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Bayeux Tapestry


Artist unknown: The Bayeux Tapestry, after 1066



Propaganda on cloth


First exhibited at Bayeux Cathedral in 1077, the tapestry
(0.5 x 70.34 m) marks a turning-point in European history: it tells
the story of William the Conqueror's victory over the English army
at Hastings in 1066. The work now hangs in the Centre
Guillaume Le Conquerant, Bayeux.


          

In 1025, at the Council of Arras in northern France, the clergy decided to embellish their churches with decorations of a new type. Historical events and figures were to be portrayed on cloth hangings to help educate the many illiterate members of the congregation. The Bayeux Tapestry, the most famous example of this form of medieval instruction, is - as a historical document and work of art - sans pareil.
Consisting of several joined lengths of linen, the hanging is 50 cm wide and 70.4 m long. The final section of the work is missing, suggesting the original may have been several metres longer. The linen ground is embroidered in eight different colours of wool. It is not known who designed the cartoons or embroidered the cloth. The latter was probably the work of nuns. All that is known for sure is when and where the hanging was first exhibited: 14 July 1077, in the newly-built cathedral at Bayeux, a small town in Normandy.
The town is depicted in the detail above. In fact, it is less "depicted" than reduced, in symbolic form, to two essential features: a hill - most towns in those days were built on high ground to facilitate their defense - and a large edifice, probably a church or castle. To preclude misinterpretation, occasional Latin inscriptions were added to identify scenes. To the left of the town on the hill we read: "Here William arrives at Bayeux."
The narrative is framed above and below by a decorative border. Extending the entire length of the linen, these are filled with symbolic animals whose relation to the main action remains obscure. This is not always the case, however: the border under the battle scenes contains naked, mutilated corpses.
Notwithstanding its reductive symbolism, the hanging contains a wealth of documentary detail: the shape of the shields, the spores worn by cavalry, raised and reinforced bow-props at the front and rear of saddles. The props provided support during battle, but they could also jeopardize the rider. William was fatally injured when the pommel of his saddle ruptured his abdomen during a fall - but that was not until 1087.
William is one of two main protagonists of the narrative. The story is told from his point of view: crossing the Channel as the Duke of Normandy in 1066, he routed his English opponents at the Battle of Hastings, was crowned King of England and entered history as William the Conqueror. The sole topic of the hanging is the representation and vindication of the victory won over England. Hung at Bayeux Cathedral, it served as an official declaration, as well as a means of religious and moral indoctrination.


 

An oath, extracted and broken


William, the Norman duke, sits to the right of the hill of Bayeux, his power symbolized by the sword resting on his shoulder. The second protagonist, the figure standing between two shrines, is the English King Harold. In 1063 Harold was cast ashore on the coast of France and held captive there. After ransoming him, William promised Harold his daughter in marriage. Here he is shown swearing allegiance to his new liege-lord. The shrines on which his hands are laid contain relics.
The significance of the oath, a ritual whose function was pivotal to contemporary society, was far from confined to the
context of the Bayeux narrative. An individual was not the citizen of a state, but the vassal of a lord. Expressed in simple terms, feudal society was constructed along the lines of a pyramid: the peasants took their tenures from knights or barons; the baron was invested with estate by a count; the count received his county as a fief from the duke, while the duke himself was given land by the king. To defend the country against aggressors the monarch needed the military and financial assistance of his nobles, who, in turn, required the service of their vassals. With few exceptions, feudal obligation was established not by written contract, signed and sealed, but sworn in the form of an oath.
Oaths were sworn at a ceremony, with the procedure fairly strictly defined. Kneeling, the vassal recited a set formula by which he acknowledged homage to his superior. He would then stand and swear fealty to his new lord on the Holy Bible or on the authority of a relic. Following this, the lord granted his vassal a fief in the symbolic form of a branch, a staff or a ring.
The Bayeux Tapestry shows only the most important part of the ceremony: the oath sworn on the relics. This act had the force of conferring upon the church the office of official custodian. When Harold broke his oath, mounting the English throne in 1066, William sought the jurisdiction of the pope. Excommunicating the perjunous Harold, the pope placed a papal standard at William's disposal to accompany his Norman troops. William's campaign thus practically gained the status of a Holy War.
Things looked rather different from Harold's point of view. In swearing allegiance to William, he had not been a free man. By paying Harold's ransom, the Norman duke had become his superior. Harold's oath had acknowledged fealty to William, but without it, he presumably could never have left Normandy and returned to England. Furthermore, an English account of the event contests that Harold's oath was sworn on a table under which relics were concealed - with Harold quite ignorant of the trap William had set for him.
The previous king had promised the English throne to his cousin William. Harold knew this. He may have used his powerful allies to put pressure on the dying monarch. A contemporary chronicler cites the following dialogue: King: "It is known to you that I have taken steps to ensure my kingdom shall pass to William of Normandy after my death. Were it to pass to Harold, I do not think he would keep the peace." Harold: "Give it to me and I will look after it!" King: "Then you shall have my kingdom, but if I know William and his Normans, it will be the death of you."




