© Michael Leete 2005
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The edges of the Tapestry carry an embroidered border that is about eight centimetres in width. The Tapestry opens with a vertical, scrolled border that flows into the upper border and stands on the lower border. If the embroidered upper and lower borders had continued for the full length of the Tapestry they would equate to an area of about one-fifth of the whole. The lower border is continuous. The upper border is invaded in a few places by the pictures below it (or their inscriptions) and by the tips of lances. The sails of ships always extend into the upper border, which creates some impression of the unrestricted horizon and limitless sky at sea. A similar concept is hinted at as the flames lick the shingles of the burning porch at Crowhurst manor and the heat of the fire sears upwards into the border (Panel 118). Graphically, the borders represent a substantial proportion of the whole and, above all, they were a considerable undertaking that evidently has some significance to the main story from time to time and which might, here and there, have more meaning than we have yet understood.
The fabulous birds and beasts that make up the greatest part of both borders are assumed to be simply decorative. They were probably taken from some early pattern book of standard illustrations. We do not know what book this may have been but 'confronted pairs of heraldic beasts belong to a widely current ornamental repertory that reached the West from the Byzantine empire and the east in the early Middle Ages; they are a favourite theme of eleventh- and twelfth-century architectural sculpture, as well as manuscript illumination and mural paintings.1' There are several ingenious and fanciful interpretations of some of these beasts as in, for example, the winged horses where William is exhorting the troops (Panel 134). The horse is, of course, Pegasus, born from the blood of Medusa, and the favourite steed of the Muses. Here he is drinking at the well where Bellerophon paused on his way to fight the Chimera2. Luckily, Minerva was at the well before Bellerophon and she lent Pegasus to help him win the contest. Bellerophon went on to kill the Chimera as William went on to kill Harold but it does not do to take the comparison too far. Bellerophon had higher aspirations but Pegasus threw him into a wilderness! William's higher aspirations were realised as he went on to win and hold the crown of England. Meanwhile, in the Tapestry, the eloquence of a poet was said to fly (with his Muse) on the back of Pegasus and, hence, the persuasive eloquence of William is implied.3
The fact is, however, that there are not nearly enough examples of the birds and beasts being related to the main pictures to discern any pattern of intent. The best we can say is that the designer might have had a little wry smile to himself from time to time when choosing one pair of animals over another to place in juxtaposition to a particular event. Realistically, the idea that every item in the borders has some relevant significance is to suppose the improbable. That is that the designer had a vast knowledge of both the background to the event being illustrated and to the detailed characteristics of all the creatures in his bestiary handbook. Perhaps we should remember one of the views of Ralph Waldo Emerson concerning history. He wrote, 'In analyzing history do not be too profound, for often the causes are quite superficial.'
The remaining pictures mainly fall into three categories: a few human figures with mysterious implications; a very early form of footnotes in the lower border and fables by Æsop the Slave.4
Any single animal might reasonably be excluded from the list of Fables for the simple reason that the possibilities are too numerous to consider seriously. Two or more creatures together can evoke a Fable. Fortunately most of the creatures are either the decorative mirror images of fabulous beasts or appear in pairs or groups that may fairly be interpreted as one of the Fables. Single, natural creatures are not very common, although the enigmatic procession in the border (Panels 101-104) above the Norman disembarkation breaks all the rules. Perhaps this is the thirtieth Fable with the large bird, looking left with its head through the bars, replacing the fox. The first single animal we encounter in the Tapestry (Panel 68) appears to be a howling dog beneath king Edward's bier. This has been provisionally classified as a footnote. Otherwise there appear to be only three other creatures on their own and they, too, might have some claim to be footnotes of a sort. The second of the four (Panel 81) is an agitated bird above the trees being cut down to construct the invasion fleet, which might possibly indicate no more than that nests were lost at a time when the birds would have been nesting. Next (Panel 111) is another equally agitated bird beneath the spitted fowls being handed out at what looks remarkably like a 'fast-food' cafeteria counter, where the men are using their shields as trays. Lastly (Panel 111), a little animal with the body of a young deer and a rather kitten-like head, appears to be fleeing from the clamour of the battle.
For centuries before the battle of Hastings, a hand-written gloss in various religious texts was common. It usually appeared between the lines of the text and was, of course, inserted by a reader rather than by the original copyist. Copies of books available in England were chiefly of texts with a religious content, with the exception of no more than relatively few copies of other books in private hands. The great traditions of the famous Library at Alexandria, for example, had been destroyed along with the burning of the remaining Libraries in either local internal warfare or under the imposition of Christianity. It is ironic to see that at the birth of Christianity the great Libraries were liberally copying ancient scrolls on all subjects but, as the Christian movement gained momentum, so texts that had not emanated from Rome, or, at least, with the approval of the Vatican, were burnt on sight by the bigots. It was probably not until after the re-invention of printing with movable type at Mainz, in Germany, that written footnotes began to appear5. The first movable type had been used in China in 10416. In other words, movable type was really invented over 400 years before the Gutenberg Bible of 1455, just a generation before the designer of the Tapestry was inventing the pictorial footnote.
