More on the Bayeux Tapestry

I wrote, about six weeks ago, about the Bayeux Tapestry, specifically about a necktie I bought that reproduces some of the Tapestry’s images from the story of William the Conqueror’s conquest of England and his defeat of King Harold II in 1066.

I picked up recently a history of the Tapestry and the Conquest, Andrew Bridgeford’s 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry, curious to find out more about the Norman Conquest and the tangled succession question that led William to conquer England.

The Bayeux Tapestry is generally accepted to have been created to celebrate William’s conquest and honor William’s half-brother, the Bishop Odo of Bayeux, a minor character in the saga of the Norman Conquest who has a prominent role in several scenes depicted in the Tapestry. Bridgeford’s thesis, though, is that the Tapestry is actually a subversive reading of the history of the Conquest that tells the history of 1066 from an Anglo-Saxon viewpoint, painting Harold as a more heroic character than in history, far from being the usurper that William had to put down in the accepted version of history. More importantly, Bridgeford points out that the Tapestry, though it depicts the Norman conquest of England, actually downplays the role of William the Conqueror and instead elevates the role of Bishop Odo and Count Eustace of Boulogne, a rival claimant to the English throne who fought alongside William at the Battle of Hastings, in the story.

Is Bridgeford successful in supporting his thesis? He argues his case well but without passion, with many passages telling us what each individual scene depicts and how that depiction compares to contemporaneous histories of the era as written in both Normandy and England. Some of his ideas, such as the identity of the dwarf, Turold, identified on the Tapestry, are interesting but are ultimately unsupportable speculation.

The book is an easy read. The writing isn’t complex, the ideas see adequate development. Bridgeford makes a good case for a subversive reading of the Bayeux Tapestry. Does 1066 belong in the library of amateur medievalists? Well, maybe not. The book tries to be both a general introduction and a specialist’s text and does neither entirely well. For readers curious about the Bayeux Tapestry other books would provide a better introduction to the Tapestry and the historical events it depicts. 1066 is, at best, merely the contrarian viewpoint and, for full effect, requires some familarity with the historical question of 1066.

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