To England with weapons and wine


William built a fleet and prepared it to carry his soldiers across the Channel to England. The hanging shows swords and a battle-axe being carried to the ships, a cart loaded with a row of twenty spears, helmets ranged on posts along the side of the wagon, following which three men carry suits of chain mail, the typical armour of the day. The latter consisted of connected links of thin iron covering the trunk and stretching to the elbows and knees, with slits at the front and back ensuring freedom of movement on horseback. In the centuries that followed, chain mail was replaced by solid coats of armour, the spears by heavy lances. In the eleventh century, however, soldiers were relatively lightly armed and still quite mobile.
The prominence given to wine indicates its relative importance as a provision: the embroidery shows a larger and smaller barrel, as well as a leather bottle slung over one bearer's shoulder. In peacetime, wine was imported to England by merchants; it was also grown in England as far north as the Scottish borders. The most important beverage of the age, wine was cherished less as a luxury than for its nutritional value. With no effective means of storage, however, it was generally drunk when little older than a year. Beer was more perishable still, and, what was more, impossible to transport. It could therefore be drunk solely in regions where it was produced.
Raising an army to conquer England proved something of a problem. Like all vassals, those bound to a duke were obliged to perform only certain clearly defined duties. William could set them smaller tasks - punitive expeditions against unruly neighbours, for example - as often as he wished, provided he did not require their services for longer than a week at a time. Only once a year at the most could he call upon his vassals to undertake a longer military campaign covering larger distances, though even the duration of these expeditions was limited to 40 days. All further services were seen as voluntary, requiring additional remuneration by the duke. Fighting which took them across the Channel was considered entirely beyond the call of duty.
William therefore had to use all his powers of persuasion, an undertaking whose success was undoubtedly facilitated by the pope's blessing. However, the main form of enticement at his disposal was the promise of enfeoffment: one of his followers was offered an English monastery, another a town, a third might be lured with a whole county. William had to make promises on a grand scale, for the risks to which his vassals were putting their lives and livelihood were equally great. There was no way of predicting the outcome of the fighting.
Relatives were the most generous allies of all. At the time, power usually rested in the hands of an individual ruler, whose entire family profited as a result. In turn, it was in the family's best interest to support the ruler. William's brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who took part in the campaign himself, provided financial backing for a hundred ships. Forbidden as a member of the clergy to wield a sword, he held a cudgel instead. William's other brother, Robert de Mortain, paid for a further 70 boats.
The ships were over 20 metres long and up to five metres wide. They had no deck, but planking drawn to a curve at prow and stern; amidships was a square sail, and a tiller was attached aft on the starboard side. This was the type of boat sailed by the Vikings, a reminder that the Normans themselves were originally Northmen. During the ninth and tenth centuries the Vikings had used such craft to occupy the coastal regions of Europe, founding new states of their own in England, Southern Italy and Normandy. To help him take England, William, himself a descendent of the Vikings, exploited the expansionist designs of the ruling Norwegian king, Ha-rald Hardrada. He persuaded him to invade Northumberland, the most northerly county of today's England. The Norwegians landed and forced Harald to march north to meet them. The invading army was routed and the Norwegian king killed in the struggle.




King Harold falls in battle


Scarcely had Harold warded off the Norwegian attack when William landed south of Dover. Harold rode swiftly south, arriving with an army worn out after a hard-won battle and two forced marches. Taking up position on a ridge, he
had ditches dug to thwart the Norman cavalry and waited for the onslaught. The Normans stormed the English position again and again, but could make no headway against the English shield-wall. Their principal obstacle was the English axemen, who cut down even their horses. One chronicle reports that "three horses were killed under William, one with a blow so great that the English axe, after severing his horse's head, cut deeply into the earth."
Realizing the ineffectiveness of frontal attack, William used cunning instead: making a pretence of retreat, he lured the English from their position. With their powerful formation broken, the English were no match for the Normans. Two brothers of Harold, both generals in his army, were killed. One of them had pleaded in vain with Harold to leave the fighting to them; for Harold, whether under coercion or not, had sworn allegiance to William, an oath that could not be broken lightly. Harold, too, fell in battle. The inscription in the detail reproduced above left reads: "King Harold is killed." The English king is shown with an arrow piercing one eye. The hanging shows the maimed king struck down by a Norman cavalryman while attempting to extract the arrow. The cavalryman was later banished by William, according to one chronicle, for to kill a defenceless opponent constituted a breach of chivalrous conduct.
In fact, such battles involved relatively little slaughter. The corpses heaped in the lower border are an exaggeration. Vassals, fighting to advance the - more or less - private interests of their feudal lords, were inclined to see their own interests best served by maintaining a certain reticence in battle. In any case, it was less worth their while to kill an enemy than take him prisoner. Prisoners could be exchanged for a ransom: the more powerful the captive, the greater the sum that could be demanded for his release. The mutual obligations agreed by vassals and their lords usually foresaw the provision of ransom, should either party fall into enemy hands.
Fighting took place only at certain times. In winter, at night and in wet weather, swords remained in their sheaths. Furthermore, William's war was hardly a protracted affair: the Battle of Hastings, important as it was, was over in a day. By the evening of 14 October 1066 the last obstacle had been removed between William and London, where he was crowned on 25 December. Thus England and France began a period of common history that was to last 400 years.
And since history is always the history of the victor, the Normans provided a testimony to their conquest of England in the form of the Bayeux Tapestry. Hung in the church of a bishop who rose to power in the land of the vanquished, the embroidery served both to vindicate and to advertise. No less astonishing than the quality and scope of the work is the fact that it has survived for 900 years - despite the Hundred Years' War between England and France, the repeated destruction of the cathedral, the struggles between Calvinists and Catholics and the Revolution of 1789.
The hanging was to serve propaganda purposes on two further occasions. Contemplating an invasion of England at the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon had the historic tapestry brought to Paris for six months in 1803 in order to rouse "the passions and general enthusiasm of the people". While Adolf Hitler was concocting plans for an invasion, a book on the tapestry appeared under the title: "A sword thrust against England." But the Norman Duke William has remained the sole conqueror of the island kingdom.

Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen
 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

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