15.11.26, Pastan and White, with Gilbert, The Bayeux Tapestry and Its Contexts

Main Article Content

Martin Foys

The Medieval Review 15.11.26

Pastan, Elizabeth Carson, and Stephen D. White, with Kate Gilbert. The Bayeux Tapestry and Its Contexts. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2014. pp. 476. ISBN: 978-184-3839-415 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Martin Foys
University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Bayeux Tapestry remains one of the most fascinating, popular, and reproduced documents of the medieval period, due to its sheer scale (230+ feet long), the near miracle that such a textile has survived for almost a thousand years, and the fact that it visually details the Norman Conquest--one of the most seismic events in English history. It has equally captured the scholarly imagination due to the artful ambiguities with which it portrays its narrative matter. It is a truly Anglo-Norman artifact--produced in early post-Conquest England (almost certainly, the historical and artistic material suggests, at St. Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury) yet under the influence of a new Norman authority. In The Bayeux Tapestry and Its Contexts, Elizabeth Carson Pastan and Stephen D. White's ambitious treatment of this renowned embroidery, the authors seek a new cultural and critical frame through which we are to understand its meaning and purpose. In the process, the authors suggest that the majority of previous scholarship on the textile has failed to understand that it is not first and foremost a pro-English or pro-Norman political work, but rather one with "monastic agency" (81) that produces a moralizing view of the Conquest and the individuals who precipitated it. Though at times more speculative than conclusive, The Bayeux Tapestry and Its Contexts is a significant study, certain to help (re)set the course of scholarly discussion of the embroidery for some time to come.

This book is a disciplinary collaboration between Pastan (an art historian) and White (a historian), but not a wholly synthetic one. The eleven chapters are individually authored, allowing each to work within the methodologies and critical material of her or his respective expertise. The structure preserves the distinctive voices of Pastan and White, while presenting a coherent and closely related set of theses, where the content of the aesthetic object reinforces its historical context, and vice versa. At the heart of the study resides the notion that Tapestry scholarship has frequently failed to read the textile on its own terms (that is, through the local context and culture of its production at St. Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, likely during the abbacy of Scolland [1070-87], or with an exacting formalist attention to the embroidery's internal narrative and visual details), relying instead on external material--English or Norman textual accounts--as a basis for interpretation. Studying the textile as a St. Augustine's / Abbot Scolland production, Pastan and White themselves produce a core set of theses about the textile: that it is not a triumphal work meant to legitimize either Harold or William's accession to the English throne; that it promotes neither an "English" or "Norman" version of events; and that it was designed principally for a monastic audience, to convey doubt and uncertainty about how the Conquest came about, both judging the predatory nature of the leaders on both sides, and moralizing the plunder and slaughter of the Conquest as God's judgment for the sins of the English people. Most convincingly, the authors consider such sentiments as a precursor to similar notions found within later twelfth-century Anglo-Norman histories, such as those by Hermann of Bury, Eadmer of Canterbury, Orderic Vitalis, and William of Malmesbury.

This is exciting stuff. But many of the appealing arguments found within this book frustratingly remain more conjectural than definitively established. In part this is a by-product of the relative lack of new evidence or information advanced in the analysis (though there is some), along with a tendency to allow many chapters to be dominated by long rehearsals of previous scholarly views that the authors desire to refute, in place perhaps of broader socio-political and art historical contexts and analogues that might have provided a surer foundation and support.

The difficulty here is that the ambiguous content of the embroidery doesn't sufficiently corroborate most of the claims presented anymore than it supports (or resists) an English or Norman bias in the work. For much of the volume, the authors instead have to rely on permutations of negative evidence--what the textile does not do or show in contrast to various textual precursors. This approach usefully exposes how beholden some earlier interpretations of the embroidery are to ideas found without, and not explicitly within the work. But without more substantial evidence of corollaries or analogues of cultural, historical, or art historical materials, many of the conclusions drawn (e.g. that the fables in the borders are moralizing and not political, or that the so-called Last Supper scene featuring Bishop Odo functions not as a flattering, but rather a parodic portrayal of gluttony), while enticing, here remain more circumstantial than authoritative.

The first two chapters, "The Material Context of the Bayeux Embroidery: Manufacture, Display, and Literary References" and "Is the Bayeux Embroidery a Record of Events?," allow Pastan and White respectively to set the mode of analysis from each of their disciplines, while providing an overview of the material and documentary nature of the textile. Pastan surveys the embroidery's material aspects, manufacture, earliest records of existence, and then possible early medieval analogues, in order to defamiliarize the work as a text or historical document, and present it instead as a material entity on its own terms. White objects to the long-standing scholarly treatment of the visual narrative as a reliable historical document, noting that neither a reading that legitimizes William's claim to the English throne, nor one that treats Harold as fully legitimate can be justified "without making an interlocking set of contestable assumptions about its patron, designer, display and audience" (49).

