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As good as a book in Bayeux

I first saw the Bayeux Tapestry 50 years ago. I vividly remember looking at it, but nothing about getting there or who else was present. On this trip people like to tell me about it. It was in the Bishop’s palace then, I am told more than onceThank you, I know. I remember the room, walking slowly around the walls on which the famous tapestry was displayed. It’s much smaller than you think. Thank you, yes, I’ve seen it before. Why do they still say that Harold was killed by an arrow in his eye? That was disproved a long time ago. I did know this had been challenged, but it is a compelling image. History is written by the victors, you know. Yes I know.

A visit to Bayeux

So what am I doing writing about the Bayeux Tapestry on a book blog? I’ll make the case that the tapestry is as good as a book. It tells a good story and there are good stories to be told about it too. In June I spent a few days in Normandy in northern France and the highlight of the trip was the visit to Bayeux.

The story of the Bayeux Tapestry (1)

The story told by the tapestry is an historical account of the conquest of Anglo-Saxon England by William of Normandy. The cast of characters are strong: holy King Edward, Duke Harold who fought two major battles in a matter of months and Duke William the Bastard. The story is told that King Edward, being without a son, decides to recommend that William of Normandy will succeed him. Harold, an English duke, sails to France to tell William, but is captured and rescued by the William. Harold swears to support William on Edward’s death, but breaks his promise soon after. William creates a navy and sails across the Channel with his army and defeats Harold in the Battle of Hastings.

The story of the Bayeux Tapestry (2)

Who made the tapestry and why? The conventional story is that Odo, bishop of Bayeux and half-brother of William, made it to celebrate the conquest in which he had taken part. It is thought that it was made in Canterbury, probably in the last years of the 11thcentury. The first authenticated reference is not until the 15thcentury, when it was reported that it was displayed annually in July in the Cathedral at Bayeux. The tapestery survived fire at the cathedral, pillaging in the 100 years war, and an attack on the cathedral by the Huguenots in 1562. Napoleon sent it to his museum, later the Louvre. It returned to Bayeux in 1804 where it remained until 1941 when it taken to safety in the Louvre again. It is said that the Germans planned to transfer it to Berlin – perhaps because it was a good example of defeating the English – and were on the point of doing this immediately after the D Day landings in 1945. The plan was detected by the decoders at Bletchley, the Resistance were warned and sent armed men to guard it. It was returned to Bayeux in 1945, and is now housed in a former seminary, converted into a tourist centre for those who want to view it today. There is a copy on display in Reading Museum, made by Victorian embroiderers. President Macron has agreed to lend it to the British Museum, probably in 2022 when the Bayeux museum will be refurbished.

The Bayeux Tapestry

It is not a tapestry at all – tapestries are created on frames. This would be better described as an embroidery – the designed made by stitching in wool on canvas.

The story is told in one long bande desinee, 68.5 metres long; the central panel that tells the story is about 33cms high and has been numbered to 58, probably in the 18thcentury. The central panel is decorated top and bottom with friezes of about 7 or 8 cms. It has been damaged and repaired over the years.

Some details of the Bayeux Tapestry

As we say, history is written by the victors. Women did not feature. There are only 4 women on the tapestry, three of them in the main panel.

  1. One woman is being abused or chastised physically. It is not clear what is happening in this episode, nor even who Aelfgifu was or why she was being cuffed by the cleric. Or what the man below her is doing.
  2. When Edward died, it was recorded elsewhere that Queen Edith was present, and an unnamed woman is depicted kneeling and weeping in the tapestry (see above).
  3. Later we see a woman leading a small boy as they escape a manor set alight by William’s men.

  1. There is a tiny naked woman with a tiny naked man on the lower frieze below the meeting of Harold and William in France (panel 13). According to my book, it is ‘an erotic scene, the significance of which is a mystery here’.

My favourite detail, among the many beautiful and historically useful illustrations, are the bare legs of the men as they wade in the sea, load horses, build ships, launching, land and so forth. At other times leggings are worn.

There are theses to be written about the illustrations in the friezes. We do not know the significance of the animals, some mythical, birds, snakes, naked men, artisans, farmers, centaurs, amputated limbs, archers, weapons, shields and so forth. The layer under the battle is particularly violent, while the upper row depicts bird after bird interspersed with indeterminate beasts, some of which seem to be shouting at the warriors.

So when I say it’s as good as a book, I mean there is a strong plot, lots of detail, some characterisation of the main players and plenty to argue about. The details of the telling test my O level Latin: most people can understand ET HIC DEFUNCTUS EST. The words are less important than the pictures. Everyone has seen the pictures.

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Stitching up our rights

I expected to be interested in the Magna Carta Exhibition at the British Library. You can’t take the history degree out of the girl. But I didn’t expect to be moved, to be so moved. This was my response to Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta embroidery currently on display alongside the main exhibition. Another crossover arts piece and like Woolf Works it begins with words.

