In this issue:A Needle in the Right Hand of God is an an analysis of the Bayeux Tapestry's creation, its importance, and its purpose. The Crimson Portrait is about a group of doctors, scientists, nurses, and an artist who cared for soldiers with severe facial wounds, becoming developers of a new branch of medicine: plastic surgery. What is the What is a paean to the human spirit which can grow and thrive in the face of incredible deprivation
A NEEDLE IN THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD
The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry
by R. Howard Bloch, © 2006, Random House, Hardback; 204 pp
Anyone who loves needlework, or history, or art, or Latin, or England, or France, is probably going to love this book. Professor Bloch, Director of the Humanities Division and Sterling Professor of French at Yale, has given us a detailed account, not just of the history of the Bayeux Tapestry, but also an analysis of its creation, its importance, and its purpose.
Bloch’s father was an expert in the manufacture of finished cloth, and his mother was a textile engineer. Apparently he absorbed a great deal of knowledge and interest in his subject at an early age.
He begins with a vivid (and exciting) description of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when Harold, recently crowned King of England, was defeated by William of Normandy. The battle began when a Norman poet and jongleur named Taillefer rode out in front of the troops, tossed his sword into the air, and spurred his horse toward the English line. He beheaded one of the enemy, picked up the head and holding it up, began to sing the “Song of Roland.” Taillefer was killed, but the Normans surged forward, picking up the Song.
It was a long and bloody fight, ended only when a Norman arrow struck Harold in the eye, killing him instantly. He was then hacked to pieces, so mauled that later on his wife was required to identify the headless body “by certain marks.”
The Battle of Hastings was one of the great turning points in history, resulting eventually in the melding of Anglo Saxons and Normans to create a new England, a process of well over a hundred years.
No one knows who commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry, that long, narrow embroidery (it is not actually a tapestry) that celebrates the events of 1066. The most likely candidates are William’s wife, Queen Mathilda, or his half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. Whoever it was probably had little to do with the actual construction beyond approving, perhaps, the design.
The flax that made the linen fabric came from either southeastern England or western France. The stitchery itself is wool, with one exception. Bloch envisions long tables, with many embroideresses working at a time. He believes that the Tapestry itself was created in southern England, where the textile arts were more advanced than they were in Normandy at that time.
He posits a Master Designer who planned out the project, and possibly sketched the design on the linen with lead. The determination that this designer was male rests on the fact that both the edge decoration and the main portions of the Tapestry are done in a style common to illuminated manuscripts created in monasteries of the time. There are also Latin words incorporated into the pictures, much like the subtitles of early movies, and there were few women who could read and write in those days.
However, one can make the argument that among the nobility there certainly were a few women who were literate, and it is women who would have had the requisite knowledge of the needlework involved. Possibly the “Master Designer” was female, or a female working in conjunction with a man.
In the middle of the book is a marvelous section with a reproduction of the entire Tapestry, panel by panel, numbered so that Bloch can refer to it throughout his text. The color and images are clear and sharp, and if size bothers, a small magnifying lens (something owned by most needle-workers) will do nicely.
One of the delights of this book is that Bloch’s chapters jump back and forward in time, following Hastings, for instance, with a chapter on the whereabouts of the Tapestry during World War II, when the Nazis were very interested in securing it.
There is also a chapter on the Treasure of Sutton Hoo, found in an archaeological dig in southern England in the late 1930’s. The excavation of a longship proved to be the gravesite of one of England’s early kings who died in the seventh century. This rather long aside seems at first not to have much to do with the Tapestry and/or 1066, but Bloch ultimately ties them together in a discussion of the extensive commerce and cultural influences among the early peoples of England — commerce that stretched from the Middle East to Europe to Scandinavia. He then relates these influences to the culture that produced the Tapestry.
It is Bloch’s contention that the Tapestry was created to unite the peoples of Normandy and England, more than to celebrate William’s victory. He makes a pretty good case for himself.
Even someone like this reviewer, whose needlework consists of sewing up torn seams or turning up a hem, will find this narrative compelling. And if you remember enough Latin to decipher the inscriptions (“Hic Portaur corpus Eadwardi Regis Ad Ecclesiam Sclapu Petri” — “Here is carried the body of King Edward to the Sepulcher of Peter”), you’ll have lots of fun.