The Bayeux Tapestry: Author, Art and Allegory
By Matt Firth
Published Online (2014)
Abstract: The Bayeux Tapestry is a complex visual history of the Norman Conquest of England. Its creation and the story it weaves were defined by its dichotomous authorship, its physical form as textile art and its analogous narrative imagery. An examination of each these aspects of the Tapestry allows us to move closer to identifying the purpose of the unknown author in creating a textile narrative of the Norman Conquest of England. It is argued that the Tapestry was created on the commission of Odo of Bayeux, however authorship resided with his designer and artisans, who wove a story that befitted their patron. In form and narrative, the Tapestry served the purpose of advancing the position Odo of Bayeux, and the Norman claims to England. Though the narrative is not without ambiguity, the message of the moral and political victory of the Norman elite over a perjurious usurper is a constant refrain throughout the Tapestry.
Introduction: The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most immediately recognisable, and most complex sources of European history. It is an artwork that illustrates the Norman Conquest of England and the causes of, and justification for this action. In this it is a product of the period in which it was made and the location of its conception, reflecting the religious and political concerns of Latin Christian Normandy in the late 11th century. Yet to understand the full meaning of the Tapestry, it must be read beyond the layer of the overarching narrative. Allegory, analogy and imagery used by the collaborators of thework have given it complexity beyond a simple chronology of events. In part the complexity and layersof allegory within the Tapestry arise from the authorship of the piece. No single author can be attributed to the creation of the Tapestry, it was a collaboration of patron, designer and artisan. Eachparty had their own contributions that can be teased out from the often ambiguous motifs of the Tapestry. Its visual nature, as a piece of textile art, allowed its authors to adapt symbolic imagery to convey narrative tropes, familiar to a receptive, 11th century audience. The use of embroidery as narrative was not unique in its time, and the patron of the Tapestry made a conscious decision to depict the story of the Conquest in this manner. Nonetheless, the Tapestry is unique in form as a surviving history of the Conquest, though the narrative and themes of the Tapestry reflect those of other, near contemporaneous, literary sources relating the story. In common with these, the Tapestry reflects a dual nature of religious allegory embedded in political actuality that is common in medieval sources, where religion and politics are inextricably entwined. Within this complex tapestry of author, form and narrative, it is possible to identify the motives for the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry, and each in turn must be examined.
The Bayeux Tapestry was not created to record the political history of Normandy and England from 1064-1066. Neither was it was created to provide an official Norman account of the Conquest. It was created to satisfy its patron. This does not preclude the Tapestry’s usefulness as a Norman history of the Conquest, however, as per Frank Stenton’s oft quoted declaration, ‘the designer … could do no other than follow the tale most acceptable to his patron.’ This creates an interesting dichotomy of authorship. The patron commissioned the Tapestry, but did not create it. The subtleties of designer and artisan add depth and expression to the narrative, yet the interests of the patron informed the Tapestry’s creation and the narrative it wove. The commissioning of the Bayeux Tapestry has been attributed to Odo of Bayeux, William of Normandy’s brother. This provenance would mean the Tapestry was made within memory of the Conquest, and is one of the earliest sources recording the Norman invasion of England.