Hicks, Carola Entries

The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece


Those of you who read my comments on the first few chapters of Carola Hicks's awkwardly-titled The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece, are probably wondering whether I was ever able to get over my yearning for a close reading of the Tapestry, and enjoy this book for what it is: a "biographical" account following the artifact through the thousand years since its composition, and all of the social and ideological battles that have been fought over and around it during that time. And the answer would be, more or less, yes. I'm still interested in reading something geared more toward artistic analysis of the Tapestry—something that "fondles its details," as Nabokov might say—but Hicks's approach proved quite juicy as well, and brought up some interesting points of consideration.

She has plenty of material to work with. The Bayeux Tapestry has simply been around longer than most non-classical works of art in the Western canon, and when you combine that with the fact that by its very nature it exists on the boundary between two nations—depicting as it does the invasion of England by the Normans, a people from what is now the northwest corner of France—it's not surprising that the work has become the site of a number of nationalistic and ideological struggles throughout the years. As "antiquarianism" (the 17th and 18th-century precursor to anthropology) gained ground, for example, the Tapestry was the subject of a hilarious series of sniping pamphlets between Frenchmen and Englishmen, who argued bitterly about whether the thing was a "French" or an "English" artifact. The fact that the modern "English" have long incorporated Norman heritage into their identities; that "Normans" were not exactly French to begin with; and that the Tapestry's own narrative is remarkably sympathetic to those on both sides of the Conquest; did not stop pamphleteering gentlemen of leisure from interpreting the embroidery in the most jingoistic terms, such as in this nuanced reading from 1742:

We see the faithless, inconstant and perfidious disposition of the French and their behavior towards us. We see, then as now, the genius of the English, brave, generous, honest and true. We may learn hence never to trust the bonne foy of that nation, but expect they will still be the same, as from the beginning.

The question addressed in my previous posts, about who did the actual embroidering on the Tapestry, was actually a topic of hot debate during this time. The French contingent attempted to emphasize the work's Frenchness by claiming that it was embroidered by the French queen Mathilde (wife of William the Conqueror), whereas the English contingent tried to emphasize the opposite by claiming that it was embroidered by English monks or nuns, on English soil. As far as I can tell, this debate is still very much alive, with no one definitive interpretation emerging—although the theory that it was commissioned by Odo, designed by a monk and executed in England seems to be the most popular.

For their side, the French used the Tapestry when convenient to serve as a model for current events. Napoleon, for example, had his arts-and-culture man Denon arrange an exhibition of the Tapestry in the newly-converted Louvre, in order to drum up popular support for the idea of a Napoleon-led invasion of England. He even went so far as to plant pieces of information in the press (which he controlled) to the effect that a comet had recently been seen in the skies—just like the one in the Tapestry that heralds the downfall of Harold and the arrival of William the Conqueror. Clearly, whatever Napoleon wanted to do must be sanctioned by divine right.

In a similar but slightly stranger vein, Heinrich Himmler and the Nazi party were extremely interested in the Tapestry during the Second World War. As far as the Nazis were concerned, the Anglo-Saxon heritage of the pre-Conquest English made them more or less Vikings, which meant that they were more or less German. (I'm betting they did not ask a Norwegian's opinion on this.) Which, in turn, meant that the Bayeux Tapestry could be "reclaimed" as an example of "pure Aryan" art, and removed back to Germany to serve the cause of Nazi propaganda. It was only through the resistance of a few individuals (both German and French), and a series of lucky breaks, that the artwork survived the War and remained in France. This Nazi angle is one of the stories that Hicks is very interested in telling: she opens the book with an anecdote about Himmler ordering the Tapestry removed to Berlin in the last days of the War, and her chapters on WWII are longer and more detailed than most others. Personally, I found that they dragged a bit, but I must admit to being a little "Nazi-ed out" in my reading, so others may feel differently. Not, of course, that Nazis and the Holocaust should not be written and talked about, but I've read a LOT about them and at this point am more interested in other historical periods.

