The Bayeux Tapestry and the Vitae of Edward the Confessor in Dialogue
Jennifer N. Brown
Peregrinations: International Society for the Study of Pilgrimage Art, Vol.2:4 (2009)
One of the mysteries of The Bayeux Tapestry is its bias: was this depiction of the events of 1066 meant to be from the point of view of the conqueror or the conquered? Seen from one angle, it seems profoundly Norman, vilifying Harold with his hunched supplicant stance in front of William when in Normandy, his scowl when enthroned as the king, and his ignoble end with an arrow through his eye. On the other hand, scholars have long pointed to Edward’s death scene as showing a tendency towards the Anglo-Saxon; here, Edward and William touch hands in seeming mutual understanding about what is to happen next, despite Edward’s earlier promise to William of the kingdom, and possibly represents Edward’s sanctioning Harold’s reign. The power the tapestry has held over scholars and visitors over the past several centuries is partly due to this ambiguity. This, of course, has led to one of the other great debates surrounding the tapestry: which side of the channel was in charge of its production? More than one scholar has concluded that the Tapestry leads the viewer to see one version of events, usually the Norman one, while another is encoded more surreptitiously throughout the images.
I am sorry to say that I am not writing to resolve any of these grand questions. However, I do want to explore some of the ways in which medieval English viewers – both soon after the conquest (when the Tapestry was made) to centuries later – may have “read” the Tapestry. Held against the many widely-disseminated vitae of Edward the Confessor, the chameleon-like nature of the Bayeux Tapestry’s bias is even more starkly felt. The vitae – which run temporally from mid-eleventh century to the late Middle Ages and linguistically from Latin to Anglo-Norman to English – can be interpreted as a kind of mirror to the changing public view of the events of 1066. In dialogue with the Tapestry, they can show how neither the events themselves or their meanings were ever fixed, on paper or by thread. In this essay, I explore how readers of the vitae may have read the tapestry, and how what is depicted there would have molded to each bias and perspective presented in the vitae. This is most easily exemplified in the images of Edward’s death and burial in the Tapestry and how these events are interpreted and altered in the various vitae.