The Bayeux Tapestry, Essay Example

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Essay

Part I

Image 12 seems to present a ritual, or a kind of treaty or agreement being reached.  Viewing from left to right, there is a consistent sense that whatever is occurring is important because witnesses appear fixed on the scene.  Two soldiers are gesturing broadly to it, indicating urgency.  Beyond them, other soldiers on horseback are either crossing into the castle to attend the event or are standing guard.   The authority of William is made plain by his being seated on a throne, and by the scepter in his arm.  Then, the arms of Harold, to his right, portray submission.  Clearly, some sort of pact is being sealed.  Between the two men, in fact, is a large, rolled parchment, indicating a treaty.

In images 14 and 15, the extreme left reveals Edward, seated.  He appears to be old and infirm, which suggests death, and he is gesturing as though to issue a final command.  A herald seems to then be spreading the news of the king’s death to a large assembly, and there is a presentation of the king being laid to rest.  A guard is pointing to the funeral, perhaps discussing the succession with his fellow guards.  The body is carried away, and there are various representations of mourning.  After this is Harold’s coronation.  He is crowned, occupying the throne, and an archbishop is at hand to conduct the rite.  To the right, two groups of men are engaged in some forms of discussion, which appears heated.  The second group is pointing to the sky, perhaps noting some celestial sign.

Images 17 and 18 begin with what looks to be an important conference, as the men wear robes and are seated on a fine couch.  This moves into a scene of workers cutting down trees to craft boats, and careful construction going into them.  A group of five appear to be playing instruments, perhaps marking the importance of the upcoming expedition, and other workers transport suits of armor or chain mail.  Lastly, carts are being loaded for the journey.

Images 22 and 23 seem to present an arrival, during which camp is made.  A man is swinging an ax by a bull, but there is no actual violence in 22, so the effort is likely going to killing meat for provisions.  Supplies are being carried, cooking is being done over great kettles, and some other type of construction or work is executed.  Behind all of it are huts or homes, indicating a village being occupied.  From there, the scene conveys the slaughter of meat and the king dining amidst heated conversation.  A servant below the table is burdened with food, his posture indicating humble submission.  Further consultation occurs under an awning between William and two associates, and there are soldiers practicing for battle beyond them.

In image 29, battle is clearly underway.  Based on the representations of the horses, a charge is being led by William’s cavalry, assaulting the English infantry set with shields to confront them.  Spears are flying and dead bodies can be seen on the ground.  More ambiguous is the right side, in which an English soldier seems to be holding up a boy or man, either wounded or being offered up for some reason.   The soldiers at the extreme right also present ambiguity; it seems as though they may be fleeing a lost battle, although they may be engaged with the enemy from another direction.

Part II

The Bayeux Tapestry has long been considered both a valuable, historical record and a biased account of an event that transformed England and vastly affected European life.   Much controversy surrounds the supposed alliance between King Harold and Duke William.  It is not established whether Harold was acting purely in his own interests, seeking to use William to gain the crown for himself, or if he truly supported the Norman overthrow of his nation.  At the same time, and great provocations aside, it is unlikely that William would have attempted such a conquest without some strong feeling of unconditional support from Harold and his sympathizers in England.  All this notwithstanding, the tapestry is important historically because it does document the actions preceding the conquest.  No tapestry can reveal what is being said between the workers or the nobles, but the chain of events is clearly logical.  That the tapestry was executed in the 11th century also goes to its veracity.  These were the people who had lived through the event, and they knew exactly how, in pragmatic terms, the sequence of actions played out.  The same people, of course, knew as well the crafts and preparations necessary for such an undertaking.

The problem of credibility, however, lies less with the tapestry than with who commissioned it.  It is generally accepted that the art work, as with most art of the era, was a form of political propaganda, in this case glorifying William’s actions and heroism.  The tapestry is French, so it is likely that Norman interests were behind it, which would seek to promote William as a savior, not as a conqueror.   Any such bias, naturally, affects the reliability of the work.  The tapestry is not blatantly pro-Norman, as even the battles scenes do not depict a strong enemy defeating a weak and frightened one.  This suggests greater credibility, or a more realistic account.  Nonetheless, other issues of reliability are present if only by virtue of what the work actually is.  Again, it is a visual representation, so interpretation of scenes is considerably broad.   As noted, there is Harold seemingly swearing obedience to William, but it cannot be known from the tapestry what was behind the act, and if it was at all sincere.  If anything actually renders the Bayeux Tapesty a historically reliable work, in fact, it is not so much its account of the Norman Conquest, but its presence as a piece commissioned to support a certain political perspective.

The most striking aspect of the sense of medieval life the tapestry offers is the universal one of rank and society.  The work never directly identifies individuals as peasants, yet the glorification of royalty and military figures reveals how critical a hierarchy was to the period.  Workers toil to build boats and make armor, so the impression is of an entire class existing only to serve higher interests.  It may be that no era in humanity’s history more relied on an absolute placement of people in specified ranks, and the tapestry certainly indicates that this was the way of the world then.  Beyond this element, there is a powerful and consistent connection made between human affairs and divine supervision.  For example, as Edward is dying, there appears to be a hand emerging from heaven, offering some kind of direction.  This Christian ideology is also reinforced by the text in the tapestry, often referring to sacraments;  the hand and arm gestures that reflect benedictions; and the images woven or embroidered below each scene, which appear to be primarily symbolic animals.

Pragmatically, what the characters actually do fits in perfectly with ideas of medieval existence.  Meat is hunted, cooked, and consumed in basic ways.  Simple tools do the hard work of cutting and building, and it is evident that the most valuable tool is the peasant.  These medieval realities then underscore an aspect created by all of the above, from societal rank to theology; namely, in this world, life is completely dependent on the will of great men and on the battles they wage.  In the tapestry, it seems as though there is a consistent passivity in the lower orders.  Even as they work to assist the preparations, they are to be nothing but the victims or beneficiaries of whatever outcome the great men create.  This, of course, more powerfully reinforces that element of it, which is the hierarchy of the era.  The tapestry reveals that, in these centuries, there were kings and dukes, but there were far more pawns, and all life was ordered to comply with a system based on the supremacy of the few as ordained by God.

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