One of the aspects of the book I did find reliably fascinating was Hicks's examination of the social debates taking place around the tapestry: in particular, its relationship to feminism and art theory. In the early Victorian era, when the first rumblings of an organized feminism were afoot, attitudes to embroidery within that nascent movement were very conflicted. For some early feminists, like Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Lamb, embroidery was pointless, infantilizing busy-work, taught to upper- and middle-class women in order to signify that they had nothing important to do and so could afford to waste their time on trifles. These women agitated for a female education closer to that received by boys, emphasizing physical and mental activity over sedentary domestic arts. A different contingent of early feminists, however, looked to the Bayeux Tapestry and other works of needle art as a uniquely female sphere of artistic endeavor—one often unfairly dismissed, yet in truth equal to the male-dominated mediums of painting and sculpture, and in need of rehabilitation in the public eye. Both of these arguments are fascinating, and remarkably similar to debates still raging among feminists in the fiber arts world today. Neither side presents a case I can wholeheartedly agree with, but both provide food for thought, particularly as they intersect with issues of class. (And just to add spice to the mix, still other Victorian critics claimed that the naked figures in the margins of the Tapestry proved it COULDN'T have been embroidered by women, as their native delicacy would never have permitted such lewd subject matter.)

The other unexpectedly thought-provoking thread in Hicks's book was her tracing of aesthetic reactions to the Tapestry through time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, most people were extremely put off by details that I would not even think to criticize: for example, that the colors in the Tapestry are not "true to life," or that a single horse is often portrayed using different colors. See below, for example; the inner side of a horse's back leg is often embroidered in a different color, giving a sense of depth without Renaissance-style perspective.


Similarly, 18th and 19th-century viewers were alienated by the lack of classicism in the style of the Tapestry. They equated "good art" with the ideals of Greek and Roman statuary and the painting that imitated it—illusionistic perspective, clothes that drape "realistically" over a muscled body, and so on—and in many peoples' minds there simply was no other yardstick by which to measure a piece of art. Accordingly, when people started attempting to revive the reputation of the Bayeux Tapestry, they made obsessive parallels to classical art; the only way they could think to elevate public opinion of the Tapestry was to uncover previously-unnoticed similarities to the Greek and Roman style. Only the most sensitive art critics of these times, among them John Ruskin, were able to evaluate the Tapestry on its own merits rather than attempting to imagine it into being as the Roman frieze it so plainly is not. It's fascinating to think that modern viewers, long accustomed to the playful abandonment of perspective pioneered by Van Gogh and others, and the anti-realistic use of color in everything from Picasso paintings to TV commercials, can more easily appreciate the artwork of the Tapestry than people for several centuries before us.

So, despite the occasional slow section, Hicks's Bayeux Tapestry was more than worth my time. I have another, lavishly illustrated book of academic papers on the Tapestry, so hopefully I'll get my fill of both its biographical and textual details.

France Days 13 - 14: Relaxation in Bourg


Delightfully, our last few days have been a bit more laid-back than the average for this trip, so two days have gone by and I don't feel overwhelmed by all the events that I have to tell you. We left the Loire Valley late yesterday morning and headed south, arriving at our vineyard-slash-bed and breakfast early in the afternoon. It's a beautiful place, a 16th-century miniature castle nestled among rolling hills of grapes, just north of Bordeaux. As you drive over the crest of a hill, this view meets your gaze:


The remainder of the experience is as pretty and restful as that sight would indicate. The owners here are the fourth-generation owners of this vineyard on the husband's side. Our room is in the remodeled side tower, with the modern bathroom actually maintaining the round shape of the tower as well as its narrow, archery-friendly windows.


We were in need of a rest, so apart from going out for a casual dinner last night, and a cellar tour and quick market trip this morning, we spent the last few days just lazing about the property. The air smells delicious, the view is spectacular and the water tastes great: what more could we ask? There are even cats.


I've actually been getting a little reading time in over the last two days, which has come to seem like a great luxury—I've barely read a page for the last two weeks, and I'm starting to feel a bit twitchy. I've been enjoying one of the books I picked up in Bayeux, Carola Hicks's The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece. Hicks gives an overview of the Tapestry itself, followed by a chapter about the theories on who could have commissioned the piece, and another on the probable methods of its production. Lots of interesting stuff, including the answers to a couple of questions y'all asked about the Tapestry. I hope you really wanted to know, because here you go!

