15.03.06, Brown, The Bayeux Tapestry

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Richard Gameson

The Medieval Review 15.03.06

Brown, Shirley Ann. The Bayeux Tapestry, Bayeux Médiathèque municipale: MS 1: A Sourcebook. Publications of the Journal of Medieval Latin, 9. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. cvi, 318. ISBN: 9782503549170 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Richard Gameson
Durham University

The core of this generously proportioned volume (268 of its 424 pages) is an annotated bibliography. This is preceded, after the preliminaries, by a summary description of the Tapestry (xvii-xix), by an account of its history extending from its creation in the late eleventh century to its inclusion in the UNESCO "Memory of the World" register in 2007 (xxi-lii), by summary biographies of the ten individuals who have been its curators at Bayeux since 1842 (liii-lxvi), and by an overview of Bayeux Tapestry studies from 1720 to 2013. It is followed by a listing of documentary and archival sources for the history of the artefact, all but four relating to the eighteenth century onwards (271-8), by an inventory of Reproductions and Facsimiles--the earliest dating from the eighteenth century, the most bizarre being the "half-size complete mosaic reproduction fabricated from two million pieces of spring steel off-cuts from patterning disks used on a very large industrial knitting machine" (279-89)--and finally by an inventory of "Spinoffs," namely embroideries and appliqués for which the Bayeux Tapestry was in some sense the inspiration, such as the Overlord Embroidery (depicting the story of the allied invasion of Normandy during World War II). The volume concludes with an Author Index and a Keyword/Subject Index (299-316).

The account of the history of the artefact begins with a realistic assessment of the evidence of Baudri de Bourgeuil for indicating that it was somewhere in northern France by 1102. Taking advantage of the relatively recent discovery of references in French royal inventories to a tapestry depicting the conquest of England, Brown can indicate possible owners of the Bayeux Tapestry in the later fourteenth and earlier fifteenth centuries: it would seem to have belonged to King Charles VI of France, passing into the hands of John, duke of Bedford, and thence on to Philip the Good of Burgundy. The meaning of such an artefact to these key players in the Hundred Years War, during the period when England occupied northern France, is a fascinating topic for speculation. Correspondingly, relatively newly available documentation for the middle of the twentieth century enables Brown to flesh out the busy, occasionally perilous life of the Tapestry during World War II. The extent to which it was moved around then makes the refusal of every formal request for its temporary loan to eminent institutions (also carefully recounted here) seem rather anomalous.

The survey of scholarship runs briskly through key trends under the headings "technical considerations," "origin and patronage," "destination-religious or secular?," "Evaluating the 'authority' of the Bayeux Tapestry," "Narrative Technique," "Aelfgyva and Others," "New Viewpoints," and "Appropriations." The penultimate strand boils down to "multivalency," digital reproductions and "hypertext theory," the final one to the ways in which national preoccupations might colour scholars' approaches to the artefact and its use.

The foundation and model for the bibliography itself is the same author's The Bayeux Tapestry: History and Bibliography of 1988. But whereas that had 424 entries, the present work contains over 1035. Although over 100 of the extra items relate to the period covered by the earlier work, the remaining 500 or so have appeared subsequently--a striking demonstration of the fact that more has been published on the Bayeux Tapestry in the last thirty years than in the previous three centuries. For each item Brown offers a summary of key points (ranging in length from one line to nearly twenty depending on the nature of the contribution) followed by a listing of index terms. Thus no. 742 (Monika Otter, "Baudri of Bourgueil To Countess Adela," Journal of Medieval Latin 11 [2001]) is characterised as "An English translation of the complete poem and a short discussion of how it relates to the BT, reviewing the different interpretations placed on it"; while the account of the next item (I. Short, "The Language of the Bayeux Tapestry Inscriptions," Anglo-Norman Studies 23 [2001]) states: "Analyses the epigraphy, spelling, language, colours and physical aspects of the inscriptions, along with the names. Suggests that French was the vernacular language underlying the Latinity of the inscriptions, and that the BT was manufactured in three workshops. The first section (panel I) could have been produced in Normandy, the second (panels II-III-IV), in either France or Britain, and the third (panels V-VIII) in Britain. Concludes that although the execution of the BT may have been English, the artistic conception and design, and the language of the text remain Norman."

