04 December 2012

Bayeux Tapestry pornography?

Once the Normans left Scandinavia and settled in Northern France, they made Caen, Rouen and Bayeux their most important towns. Their administrative and taxation systems were well organised, and they used money to build fine churches, cathedrals and monasteries.

The Romanesque cathedral Notre-Dame de Bayeux urgently needed to repaired or rebuilt. Bishop Hugo began the cathedral’s reconstruction, but he died in 1049. As quickly as possible, Duke William managed to have his adolescent half brother Odo appointed bishop of Bayeux.

central panel: Cleric touching Elfgyva’s face
bottom border: naked man

During the mid C11th, the new, young Bishop of Bayeux lent powerful support to his brother William, including in battle against the English. As a reward for his loyalty, King William I granted the entire English county of Kent to Odo.

Despite his lack of visible talent, Odo had become the Bishop of Bayeux AND the Earl of Kent. He was amassing an immense fortune coming from England, and decided to continue rebuilding the Bayeux cathedral at his own expense, taking up where Bishop Hugo had left off.

In his county of Kent, Earl Odo had greatly admired the wall hangings which were used to adorn sanctuaries. And knowing the splendid celebrations that would accompany the consecration of his church, he commissioned a hanging that glorified King William’s exploits in England and flattered Odo's own role. The Romanesque cathedral Notre-Dame de Bayeux was completed and dedicated in 1077, only eleven years after the conquest of England. So the date of the Bayeux Tapestry's completion was most likely 1077 as well.

The tapestry was an enormous piece of hand-worked embroidery in coloured wools on unbleached linen. Rather than being designed as covers for large panels of wallspace, the Bayeux Tapestry pieces were sewn together into a 70m long filmstrip; it was only 50cm high. I am using the past tense because the tapestry may be a bit shorter than it was originally and some of the stitching may have been repaired over the centuries.

It was divided into a large number of scenes and featured hundreds of people and animals. Even though contemporary audiences would have known who was who, each of these 75 scenes was explained in bold, clear Latin captions. Tapestry For Dummies!

Along the top and the bottom ran decorative borders with figures of animals, tales from Aesop’s fables, scenes from husbandry and the chase, familiar scenes in a rural community. And there were figures falling out of the central part of the tapestry, overflowing into the borders either for dramatic effect or because the main images would have otherwise been very cramped.

Drawing and stitching the central story would have been under the strict control of Bishop Odo and his French supervisors in a workshop in Canterbury associated with St Augustine’s Abbey. Control of the angry and sulky English was essential, if the embroidery was to tell the French version of history.

But Joanna Laynesmith has asked whether the less important border images might have been composed by the English embroiderers themselves. This historian was interested in the enigmatic central scene where an unknown cleric touched Elfgyva’s face. Who was the mysterious, but important woman? Who was the powerful cleric? What was the connection of this event to that of Harold swearing on the Bayeux relics (that William’s claim was superior in God’s eyes to Harold’s own)?


central panel: Harold swearing on the Bayeux relics in front of Duke William
top and borders: decorative animals.

I want to tackle a much simpler issue. The borders of the Bayeux Tapestry were indeed decorative, but they also added a great deal of accurate information about contemporary animals, clothing and headgear, buildings and weapons. Now there is another possibility - that the decorative borders could have been read as observations on greed, sexual immorality, property acquired by trickery or other deeply moral offences perpetrated against the English people by the invading Frenchmen. Or perhaps by some of their own treacherous Englishmen.

The depiction of the naked man with enormous genitalia, directly below Elfgyva, was not just to titillate the gentle lady embroiderers in Kent, nor to amuse Bishop Odo and his flock back in Bayeux. Rather the cleric’s extending arm and caressing hand exactly replicated (in mirror image) the gesture of the naked man below. In the past in England, there had indeed been accusations against queens of consorting with senior clerics. Was another royal sexual scandal occurring in the 1066 era?

King Edward VII should have been grateful that the Bayeux Tapestry was not created during his reign.

central panel: Harold being killed by an arrow in the eye
bottom border: dead soldiers, uniforms, weapons










10 comments:

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It seems that there are many aspects of medieval iconography, including strange scenes in illuminated manuscripts; gargoyles and other carvings on cathedrals; and now apparently this tapestry/embroidery,
that have been swept under the carpet, or for which are invoked unsatisfactory and overly-facile explanations such as 'lingering paganism'.

Perhaps Victorian prudery has muddled thinking in this area and has chosen to aim the spotlight away from these areas. I'm glad that people are starting to ask better questions that will result in a more realistic understanding of those times.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...

It is interesting which era (s) of history we choose to write about, and which countries. Although I did plenty of medieval history subjects at uni, my passion was always the 17th century. And what you say is equally true about the 17th century - less muddled thinking, better questions and more realistic understanding of those times.

Plus I think we mature in our own historical understanding, with some age and life experience.

Leon and Sue Sims said...

Just wondering if you've had the opportunity to visit Bayeux? We did to especially see the tapestry, then the cathedral and it was an extraordinary experience.
Very much liked the town as well before moving on to see the D-Day beaches.
Very much enjoyed your post.
Leon

Jim said...

Quite an interesting subject. Did you notice a couple of gothic churches I had on my blog recently?
http://sydney-city.blogspot.com.au/2012/11/kogarah-st-patricks-catholic-church.html

Hels said...

Leon and Sue

Yes indeed. I was on an organised tour of Normandy and particularly loved being at Mont St Michel.

We did spend a day in Bayeux, half a day in the cathedral and the tapestry building, half a day in the rest of the city. But it is never enough, is it?

Hels said...

Jim

VERY interesting, especially since I thought historians knew all there was to know about the Bayeux Tapestry. But but but... there is always new learning going on!

Thanks for the links to neo-Gothic buildings in Sydney. I wonder why our 19th century forefathers chose neo-Gothic for a young country... in a hot climate.

We Travel said...

Who was the lucky and well endowed cleric? I shall have a look, next time we are in Bayeux.

columnist said...

Well I never knew anything about these hidden messages. Thanks for the interesting post on the subject.

Hels said...

We Travel,

the cleric is a tall, imposing, tonsured cleric in secular dress and his hand on his hip. There is no way of guessing who he was, except he was definitely important.

Was he the dreaded Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury? Laynesmith asks how Stigand grabbed and retained the position when it had been granted to the Norman Robert of Jumieges.

Hels said...

columnist

without getting too conspiratorial about hidden messages, it seems perfectly reasonable that the winners (the Normans) would write the history of the invasion and the losers (the English) would do as they were told.

It appeals to me enormously that the English embroiderers might have just a little input into the tapestry, even if it had to be cautious and tucked away.