Stefanie (I think? though now I can't find the comment) wanted to know if it was made by women, and the answer is probably yes. It's likely that women did the actual embroidery—probably English women, and likely nuns living together in a convent. Apparently there were several convents in England that sported highly accomplished embroidery workshops capable of taking on this kind of project. The overall drawing or design would have been created by a man, though, most likely a monk or someone with monastic training, who was familiar with the illuminated manuscripts of the day (the Tapestry borrows a lot of imagery from illumination conventions). The designer is likely to have supervised the whole project, and most of the embroidering would have been done to his strict instructions. Interestingly, the only place in the tapestry where the embroiderers were likely free to express their individual styles, was in the foliage found between the diagonal lines in the upper and lower registers. From the variation in styles along the length of the Tapestry, it seems likely that the designer merely told the women to stitch in some kind of leafy ornament, without getting too specific.

Actually, Hicks brings up the possibility that the Tapestry could even have been commissioned by a woman, rather than by Bishop Odo as generally thought. Edith Godwinson was the widow of Edward the Confessor (whose death sparked the whole struggle for rule of England), and sister-in-law to Harold (his designated heir and the loser at the Battle of Hastings). Hicks points out that Edith was a savvy politician who, very unusually, managed to keep her estates and most of her fortune after the Norman conquest; that, as queen, she had control of one of the most accomplished embroidery workshops in England; that she had previous experience commissioning a piece of propaganda designed to position her family members strategically with the King; and that her attitude toward the invasion, that of an English woman sympathetic to Harold but who nonetheless accepted the validity of the Conquest, would explain the Tapestry's many ambiguities regarding which side had the moral high ground.

Anne was interested in where the Tapestry was made and its use after construction, neither of which are known for sure. As I said, it was probably made in England, where William's court was spending most of its time in those early, contentious days after the Conquest, when rebellions were breaking out all over the countryside. The Tapestry's small size top to bottom means it was likely intended to be viewed at eye level, most likely in the great hall at William's court, where it would flatter the Normans who were involved in the battle, prop up the validity of the court, and impress visitors. But very little is known about what happened to it during the next 300 years, and how it ended up in Bayeux Cathedral in 1476, when it was included in an inventory of that cathedral's possessions. By the late 15th century its use had changed: it was being hung around the top of the nave for just over a week every year in July, to celebrate the feast of the relics on which Harold swore his oath to William. Of course, nobody in the congregation would have been able to see it properly so high up, and none of the church officials seemed very interested in the thing. Nevertheless, they continued to hang it in the nave every year in July, and were still doing so in the early 18th century, when a priest told an interested antiquarian that the annual hanging was in order to air the tapestry out. Essentially, they'd forgotten the original reason for the tradition and were just carrying on out of habit.

Hicks goes on to trace the later history of the Tapestry: its rediscovery by 18th-century antiquarians, the lucky coincidences that allowed it to survive the French Revolution, its use by Napoleon to justify his own invasion of England in the early 19th century, and so on. Although I'm finding this section interesting as well, what I'd really like is more "close reading" of the Tapestry itself, of its details and ambiguities. Hicks may get back to these questions in later chapters, and I'm also hopeful that the other book I bought (which is in French, and focuses on the Tapestry as a Viking chronicle) might scratch that particular itch. In the meantime, the information in Hicks's book about the manner of the Tapestry's construction was well worth the price of admission all by itself.


Our only other major activity over the past few days, beyond napping, reading, and gazing out over the vineyards, was to tour the cellars and vineyards with the other B&B guests. Philippe, our host, led the tour in French, and I understood quite a bit although there was also a lot that slipped past me. The information I did pick up was pretty interesting. Philippe's great-grandparents bought the property, which is in the Côtes de Bourg appellation, north of Bordeaux. French winemaking is highly regulated, and each appellation is limited in the varieties of grape they are allowed to grow. (I think this is something that strikes Americans as bizarre and overly restrictive of our FREEDOM, MAN, but it means that wine from a particular regions will have a generally predictable character, similar to how New World wines are bottled by grape variety.) In the Saumur region of the Loire Valley where we just came from, for example, all the red wine is Cabernet Franc, which happens to be one of David and my favorite grapes. Down here, in this particular appellation, Philippe's reds are blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec grapes, while his whites are Semillon and something else I can't remember. He made the interesting point that if a French winemaker wants to grow a different type of grape ("like they do in the United States," he added) they're free to do so, but any wine from non-approved grape varieties will be bottled as plain table wine, not as the more lucrative and respected fine wines marked with the name of the appellation. Which means it's obviously not a great business decision for the vintners, but it also made me wonder if there's some interesting experimentation going on in the world of table wine production.

