Graphic Commentary by the Horses of the Bayeux Tapestry," which is the other contribution added to the volume after the conference, makes the point that the gendering of the animals is symbolic. She astutely demonstrates that whether the horses sport donkey's ears or erections is more likely to stem from the political position of their riders at any key moment in the unfolding narrative than from realistic observation. Both Brunsdon Yapp and Madeline Caviness have previously noted the horses' prominent anatomy, [1] and Keefer's conclusions are wholly compatible with Caviness's about the masculine war ethos and lust for power that predominates in the Tapestry. Keefer's comments about specific borrowings of horses from Prudentius' Psychomachia and the Old English Hexateuch, both manuscripts associated with Canterbury, seem a bit strained when she implies that the original manuscript contexts may have informed the beholders' viewing of the Tapestry horses (104). This reservation and the overreaching last paragraph aside, Keefer's exclusive focus on the horse allows her to tie together persuasively the evidence for a "subtext of equine body language." Michael Lewis's article, "The Bayeux Tapestry and Eleventh-century Material Culture," interlocks with Keefer's in suggesting that the designer of the Tapestry was less concerned with accurate detail than has been assumed. Lewis deftly demonstrates that far from the proto-realist described, the designer frequently consulted inherited visual sources. Lewis conveys the complexity of the archeological evidence well, underscoring that the survival of works of material culture from the eleventh century is low. His three test cases on the helmet, cargo vessels, and architectural renderings anchor his study admirably in suggesting a fair degree of accuracy for arms and armor, little for ships, and the clear borrowing of antique prototypes for architecture. His nuanced conclusions about the tension between depicting the real world and adapting artistic conventions allow the designer of the Tapestry both invention and convenience. Finally, Catherine E. Karkov's article, "Gendering the Battle? Male and Female in The Bayeux Tapestry," goes over the familiar territory of the three representations of women in the central field (namely: the mourner commonly identified as Queen Edith at King Edward's deathbed, Aelfgyva, and the woman fleeing the burning house with her child at Hastings). It is a stocktaking piece; no new identifications are suggested for Aelfgyva, though her footnote (n. 13, p. 142) documenting numerous attributions is very useful. Rather, by considering where the three depictions of women occur in the overall narrative, she can reveal the way these rare images of women in the Tapestry alert the viewer to key turning points in the power relationships unfolded pictorially. What unites these three contributions is an awareness of larger narrative strategies in the Tapestry as a whole, for which their well-documented cases studies provide intriguing evidence.

The tandem articles by Gale Owen-Crocker and Chris Henige attempt to make the case for the presentation of the Bayeux Tapestry in a square setting. Henige's contribution focuses on its display in the castle keep at Dover, with insights derived from his considerable architectural expertise designed to complement Owen-Crocker's iconographic case. I personally do not find Owen-Crocker's designation of "the four religious episodes" that would be underscored by such a square setting compelling, but together, their arguments do suggest how the narrative could be activated in different ways by particular kinds of settings. The castle keep at Dover no longer survives in its medieval timber form, and Henige can only argue that the current stone structure may reflect an earlier prototype. Cowdrey steps away from their conclusions in part because of the lack of extant architectural evidence, but also asks, "whether the exhibition of the Tapestry is compatible with the military design, purpose and furnishing of a castle keep; and would the interior of a Norman keep have had enough light to view the Tapestry?" (13). Cowdrey's reservations are serious, and certainly undercut the notion of a square castle keep as a primary setting. Owen-Crocker's response to Cowdrey might be imagined in her qualifying observations on the last pages of her contribution, namely that the Tapestry might never have been intended to be confined to one place and that a small movement to one side or another would have highlighted different images. In responding to the kinds of objections voiced by Cowdrey, however, she undercuts her own argument.

