Today's Reading

The thrum of audio commentaries intrudes, and while I can block out its babel of different languages, I can't avoid the sonorous soundtracks, the chanting of medieval songsters whose voices follow me—rising and falling, rising and falling—to chorus my meanderings. For the Bayeux Tapestry invites promenading. I stroll along its banks, surprised at how easily, given its vastness, it draws you in to its smallest details: the pattern On a cushion, the emblem on a shield, the liquid spill from a pitcher.

It begins grandly with an ornamented, turreted palace with lions growling below on the border: a symbolic portent of warring kings. Edward, his name writ large above his sewn portrait (the soon-to-be-dead King of England), is counselling his brother-in-law Harold about his mission of peace with France. Seventy metres later, it ends tragically: the border is strewn with the war-dead and there is a final distressing image of a naked and cowering English soldier clutching the torn-off branch of a tree as his only defence.

Unfolding between these two scenes are tales of feasting and farming folk, of spies and ship building, of hunting and harvests, of nobility on horseback and slain unarmoured archers, and of slaughter in the rough fray of battle. Its narrow frieze, only fifty centimetres high, has stylised sentinel trees to separate scenes. Embroidered borders provide an emotive and satirical commentary that amplifies meaning and mood in a procession of symbolic motifs and cameos of everyday life. Text travels across its surface in bold stitching to chronicle characters and events, and the visual story is punctuated by boasts of learning and travel: borrowings from Nordic sagas, images copied from illuminated manuscripts, designs culled from Greek and Roman sculpture and illustrations of some of Aesop's fables, including 'The Fox and the Crow' and 'The Wolf and the Lamb'. This is not just one story. This is a complex, multi-layered series of historical, biblical, mythical and cultural narratives, some of which we can still decipher, but much of which is long lost. We can no longer interpret all the tapestry's double meanings, unravel its intellectual challenges or unpick all the creative connections caught within its coloured threads.

It is generally agreed that the tapestry was designed by a man. The vivid illustrations of war preparations, the knowledgeable portrayal of horses and the detailed attention to weaponry all point to a male provenance. Recent research by the historian Howard B. Clarke of the University College in Dublin strengthens the case. He identifies Abbot Scolland, who died c.1087, the head of the illuminated manuscript scriptorium at St Augustine Monastery, as its likely designer because many of the tapestry's images seem drawn from life or memory and are closely connected to places and people associated with the abbot. Bishop Odo, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, is thought to have commissioned it, although some scholars believe that Queen Edith, the wife of the dead King Edward, was its commissioner, pointing to the earlier precedent of a donation by the widow of the English Earl Brythnoth of an embroidered hanging depicting his achievements, given to Ely Cathedral in AD 991. Conquered Saxon women sequestered in English nunneries are thought to have sewn it. This has been disputed by those who argue a French origin, proposing that the tapestry was created in the textile workshops at the Norman monastery of St Florent of Samur; that the yarn used has similarities with that spun in the Bessin district of Normandy; or that Queen Mathilda, the wife of William the Conqueror, who was known for her embroidery, was its principle author.

What is irrefutable is that English embroiderers were renowned for their craftsmanship in medieval Europe at the time, a reputation endorsed by William of Poitiers, chaplain to William the Conqueror, who reported that 'the women of England are very skilful with the needle'. If, as is widely believed, the tapestry was sewn by different hands, then the involvement of women from the nunneries in and around Winchester and Canterbury (there were seven within a day's ride of each other) seems plausible. Some are known to have housed celebrated workshops of fine embroidery supported by church and royal patrons. The proposition that the embroidery was executed by women of varying skill again points to these nunneries as the origin of creation since, in the eleventh century, they were not merely a cloistered retreat for women with a religious vocation, but also a safe house for others who needed a respectable haven, such as the unmarried daughters of nobles given, sometimes unwillingly, to God, widows lacking male protection, poverty-stricken girls and those whose mental or physical disability made them vulnerable in the wider world.

On the other hand, the Bayeux Tapestry is not typical of English embroidery of the period. It has none of its magnificence wrought in silk and metallic threads, nor its complexity of stitches, although the use of such materials and methods on a tapestry of this scale would have been prohibitively expensive. Controversy and conjecture continue. For all the intensive study, the origins of the Bayeux Tapestry remain a mystery, its provenance speculative, its stitchers unknown, its nationality unresolved, its present sequence questionable, its narrative considered incomplete.
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