There was a hilarious, garrulous older Frenchman on the tour, who asked a lot of questions and aggressively voiced his opinions, sometimes actually shaking his finger at Philippe, although never, despite appearances, actually getting angry. He was just very enthusiastic and invested in every subject that came up. Philippe mentioned that they've been having a drought this year, but that because his vines are quite old, with deep, well-established root systems (some over 60 years old), they're still in pretty good shape. The garrulous Frenchman asked about people speculating on good and bad vintages, and Philippe said that wasn't a big problem because it is somehow controlled, but I didn't catch the finer points. Philippe also talked about his harvesting practices; his harvesting is now done by machine, and the garrulous man had a lot of questions about whether the quality of grape harvests by machine are inferior to hand harvesting. Phillippe answered that there was no noticeable difference; when they first got the machine they did a trial between machine-harvested batches and hand-harvested, and were satisfied with the work of the machine. The garrulous man and Philippe then got into a conversation about how expensive the harvesting machine was, and how capital investments are necessary but burdensome for small businesses. The man then wanted very much to see this famous machine, but unfortunately it was out for repairs prior to the fall harvest.

Philippe showed us the machine that skins and de-stems the grapes and sorts them from their attendant refuse. (This was in a barn with a small hole for the swallows to enter and nest, and suddenly the garrulous man was very intense about swallows. "They're amazing!" he exclaimed. "Every single year, they return to the same place. Generation after generation! Formidable!") We then saw the barrels and heard about the importance of continual tasting during the maturation process, to determine how the wines are shaping up and whether any controls on the temperature or other factors are necessary. Philippe said that he sometimes tastes the wines as often as every day. I noticed that the barrels were labeled "Mendocino," and managed to ask a semi-intelligent question about whether their wines are oaked in French or American oak. Philippe said it depended on the wine: their whites and roses are oaked in American, but their reds in French oak. The garrulous man then demanded whether the American barrels were made from American Oak grown in France, and a whole animated conversation ensued on that subject, with much hand gesturing and the general answer that no, the American oak barrels were imported from California.

We went back outside and looked at the actual vines, with the garrulous man wanting to know the whole story about how the vines are staked an espaliered, which is done by hand here in the winter. The particular vines we were looking at were 15-year-old Merlot, and Philippe mentioned (at a question from the garrulous man) that their main roots are about nine meters deep—part of what helps them withstand drought. Finally, we did a little tasting of the six or so wines produced here, which include a fairly fruity (what I think of as "merlot-y") red and a more tannic/Old World one (both 2007/2008); another red that's older and is almost like a port (2002); a very nice rose which struck me as the most interesting and unusual, kind of "condensed" feeling, and with nice peachy flavors that weren't over-sweet at all (2010); and an oaky white that tasted pretty similar to something from Napa (2010). The garrulous man kept exclaiming at the overly generous pours, and at one point insisted on giving his glass to David ("You have come from a long distance! You must get a good impression of France—and the French!") So there you go, our adventures in wine country. The whole experience was really fun, and had me wondering why we never go check out the vineyards near home, especially since Oregon is pretty much the Pinot Noir capital of the country.


Fittingly, for a day we're staying in a castle, there was a great thunder and lightning storm this afternoon, and the grapes finally got a little water. It was lovely to smell the fresh, cooler air drift in from the vineyard after the huge echoing claps of thunder and flashes of lightning had abated. Tomorrow, we're on to our friends' house in Toulouse, with a stop at the former home of my old buddy Michel de Montaigne. PS: Argh, I have no idea why excerpts from some of these entries are appearing above the header, and I don't have time to sort it out now. Sorry about that!

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography