Viewing the Bayeux Tapestry, Now and Then
By Christopher Norton
Journal of the British Archaeological Association, Vol.172:1 (2019)
Abstract: Plans to redisplay the Bayeux Tapestry raise anew the questions as to where and how it was originally intended to be displayed. Analysis of the linen fabric provides new insights into the tapestry’s design and manufacture, and enables its original length to be calculated. Re-examination of the (largely destroyed) 11th-century cathedral at Bayeux and of its liturgical layout demonstrates that the tapestry would have fitted neatly into the nave west of the choir screen. Its narrative falls into three discrete sections that reflect the way in which it would have been hung within the building, and the arrangement of the scenes takes account of the uneven bay-spacings of the nave arcades and the positions of the doorways. It can therefore be concluded that the tapestry was designed for a particular location within the nave of Bayeux cathedral. The cathedral’s liturgical traditions shed light on the way in which the tapestry would have been viewed in the Middle Ages, and the wider implications for the way in which it could and should be viewed today are briefly considered.
Introduction: About twenty years ago I mentioned to a friend that I was planning to write an article about the Bayeux Tapestry. He replied that thinking one had anything new to say on the subject was the first sign of senility. Another colleague ventured that it was a symptom of insanity. Duly chastened, I set the matter to one side. The difficulty is obvious. After almost three centuries of scholarly endeavour, the fundamental questions concerning the patronage and date of the tapestry, its designer and place of creation, its materials and techniques, its intended location, viewers and message have been endlessly debated. It is impossible not to repeat analyses and interpretations that have been made before, often many times. On the other hand, the search for novelty may lead down paths that have previously been left untrodden, perhaps for good reason. The bibliographical challenge has become even more severe over the last twenty years. Hundreds of new publications have appeared, including whole books at the rate of more than one a year. All the while, mistakes and misconceptions accumulate as rapidly as new insights.