The Magna Carta

If you didn’t know that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, 800 years ago, you must have been out of the country. The media loves a round-numbered anniversary and so do museums and governments. The original Magna Carta was signed by King John under duress from his barons who were objecting to his arbitrary justice and tyrannical rule. The document was basically a peace treaty and it represented John’s acquiescence to the demands of his barons. It was promptly annulled by the Pope. The settlement with the barons had lasted less than three months.

More important than John’s immediate struggle with his barons, the Magna Carta came to stand for the guarantee of rights for people all over the world. Initially, of course it was only men the barons who mattered. In subsequent struggles with the monarchy the clauses were revised and the document rewritten, so there are now many versions. The idea of a guarantee of rights was taken up by other British men (The Chartist movement), by women (The Suffragettes), by the French Revolutionaries and by those subjected to colonial rule, in C18th US and elsewhere. Nelson Mandela referred to it and to British justice in his famous and final speech at the Rivonia Trial in 1964: ‘…I am prepared to die.’

Only three of the original clauses are still in force. The rights of the Church and of the City of London featured in the original Magna Carta as the first and ninth clauses respectively. Individual freedoms were placed much lower. But here is the essence of subsequent claims to individual legal rights:

Clause 29: NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right. (From Wikipedia entry accessed 10.6.15)

Note we are talking about free men – not about women at all. The number of freemen in the C13th was limited and women didn’t get a look in until much, much later (ie C20th).

181 Votes for W Magna C

Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

I have long enjoyed Cornelia Parker’s work, especially Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View aka the Exploding Shed (1991), and also the witty and alternative items she submitted to the Turner Prize in 1997.

I like how she makes us look at something in a different way, shows us the underbelly of her subjects, and involves others in the production: steamroller operators, Royal Artillery explosives experts and so on. She is inventive and inviting.

181 ContributorsThe finished Magna Carta embroidery is 13 meters long. In this form it recalls the Bayeux Tapestry, albeit is laid on a table and not displayed on a wall. Its creation was a joint enterprise of people involved with the legal and penal systems of our country – prisoners, judges, lawyers, civil liberties campaigners, MPs – as well as professional embroiderers.

It is not the document itself that is embroidered, but a wikipedia page. A nice touch to indicate the wikiness of the treatment of the Magna Carta over the centuries, constantly updated by users.

Here is why I was so moved:

  1. The aesthetic pleasure of the embroidery itself. The detail of the embroidered text and wiki images are a pleasure in themselves. Who can deny the skill of the embroiderers who have reproduced the postage stamp images from the webpage? They are objects of great beauty and skill. And even the underside gives great pleasure. The photographs in the British Library pack include many of the underside. 181 word
  2. The democratic nature of the enterprise, celebrating the combined efforts of many to secure the rights and freedoms of the people of the UK and beyond. Magna Carta is about our rights in law. Every conceivable person – nearly 200 people – associated with the law that you have heard of stitched a word or more. There are famous prisoners and many referred to only by their first names, mostly men. Julian Assange, Moazzam Begg (formerly held in Gitmo), judges, QCs (Michael Mansfield QC, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC), Gareth Pierce (solicitor), campaigners and other relevant stitchers: Jon Snow (broadcaster), Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia), MPs, Alan Rusbridger (former editor of the Guardian) and Edward Snowden.
  3. The work was created by and realises the principles of freedom, collaboration, creativity and democracy.
  4. Our Human Rights Act is in danger. The new government threatens to repeal and replace the legislation. The outcomes are not likely to enhance our freedoms or further the principles of universal entitlement to rights.
  5. Needlework is a political act in Magna Carta (An Embroidery). Exploring how traditional and female crafts can be political acts has always interested and excited me. The Suffragettes used “An Army of Banners” to draw attention to its claims. (The blog Woman and her Sphere has an interesting post about the Artists’ Suffrage League: here.) And a large data base of banners and banner designs were collected by the Women’s Library and can be viewed here. Think of all those Trades Unions’ banners. There is a good tradition of subversive quilting as well. 181 huddersfield-banner
  6. Words have power. Ideas have power. Words, and embroidery (and ballet) carry ideas. Although the Suffragettes found words did not get attention fast enough!

181 WSPU banner

And a late and much admired addition to the Suffragette banners in this post is this one designed by Mary Lowndes:

Used with permission: From LSE Library’s collections, TWL.1998.32

Used with permission: From LSE Library’s collections, TWL.1998.32

Thanks to Eileen (my co-author) for discussing the experience with me and giving shape to some of the blog. Mistakes are mine, of course.

I shall be at Eye of the Needle: Art, Stitch, Partnerships and Protest on Monday 13th July at the British Library. See you there?

MAGNA CARTA Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1st September 2015.

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker can be seen (free) at the British Library until 24th July 2015

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker. A pack including fold out reproduction of front and back, photographs, interviews and essays. Published by the British Library.

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