The Controversial Meanings of the Bayeux Tapestry

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The Bayeux Tapestry, or perhaps more accurately, the Bayeux embroidery, was reported by the BBC in 2012 to have sparked controversial debates once more. The recent debate started when Alexandra Makin, a PhD candidate from the University of Manchester, suggested that the embroidery used in the tapestry is consistent and represents a single style of handiwork. This is contrary to the popular belief that the cloth was worked on by many people, namely nuns, over a period of time. She asserts that it is the cloth drawings under the needle work that shows differences, inferring that the tapestry was completed by specific individuals at the same time. The news report sheds light on one of many controversies about the 900-year-old tapestry that involve who ordered the piece, why, and when. While many scholars agree about the likely commissioner of the work and its dates of origin, the meaning of the cloth is a topic that is still hotly debated.

The tapestry measures over 230 feet in length and depicts the two years leading to the Battle of Hastings. The fateful clash was between the recently crowned King Harold of the English and Duke William of the Normans, in which the Normans decisively won. It is agreed upon by most scholars that the work was annually hung in the Bayeux cathedral, on the anniversary of the dedication of the church (Musset 17). In the tapestry narrative, Harold breaks a scared oath and is subsequently killed in the Battle of Hastings, which awards William the crown of England (Musset 16-17). Sadly, the end of the cloth and its final narrative scenes has been lost, which has led to great debate about the ultimate meaning of the tapestry to its viewers. 

Musset asserts that the meaning of the embroidered work was of a spiritual nature (17). He proposes that the story of the tapestry was not primarily the conquest of England by the Normans, despite it being the focus of many past scholars. Noting that about a third of the tapestry’s length is devoted to events prior to the Battle of Hastings, Musset argues that the cloth’s message was centered on the treacherous actions of King Harold (17). Harold is shown in the tapestry taking an oath over scared relics in the beginning of the tapestry’s narrative but suffered perhaps divine consequences when he later broke the oath and fell bitterly in the Battle of Hastings. Musset declares, “Its purpose was to make the faithful reflect on the sanctity of oaths and the risks incurred by those who breached them” (17). Combined with the commonly accepted belief that the tapestry was commissioned by Bishop Odo, William’s half-brother, Musset finds that the cloth was an object of intentional religious and moral significance (Musset 16-17). In addition, Musset describes the use of language in the piece’s inscriptions as brief, concise, and even technical (38). To Musset, the work was not only designed to provoke religious devotion and piety, but also to project its concepts with utmost efficiency.

Interestingly, C. R. Dodwell offered an opposing explanation of the meaning of the tapestry, one steeped not in religious meaning, but in secular contexts. He states clearly, “Everything is read in feudal and secular terms. There is no spirituality” (48). Dodwell stresses that the depiction of Bishop Odo in the tapestry, contrary to Musset’s view of the Bishop, presented him “in the thick of the battle” and “…never seen in prayer or meditation and never seen in ecclesiastical vestments” (48). Bishop Odo, according to Dodwell, was no spiritual leader of the people with close connections to god. Rather, he was a magistrate with secular interests in power, possessions, and in artistic ornaments (Dodwell 48). In fact, Dodwell even purports that the tapestry may have been commissioned by Odo “...to just this private ostentation and that it formerly decorated one of Odo’s great palaces” (49). In this way, the tapestry was something of an elaborate, artistic reminder of the events leading to the Battle of Hastings (from which he benefitted greatly), commissioned by an extravagant bishop with more interest in power than in god.

Dodwell furthers his irreligious argument by suggesting that the narrative style of the tapestry reflects traditional French epic poems, specifically the chansons de geste, which are secular in nature (50). He suggests striking parallels in the characters of the chansons de geste and the narrative of the characters in the Bayeux Tapestry that justify his position. Much like the characters in the chansons de geste, even people that are doomed in the story to fail, much like King Harold, are still portrayed as strong and able (55). Dodwell elaborates that despite King Harold’s depicted oath-breaking which apparently to lead to his downfall, “…the traitor of the chanson was never weak or feeble. On the contrary, he may be more strong and powerful than the hero who is proportionate in all things” (55). To Dodwell, the tapestry’s meaning is imbedded in a traditional telling of a French epic story and has no more spiritual power vested in it than was in Homer’s epic tale of The Odyssey. 

A third and somewhat combined standpoint comes from Bertrand, who views the tapestry as a work of both politics and of religion. Bertrand suggests however that the work was designed first and foremost to give the victors of the war, the Normans and particularly William and Bishop Odo, justification for their seizing the English crown (31). As an artistic piece of propaganda, the tapestry would not have been classified as minimalism art; however, it would have been something like medieval public relations; a declaration or suggestion of a certain viewpoint to be adopted by the public. Bertrand argues that a literary account of the war and the subsequent Norman victor over England would have been lost on a largely illiterate public, so a visual account was necessary and sufficient (31).  While Bertrand agrees with Dodwell that the tapestry narrative is best understood in the context of traditional French epic poem such as the chansons de geste, she insists that its propagandistic value was probably more fundamental (32). She also agrees with Musset that the work was displayed in a way to remind the public of the sacred nature of oaths and sacred relics, but unlike Musset she stresses the importance of the narrative ending not with the death of the treacherous King Harold, but with the coronation of William, the victor of the war (38). William’s coronation, she believes, was likely a part of the lost ending section of the tapestry, leaving some to incorrectly conclude that religious devotion was the sole purpose of the work (38). To Bertrand, the tapestry had a range of meanings, depending on the viewer of the piece and their relationship to the Normans, the English, and the story of King Harold’s oath-breaking.

Like much of art in human history, there are many perspectives concerning the meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry. Musset emphasized the spiritual context of the work above all else, stressing the placement of the tapestry and the highlighting of the events of King Harold and his subsequent fall in the Battle of Hastings. In opposed to Musset, Dodwell focused on what he believes are the secular foundations of the cloth, rooted in the practical desires of a worldly Bishop and the parallels of the tapestry’s narrative to traditional and secular, epic French poems. Bertrand combined the viewpoints by Musset and Dodwell to emphasize a nuanced interpretation of the tapestry, based on the political and religious standpoint of the viewer. As is with all human art, interpretation is highly subjective and can even change with time. Given this, the “true” meaning of the tapestry as it was intended, may be forever lost in time.

Works Cited

BBC. "BBC News - Bayeux Tapestry 'Made by Same People in Same Place'." BBC - Homepage. BBC, 15 Nov. 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-20332633.

Bertrand, Simone. "A Study of the Bayeux Tapestry." The Study of the Bayeux Tapestry. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1997. 31-38. 

Dodwell, C.R. "The Bayeux Tapestry and the French Secular Epic." The Study of the Bayeux Tapestry. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1997. 47-62.

Musset, Lucien. The Bayeux Tapestry. New ed. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2005.