The alternation between present and past time in the telling of the Bayeux Tapestry story
By George Beech
Annales de Normandie, Vol. 58:1-2 (2008)
Introduction: When an anonymous artist designed the Bayeux Tapestry shortly after the Norman conquest of England he presented some of the action as taking place in the present time and some in the past. This becomes clear through his use of the present and the present perfect verb tenses in the inscriptions accompanying the visual scenes. Thus the inscription for the coronation scene of Harold reads, “Hic dederunt Haroldo coronam Regis”, “Here they have given Harold the crown of the king,” and describes this as already having taken place. Then the next scene pictures Harold sitting crowned on the throne and the inscritpion tells us, “Hic residet Harold rex Anglorum”, “Here sites Harold king of the English”. This sequence ends three scenes later with a portrayal of an English boat sailing to Normandy with an inscription reading “Hic navis Anglica venit in terram Willelmi ducis”, “Here an English ship has come to the country of Duke William.” In the first and third of these inscriptions the author looks upon the crown giving and the voyage as completed actions of the past as an historian would do, but the second one, Harold seated on his throne, he presents as taking place right now as he looks on. Had he been consistent in his use of verb tenses, the second inscription would read, “Here Harold was sitting (or, sat) as king of the English”, not “is sitting”.
Far from being an isolated case this switching of tenses, or time periods, in the portrayal of actions and events occurs repeatedly throughout the entire tapestry and can hardly have resulted from carelessness on the part of the author of the inscriptions but must have been part of his plan for presenting the story of the Conquest of England. Scholars of the Tapestry are aware of this trait but to my knowledge not many have commented on it or attributed any importance to it. However, I will explain in what follows, my analysis of the juxtaposition of these two tenses persuades me that the Tapestry designer employed them in order to enhance the interest of the story. In other words for him it was a narrative technique in his presentation of the Conquest. The best way to bring this out is to analyze briefly in chronological order each of the episodes in the Tapestry’s account of that Conquest.