Pastan's next chapter, "Imagined Patronage," considers Montfaucon's 1729 edition of the textile, along with early accounts of its public display in Bayeux. This commentary serves as a prelude to developing already published arguments that refute the anachronism of the "Renaissance model" of patronage traditionally applied to the figure of Bishop Odo, reading him as an individual and even micromanaging force behind the textile's structure and content. Pastan outlines a notion of internal, institutional patronage of the work from within St. Augustine's Abbey to produce an unequivocally monastic context and audience to guide our understanding of its display and interpretation.

Subsequently, in "The Prosopography of the Bayeux Embroidery and the Community of St Augustine's, Canterbury," White localizes this approach and advances some fresh evidence about the minor figures of Vital and Wadard who appear in the embroidery. White produces a persuasive refutation of the traditional view (practically a critical article of faith, at this point) that these figures appear because of their ties to Odo, arguing instead that in the case of such figures, their ties to St. Augustine's are even stronger and better documented. White's model of institutional social relations is a revelatory one, demonstrating how the monastery would have memorialized secular members not just as honorees, but also as sinners. It also points to how much more could have been done in such a chapter. For instance, a similar treatment of the nature of Harold's connections to the monastery is regrettably absent, as is one about Archbishop Stigand, whom we learn in a much later chapter is also memorialized at the abbey through gifts that he bequeathed.

In "Locating Harold's Oath and Tracing His Itinerary," White reexamines the scenes of Harold's oath and William's arms giving, arguing that the textile's lack of specific locations for these episodes demonstrates that the work does not support the view that William had grounds for claiming the English throne, again exposing how scholars traditionally have interpreted these scenes from default assumptions based on textual analogues that contain fundamentally different details. An all-too-brief concluding section hypothesizes that the embroidery's subsequent representation of the long episode detailing William's military campaign in Brittany would have resulted from Abbot Scolland's own substantial connections to Mont St. Michel, whose monks had a vested interest in showing this campaign at the moment Normandy supplanted Brittany as their primary patrons. In "Bishop Odo at the Banquet," Pastan returns to reevaluating the role of Odo as patron from another angle, studying the iconography of his representation in the so-called Last Supper scene, where Odo occupies the iconographic place of Christ. Pastan argues that this scene needs to be thematically understood in relation to other internal scenes in the embroidery, and not simply connected to external analogues as has been traditionally done. Building the case for the work's institutional patronage, production, and reception by St. Augustine's, Pastan suggests that this scene would have been read by monks no differently than the earlier Anglo-Saxon feasting scene at Bosham, and so is less about a flattering aggrandizement of Odo than it is about the moral judgment of impious behavior. White further develops the monastic context of interpretation in "The Fables in the Borders." For White, the embroidery's border fables and the predatory conduct they show signal that the work was critical of all the participants it depicted. The fables were "designed to hint at alternative outcomes" (165) and were not political (as they are often read), but instead, darkly moral about human society in general. William and Harold, and other figures of power, are to be viewed as inept predators, and suggest that the monks of St. Augustine would have produced and then viewed the Bayeux Tapestry as a response (albeit a rather ambiguous one) to the trauma of slaughter and plunder.

In "Representing Architecture," Pastan argues that the textile's representation of buildings should not be read as empirical evidence for architectural reality. Instead, these structures function as the built environment of the narrative, not as blind appropriations of inherited visual analogues, but as devices that "highlight the way that images were appropriated and adapted in the service of the narrative" (204)--most notably in the ways such structures articulate the private or public nature of depicted interactions. White's chapter, "Legal Ceremonies and the Question of Legitimacy," reviews prior textual accounts of Harold and William's successions to the throne, to show that each scene of the embroidery cannot be shown to definitively support an Anglo-Saxon or Norman political view. This is well-worn territory, but White refreshes the subject by reversing the work's relationship to textual sources and itemizing a number of details the embroidery could have easily shown, but did not. In this view, the textile cannot be a legitimizing document for either side. Instead, its gaps and uncertainties were "designed to convey doubt and uncertainty to its educated viewers at St. Augustine's about how the conquest of England had come about" (231), ultimately promoting the view that it was God's judgment that Harold and the English must fall, with William and the Normans acting as agents of divine punishment. White continues this line of reasoning in "The Fall of the English," a study of the longest section of the embroidery, depicting the Battle of Hastings. As with the fables, White contends that the battle scene would have "provided satirical and bitterly humorous commentary" (240) on the battle and its aftermath, where it is not William's victory that is ordained, but Harold's fall. Such analyses also raise questions. If we need to consider the context of narrative and visual elements of the work as a whole, as is argued in other chapters, one wonders if that battle scene therefore complements the earlier scenes of Norman triumph in Brittany. In spite of many moments of ambiguity, as a whole the textile does continuously choose to represent and emphasize the triumphs and accomplishments of the Normans--it is what dominates the majority of the work. At what point does the portrayal of overwhelming might then also produce the perception of right?

