Saturday, 1 June 2019

Decoding the Bayeux Tapestry by Arthur C Wright

Decoding the Bayeux Tapestry by Arthur C Wright
Published in the UK by Frontline Books on the 7th May 2019.

One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story of the Norman Conquest and the Battle of Hastings as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry is arguably the most widely-known in the entire panoply of English history, and over the last 200 years there have been hundreds of books portraying the Tapestry and seeking to analyse its meanings. Yet, there is one aspect of the embroidery that has been virtually ignored or dismissed as unimportant by historians - the details in the margins. Yet the fables shown in the margins are not just part of a decorative ribbon, neither are they discontinuous, but in fact follow-on in sequence. When this is understood, it becomes clear that they must relate in some way to the action shown on the body of the Tapestry. After careful examination, it has become clear that the purpose of these images is to amplify, elaborate or explain the main story.

In this ground-breaking study, Arthur Wright reveals for the first time the significance of the images in the margins. This has meant that it is possible to see the 'whole' story as never before, enabling a more complete picture of the Bayeux Tapestry to be constructed. This, in turn, has led to the author re-examining many of the scenes in the main body of the work, showing that a number of the basic assumptions, so often taught as facts, have been based on nothing more than reasoned conjecture. It might be thought that after so much has been written about the Bayeux Tapestry there was nothing more to be said, but Decoding the Bayeux Tapestry shows us just how much there is still to be learnt.

I love history books which are written in an engaging style and which open up new ideas about past events. That's exactly what I got in this new tome, Decoding The Bayeux Tapestry by Arthur C Wright. I grew up in Sussex, not far from Hastings, and was taught the official version of the 1066 story at school. That teaching was challenged 2 1/2 years ago when I visited the Bayeux Tapestry in its purpose built museum. I hadn't previously known (or hadn't remembered) that William had been invited to take the English crown for example, or that Harold had visited Normandy soon before the Conquest. While viewing the tapestry, I certainly noticed the friezes of birds and animals above and below the main feature. Other than being amused by their antics, I hadn't given them much thought and the museum audioguide focused on the main story too. Arthur Wright however has taken a closer look at these margins and presents a very convincing case for their relevance and indeed their political colouring of the central narrative.

I hadn't realised, but several of the margin creatures are paired and these pairings match those in Aesop's Fables. These morality tales would have been widely known and the images immediately understood by medieval people, so their inclusion adds a kind of Greek Chorus layer of meaning to the narrative. Other margin animals are displaying emotions such as, say, fear or pride. Wright follows along the whole length of the existing tapestry matching these marginal messages to the central panels and, in doing so, uncovers a far more nuanced and politically devious tale than the one which is traditionally told. In the light of current political shenanigans, Wright's ideas have a strong ring of truth about them!

Wright's language was occasionally too scholarly for me and even my Kindle dictionary failed to explain all his vocabulary. He did also lose me in his more technical battle descriptions, however his enthusiasm for his subject is wonderful to share in. I was reminded of Irving Finkel's The Ark Before Noah and would recommend Decoding The Bayeux Tapestry to readers who liked the style of that book (and vice versa). In fact I got so caught up in Wright's ideas that, having told my partner he really needed to read this book too, I then proceeded to read out so much of it to him that now there's probably not much point him picking it up! If only all history books could inspire me like this.

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  1. I read an article about tapestry and Normandy.
    This book looks good to go through, thanks.

  2. I am glad you were able to enjoy this one so much! I love when you get to have a personal connection to some of the history you're reading about. And it sounds like even though you knew some things, you were able to learn some new ones as well which is just what you want from a book like this ^.^

    Olivia-S @ Olivia's Catastrophe

  3. The BT is the Bretons' perspective on events, particularly (Scenes 10 to 53) Count Alan Rufus's account. He was the second son of Eudon, Duke of Brittany. Eudon was an elder maternal first cousin to King Edward and a double-cousin to Duke William. Alan Rufus later won the heart of Harold's orphaned daughter Gunhild of Wessex.

    Both of Alan's parents had descents from Charlemagne. His mother Orguen's ancestors included Breton counts named Alfred and Alfrond. On his father's side, one ancestor was Duke Alan II of Brittany who grew up in England during the reigns of Queen Aethelflaed and Kings Edward and Aethelstan.