A dozen pictures, which all appear in the lower border, are proposed as 'footnotes'.
1. The agricultural scene of ploughing, harrowing, sowing and keeping birds off the seed until it germinates(Panels 21-22). This is said to be about three weeks in France though rather longer, except in the most favourable conditions, in England. The footnote surely indicates the passage of time between the escape of the English 'eavesdropper' from Beaurain and the arrival of the first messengers from duke William.
2. The little figure below Ælfgyva, who seems to mirror the pose of the cleric (Panel 39). All commentators appear to agree that this is a footnote that adds a scandalous element to the story. The least probable, dealt with in Chapter VI, identifies the lady as Ælfgifu of Northampton, wife of king Cnut. Otherwise Ælfgyva was a real person in Normandy at the time and she had got into some kind of difficulties from which Harold's friend hoped to rescue her.
3. Fishes, eels and a man either drowning or trying to catch the eels (Panel 44-46). This appears under Harold's dramatic rescue of the soldiers from the quicksand in the River Cuesnon and the eels, swimming from right to left, slow down the spectator's eye for a moment. The prone position of the man, dead or alive, and the eels tumbling over each other as if in panic seem to echo the danger. To the left, there are two fish, joined mouth to mouth by a cord, long worm or something. It has been suggested that they represent the Zodiacal sign of Pisces. If they do, the timing is wrong, Pisces7 being February 20th to March 20th, whereas William of Poitiers8 clearly stated that 'The corn was green and still stood in the ear' indicating that it was then June, or thereabouts.
4. A howling dog (Panel 68). In the light of the late king's known love of hunting, this has been classified as a footnote. That is to say, it might represent the king's favourite hound mourning his master.
5. Ships, in outline (Panel 75). It is just possible that the ships represent the loss of English ships, from Sandwich and elsewhere, that had joined Tostig and his raiding party in May of 1066. A ghost of ships past, so to speak. The context is not clear, being almost immediately after the appearance of the hairy star, later named Halley's comet9, but the ghost of ships yet to come seems more likely for no better reason than that the Tapestry deals only with William and Harold and the changing relationship between them. In this case, the ships portray William's fleet being assembled in Normandy when he came to realise that more ships would have to be built to transport his growing army.
6. Two fishes (Panel 76). Once again, the fishes have been taken by many commentators to represent Pisces. The scene that follows immediately, 'Here an English ship came to duke William's country', has been interpreted as messengers taking news of Harold's coronation to William. This cannot be right. William must have known fairly early in January about Edward's death and the almost simultaneous coronation of Harold. Quite apart from anything else, our interpretation of the ghostly fleet insists upon it. In any event, Halley's comet is said to have appeared in England on 24th April over a month after the end of the Pisces period.10
7. Casualties, including two horses (Panel 144-158). This long sequence is clearly giving additional detail of the men falling on both sides and adds to the atmosphere of general chaos in the conflict up to the phase in the battle, roughly speaking, when William was unhorsed for the first time and was thought by the Normans, briefly, to have been killed. In the main narrative (Panel 160), William pulls his helmet to the back of his head to show his face to his men and the Norman offensive again gathers momentum.
8. Archers on the attack (Panel 159-164). As William rallies his troops and takes command again, the archers are apparently deployed to a new position. The last four (if the repair to the fourth is accurate) have huge quivers before them that might more properly be described as barrels, representing the arrival of new supplies of arrows brought up from Hastings, and clearly intended to be used from fixed positions.
9. An Anglo-Saxon with his head cut off (Panel 166). The border here is an exemplary footnote without any doubt. The main picture is of a Norman, with sword raised, holding an unarmed Anglo-Saxon by the hair. The footnote shows what is clearly the same Anglo-Saxon with his head separated from his body. This was certainly an incident that was either reasonably well-known at the time or was fairly commonplace but, today, we have no clues whatever. The Norman has two swords; one at his belt and the other that he is using. In the border, there is a sword, possibly stuck into the ground, between the head and the de-capitated body. It could be that the border intends to tell us that the man was executed with his own sword, which was then discarded. He is not otherwise accoutred for battle so one possible interpretation is that he was an Anglo-Saxon, caught in the open while picking up fallen weapons, who was summarily executed for looting the sword.