As the examples above illustrate, the summaries strive to provide objective reports of key content. As such, they will be invaluable in permitting researchers to identify at a glance whether many pieces are directly relevant to their concerns. However, users must bear in mind that it is only principal content that is indicated and that the utility of such summaries is in inverse relation to the length of the work they treat. Thus to characterise the present writer's short note on the Tapestry in The History of British Art 600-1600 as "Identifies the BT as created ca. 1068 for Odo of Bayeux, in connection with St Augustine's, Canterbury. Discusses design and narrative techniques which propagate an epic vision justifying the Norman victory and celebrating the role of particular individuals therein" (no 905, p. 236) is to give a reasonable impression of its themes. By contrast, to evoke P. Bouet and F. Neveux, La Tapisserie de Bayeux. Révélation et mystères d'une broderie du Moyen Âge as "Provides a scene-by-scene commentary. Then discusses the history of the conquest according to the BT written sources, the silences and 'mysteries' contained in the images, the BT as a witness to contemporary life, the Latin inscriptions, the BT in the service of Norman propaganda. Also describes the embroidery as a textile and as an iconographical masterpiece" (no. 1021a, p. 265) conceals as much as it reveals about this 236-page monograph.

Where there is real inconsistency is in the treatment of reviews. The declared principle was that "Selected reviews have been included for items which elicited particularly spirited comment" (xiii). Yet substantial and thought-provoking reviews in major journals--such as those in The English Historical Review reviewing S. Lewis, The Rhetoric of Power in the Bayeux Tapestry; G. Owen-Crocker (ed.), King Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry; and M. Foys et al. (ed.), The Bayeux Tapestry: New Interpretations--are omitted, while bland reviews of other wholly uncontentious items are included (e.g., nos. 589 and 592 on Brown's earlier work: "Briefly describes the contents of the book and recommends it as an indispensable time-saving tool for BT studies;" "Describes the book as an excellent tool and timesaver for anyone researching the BT's many puzzles. Points out that the comments are rather thin for Scandinavian language entries").

In addition to permitting one to trace commentary and commentators on selected themes, the indices show at glance who has written most prolifically on the Bayeux Tapestry and which topics have elicited fullest discussion. Particularly popular themes include, predictably, "arms and armour," "fables," "inscriptions," "Odo of Bayeux," "Patron," and above all, "date" and "history." The fact that "Aelfgyva" is in the same league demonstrates both the appeal of an enigma and the inability of scholars to find a satisfactory solution to it despite at least eighty-three attempts. The scholars with twenty or more works on the subject to their name are Bertrand, Brown, Lemagnen and Owen-Crocker (and it is no coincidence they include both a former and the current curator of the artefact itself), followed (with ten or more works) by Beech, Foys, Lewis, Musset and Neveux. Only two of these nine are deceased: thus consonant with the recent acceleration in the number of studies in general, the majority of the most prolific commentators belong to the present generation. The extent to which the emergence of "Bayeux Tapestry specialists" is healthy for the subject will be for future scholars to judge. Certainly, some of the most thought-provoking work over the years has been done by individuals whose principle focus of interest lay elsewhere.

The stated aim of the Shirley Ann Brown's volume is to "present the unfolding narrative of Bayeux Tapestry studies" (1), and in this is certainly succeeds. That the flow of scholarship on the subject will continue unabated is underlined by the fact that yet another substantial monograph on the Tapestry has been published since the appearance of her work (E. Carston Pastan, S. D. White and K. Gilbert, The Bayeux Tapestry and its Contexts [2014]). The intention that Brown articulated in relation to her historiographical overview--"that this will encourage scholars to continue their investigations without unnecessarily traversing roads which have already been well trodden" (lxvii-lxviii)--ought, in theory, to be the effect of her useful book as a whole. Yet whether even so useful a tool as this will succeed in directing people away from the inviting roads in question seems highly doubtful.

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Author Biography

Richard Gameson

Durham University