Pastan's chapter, "Quid faciat...Scollandus? The Abbey Church of St Augustine's, c. 1073-1100," rounds out the volume by exploring the possibilities for display that the abbey's eleventh-century church may have offered. The chapter begins with a long discussion of the architectural history of the abbey, from its inception, through successive medieval rebuilding initiatives (including Scolland's), to modern excavations and reconstructions. The majority of information presented in this survey is only tangentially related to the chapter's thesis, which proposes that the textile may have been produced as a three-part narrative designed to be hung in triptych around the church's choir and presbytery. Pastan proposes a potential date for display of 1091, in connection with the completion of Scolland's program of construction at the abbey, and the translation of the bodies of saints and archbishops to newly constructed choir shrines. This theory raises as many questions as it seeks to answer--namely exactly why such a largely secular production would be chosen as the material for such sacred ceremonies in the first place. The claim that such a display would have represented for Anglo-Norman monks "a passion of England" (284) is intriguing, but warrants a more substantial discussion and contextualization to move beyond speculation merely convenient for the larger thesis at hand. The few analogues proposed here for a didactic exposition of such material are all much more overtly sacred in their content, and date from substantially later in the medieval period.

The scholarship on the Bayeux Tapestry is vast, and the authors impressively marshal the formidable range of secondary sources and seminal critical discussions as they go. There are a few inconsistencies, for example, an almost complete absence of scholarly citations for the infamous and much-treated Ælfgyva episode (discussed on 231), and a promise to address the oft-debated nature of Harold's death scene that never seems to be fulfilled (237 n.5). There are also some notable lapses in the copyediting--e.g. in one chapter part of the main text is subsequently reproduced as the body of a footnote (230), in another note, the font size changes in mid-text (57), while at one point David Bernstein is cited as "Richard" (239). Confusingly, some chapters identify a figure in the embroidery's battle scenes as Eustace, while others follow a more recent scholarly claim that the figure is Robert of Mortain (e.g. 36 and 248).

More significantly, by assigning the monks of St. Augustine's a monolithic spectatorship for the work, the study works to foreclose other interpretative options as it promotes its own. The value of such a perspective for reimagining the meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry is evident in this volume, but the analysis could remain more open to the reality that other readings (i.e. the political, the English, the Norman) would have also remained available to the demographic of post-Conquest English who would have viewed the embroidery (monks included!). There is also a crucial missed opportunity in this project. The authors stress the critical value of studying the textile's later life (e.g. Pastan's close readings of the 1475 Bayeux inventory that first documents its existence, the dynamics of the work's earliest known display, and the eighteenth-century reproductions and readings of the embroidery), and of understanding the relationship of St. Augustine's with areas of eleventh-century Normandy (e.g. White's examination of connections with Mont St. Michel and, to a lesser degree, Caen). Previous scholarship has never satisfactorily explained when and how the textile ended up in Bayeux; because Odo was bishop of Bayeux, it was easy enough to wave vaguely at this fact as reason enough, or suggest that the textile was a gift for the consecration of Bayeux Cathedral in 1077. But if St. Augustine's, and not Odo, stands as the real patron of the Bayeux Tapestry, a fuller examination of the relationship between Bayeux and St. Augustine's in the late eleventh century is warranted, in the hopes that light may be shed on the embroidery's long, lost history between its manufacture at Canterbury in the decades after the Conquest, and its recorded existence at Bayeux four centuries later. Given the nature of their work in this volume, Pastan and White are ideally positioned to take up this question; since not here, one hopes that they might do so in the future.

For all of the concerns noted above, the value of this book remains undeniable. Pastan and White present powerful challenges to the old binaries of sacred or secular display and of Norman or English sympathies, to the dominating specter of Odo's individuated patronage, and to the methodological tradition of reading the work's internal meaning through external historiographies and visual analogues radically different in form, style, and content. The Bayeux Tapestry and Its Contexts gives scholars of the famous embroidery a lot to think about, and the next generation of Bayeux Tapestry scholarship will surely be richer for it.

Article Details