10. Looting from the dead. (Panel 167-169). Three bodies are being stripped of their mail and in the last scene of this sequence, the two men have been held to be quarrelling over their loot. The second man only survives as half a man, due to a repair to the fabric. Writing of the Breton campaign, William of Poitiers poured scorn on the Bretons, 'They take great pleasure in quarrelling over booty which they have stripped from the dead.11' The first man in the 'quarrel' seems to be holding four shields and in a picture a little earlier, an unhappy-looking individual has five swords. Why the specialisation among the looters? It seems to be possible that this footnote illustrates an unremarked feature of medieval battles, except in the matter of missiles. That is to say, men will have lost or broken their equipment in the battle so swords, shields, helmets and byrnies were collected as replacements.
11. More casualties. (Panel 167-172)
12. An Anglo-Saxon hiding in the woods after the final rout. (Panel 173)
It seems clear that the whole of this selection of footnotes has a meaning that elucidates or augments the main narrative with the exception of the identification of the pairs fishes as Pisces. Thus the footnote interpretation gains eleven bulls; one miss (number 6) and a magpie (number 3). The marksmanship of the Fable interpretation is not so accurate! In particular, the few human figures stand out vividly in the borders. Unlike the strange creatures and the more obvious Fables, they should, instinct suggests, have some relevance to the main story. For instance, an indication that Guy de Ponthieu would be living dangerously if he repudiated William's messengers is suggested in the next Chapter for the bear-baiting scene (Panel 26; ). Similarly, the figure in the upper border (Panel 76; ) is more suggestive of a watcher by the sea-shore than a wild-fowler. In other words, here is a man who saw a ship leave England and head for Normandy for, possibly, seditious reasons. Lastly, of the fully-clothed persons, the designation of the seated man near Mont St Michel as a Fable (Panel 44; ) is, again, unconvincing. More probably, the picture represents the abbott of Mont St Michel bestowing a distant benediction on the expedition of his friend, William.12
With one exception, the curious little nude figures neither seem appropriate to the border nor relevant to the main story. The assignation of Fables to all five instances () does not carry conviction and we are left with the feeling that they must all have some significance other than simple decoration, even if we do not yet know what it is. The exception is the figure below Ælfgyva ( ), where the pose so closely mirrors the pose of the Cleric above that the connection seems unavoidable. Otherwise, there is a man on his own just before the Ælfgyva scene ( ), who is either trimming a block of wood or sharpening his axe (we would expect him to have both hands on the haft for either operation) and no fitting connection to the discussion taking place above him has yet been imagined, whether Harold is requesting the return of Ælfgyva and his relations or not. Similarly, the relevance of the remaining three naked couples is far from apparent. The couple beneath Harold as he is escorted by Guy de Ponthieu to meet William ( ), and the two pairs above the advancing Norman army ( ), do not appear to be connected to the story at all.
1 The Bayeux Tapestry (1994), Wolfgang Grape
2 Journal of Medieval History, vol 13, (1987) pp 15-73: Animals in Medieval Art: the Bayeux Tapestry as an example, W Brundsdon Yapp. The Chimera had the tail and body of a dragon with the fore parts of a lion. It does not seem to have been illustrated in the Tapestry among the other weird and wonderful beasts.
3 J Bart McNulty (1989)
4 The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry (1986), David J Bernstein: p128: ... the fables of Æsop and his latin successors, Babrius and Phædrus, spoke to the people of medieval Europe.
5 The Mathews Bible, published nearly a century later by the Maryan proto-martyr, John Rogers, had what might loosely be called footnotes.
6 Ancient Inventions (1995), Peter James & Nick Thorpe: p512, Movable type made from earthenware was produced by Pi Sheng in AD 1041.
7 The Houses of the Zodiac have become seriously out of alignment since they were first designated by the Greeks. However, the displacement since the 1060's is no more than the Gregorian adjustment of 11 days to the solar/seasonal calendar since the drifting of the constellations was not then known.
8 Translation by Lewis Thorpe (1973), The Bayeux Tapestry and the Norman Invasion.
9 A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), Bill Bryson: Sir Edmund Halley ' merely recognized that the comet he saw in 1682 was the same one that had been seen by others in 1456, 1531 and 1607. It didn't become Halley's comet until 1758, some sixteen years after his death.'
10 The precession of the earth has caused the Zodiac constellations to appear to drift in the sky. Astologers have made no changes but the real dating of Pisces is now March 6 - April 10.
11 Translation by Lewis Thorpe (1973), The Bayeux Tapestry and the Norman Invasion.
12 Facultés catholiques (1967) pp 137-140: Le Mont-Saint-Michel et la Tapisserie de Bayeux (1967), Simone Bertrand: She suggested this was Ranulphe, Abbott of Mont St Michel, and a cleric from Bayeux. William enjoyed a close and sustained relationship with Ranulphe (she also suggested the picture may be a pilgrimage to Mont St Michel in 1065.)