The Bayeux Tapestry: revelations and mysteries of an embroidery

The Bayeux Tapestry is a unique monument in many ways. Important and difficult to access source in the 11th century, an artistic gem and political work magnifying the achievements of the Conqueror, it has no equivalent. The Bayeux Tapestry - Revelations and mysteries of medieval embroidery by Pierre Bouet, François Neveux and prefaced by Sylvette Lemagnen published by Éditions Sud-Ouest attempts to lift the veil on this embroidery which is so enigmatic still today in certain aspects.

The authors, specialists in medieval Normandy, authors already, with Brian Levy, of a work on the subject entitled The Bayeux tapestry, The art of embroidering history, manage to deal with this "fresco" by not neglecting nor the historical context, nor the artistic aspects of this work listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

An artistic gem and a political work

The first part of the work (76 pages) offers a reproduction of the tapestry cut into scenes. The work is divided into 58 scenes (sometimes themselves cut out). The authors explain and describe in a few paragraphs the meaning of the scene represented above and translate the Latin inscriptions. This layout is very pleasant and allows you to "unfold the frieze" without having to go back and forth in the reading. The second part is devoted to the historical contribution of the tapestry. After a first chapter on the history of the conquest of England confronting the tapestry with written sources, the authors tackle the silences and mysteries that endure. Why are there naked men on the borders of the embroidery? Why did you represent the fables of Phèdre? Numerous colored figures on the details mentioned by the authors accompany the text and prevent the reader from having to find the elements in the first part of the book which once again facilitates the pleasure of reading.

Lovers of bestiaries will be delighted to see the tapestry created by the authors: domestic, wild and fantastic animals come together on three pages. Finally this part ends with all the contributions of the tapestry on the knowledge of everyday life and Anglo-Norman techniques in the 11th century. Of course, weapons and ships are mentioned, but also clothing and banquets. The following part is more interested in the artistic aspects of the work: the production conditions, the dating, the various restorations, the processes used for the narration. The last chapter of this part is devoted to Latin inscriptions and includes a brief study and a corpus on them.

Finally, the last part is dedicated to the history of tapestry. Composed of two chapters, the first is concerned with the commission, the context of production and the political message disseminated through this work. Many hypotheses are formulated and outline a privileged period of understanding between the Normans and the English and allow the authors to put forward a dating hypothesis. The last chapter retraces the history of the tapestry from its commission to the present day, which was not a long quiet river.
Very richly illustrated, the text undeniably illuminates the tapestry. The content but also the context, the technical and artistic aspects of the tapestry are also mentioned. The authors have very well exposed their initial project mentioned in the conclusion of the book to present the latest results of research on this embroidery.

The conclusion presents another important historiographical interest for the reader: to say with honesty what are the contributions of the authors in this work to the knowledge of the Tapestry. While this book presents the work in depth, it has the honesty to set out the different hypotheses and the different arguments behind this or that point. It is therefore both a synthesis and popularization work but also a scientific work which brings new points to the dossier. Popularization does not always consist in presenting a "finished" and consensual result to the reader. In short, a beautiful book.

The Bayeux Tapestry: revelations and mysteries of an embroidery from the Middle Ages, by Pierre Bouet and François Neveux. Editions Ouest-France, November 2013.

Video: The Bayeux Tapestry - Seven Ages of Britain - BBC One (January 2022).