Those familiar with Cyril Hart's previous scholarship on the Bayeux Tapestry will be on familiar ground. He here argues the impact of motifs from the Cicero-Aratea tradition, in the form of a planisphere and constellations represented in manuscripts available at Canterbury, the probable place of origin for the design of the Bayeux Tapestry. His case is characteristically well documented and his appendices on the Cicero-Aratea tradition in England alone are valuable. However, the line drawings he uses to present these motifs so decontextualize the images that instead of understanding the design process better, one is actually further distanced. Moreover key studies by Richard Gameson and others that portray the ways in which Anglo-Saxon images and image-making practices survived the Conquest at Canterbury are set aside in favor of Hart's own previous publications. [2] One can see how a border motif Hart draws attention to, the bear (his Ursa-Major), receives more sustained treatment in Shirley Ann Brown's article, "Cognate imagery: The bear, Harold and the Bayeux Tapestry." As Brown notes, "The suggestions of manuscript sources for individual no way indicate the meaning and interpretation that would have been attached to the figure" (160). Brown's subject is intertextuality and how the bear, which is muzzled and chained and threatened by a sword-wielding knight, might lead us to understand popular associations through the chanson de geste tradition. Brown associates the motif with bear imagery in the Song of Roland, where the bear stands for evil and betrayal, and in this way uses it to suggest how oral culture may have left its mark on the Tapestry and "induced viewers to become actively complicit in the Bayeux Tapestry's narrative project" (160). Brown's grasp of the work as a performance piece, enlivened by an interlocutor who, in recounting the story might emphasize certain themes and allude to related material, takes up an approach in the recent literature. [3] Her larger vision that the central pictorial field serves as the recit and its borders provide the commentary or chant, as in medieval epics, is productive. However, for this reader the question is: do we really need Roland to understand, let alone decode, the muzzled bear? Shouldn't the motif, if successful, work on a more visceral and visual level?

In an anthology of this nature, where the theme of Harold's role in the Tapestry is only loosely the subject, the import of the volume ultimately rests on the quality of individual articles. And for a monument like the Bayeux Tapestry, where there has been a great deal of reading in as to the intention, encoding, and subtext of the patron and those executing the embroidery, I appreciated the approaches in this volume, which focus on clear and demonstrable themes and motifs. In fact, an aside in the editor's article is particularly noteworthy in this regard. On p. 112, Owen-Crocker calls attention to the fact that there is a discrepancy between Bishop Odo of Bayeux's representations in the inscriptions (twice) and the number of times he is credited with appearing in the pictorial narrative, (at least five times as noted in Cowdrey, p. 12). Since Odo's numerous appearances in the Tapestry are the reason he is commonly described as the patron (see Cowdrey, p. 9), this is an original and provocative insight. It is evidence of Owen-Crocker's willingness to take nothing for granted in the study of the Tapestry. In short, this volume of reflecting thoughtfully and looking carefully reflects her vision, and even in those cases where one might demur on certain conclusions, the process is a stimulating one.

1. W. Brunsdon Yapp, "Animals in medieval art: the Bayeux Tapestry as an example," Journal of Medieval History 13 (1987), pp. 15-73, esp. 27; Madeline H. Caviness, Reframing Medieval art: Difference, Margins, Boundaries, Chapt. 2, pp. 1-47, esp. p. 10. In this chapter, Caviness focuses on the Bayeux Tapestry, further adapting the insights from her earlier article, "Obscenity and Alterity: Images that Should and Offend Us/Them, Now/ Then?" reprint in eadem, Art in the Medieval West and its Audiences, Variorum Collected Studies Series (Aldershot, 2001), Chapt. XIII, pp. 1-17, esp. 10-16.

2. Besides the classic study by Francis Wormald, "The Development of English Illumination in the Twelfth Century," Journal of the British Archaeological Association VIII (1943), pp. 31-49, Richard Gameson's "English Manuscript Art in the Late Eleventh Century: Canterbury and its Context," in Canterbury and the Norman Conquest: Churches, Saint and Scholars, 1066-1109, ed. Richard Eales and Richard Sharpe (London, 1995), pp. 95-143 offer invaluble contextual information with further bibliography.

3. In making her case, she effectively draws on works by Richard Brilliant, "The Bayeux Tapestry: a stripped narrative for their eyes and ears," Word 8 Image 7 (1991), pp. 93-125, and Suzanne Lewis, The Rhetoric of Power in the Bayeux Tapestry (Cambridge, 1999).