Decoding the Bayeux Tapestry by Arthur C. Wright

You have probably seen The Bayeux Tapestry – if not in real life then in books, on websites or on television – and you may know that it depicts the story of the Norman Conquest of England, but have you ever looked at the pictures that appear in the margins and wondered what they mean? This new book by historian Arthur C. Wright, Decoding the Bayeux Tapestry: The Secrets of History’s Most Famous Embroidery Hidden in Plain Sight, attempts to interpret these often-overlooked images and relate them to the action taking place in the main body of the Tapestry.

At a quick glance, the pictures in the margins look very random and don’t appear to be connected with the larger pictures in the middle, but now that I’ve read this book I know that is not the case. Wright takes us step by step along the whole length of the Tapestry, matching the marginal story to the one in the main panel and this adds to our overall understanding of what the Tapestry is telling us.

So, what exactly are these marginal illustrations? Well, many of them depict birds and animals such as dogs, lions, ‘pards’ (the name given to large leopard-like cats), crows, foxes, mythological beasts such as dragons – anything that might have appeared in a medieval bestiary. These creatures add extra meaning to the central panels; for example, a dog is shown howling below the picture of Edward the Confessor being taken to his burial. Others display fear, joy, pride, anger or other appropriate emotions at relevant points in the Tapestry. The margins also include illustrations of some of Aesop’s Fables; the story of ‘the Fox and the Crow’ is one of them. In order to understand the significance of the fables and the other messages we are being given in the margins, it helps if we know who embroidered these images, who commissioned the Tapestry in the first place and who the intended audience was, and Wright spends a lot of time discussing these things as well as interpreting the images themselves.

All of this was fascinating, but I did wonder who this book was really aimed at. Even though I do have an interest in the subject and a moderate amount of knowledge of the Norman Conquest (admittedly, gained mainly through historical novels such as Gildenford, Godwine, Kingmaker and 1066: What Fates Impose), I didn’t really feel the need to go into so much detail on the size of the fleet that invaded England or the geographical features of the landscape. There are lengthy appendices exploring both of these topics and I think this sort of information would only really be of interest to an academic reader who wanted to make a very thorough study of the subject. Although the earlier chapters are much more accessible, I’m not sure whether I could recommend the book overall to the general reader, especially not to those who are unfamiliar with this period of history.

I’m still pleased to have had the opportunity to learn a little bit more about the Bayeux Tapestry, though, and to have been made aware that those medieval embroiderers were perhaps telling us more than meets the eye. If anyone else has read this book, or has ever studied the Tapestry, I would love to hear your thoughts.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

16 thoughts on “Decoding the Bayeux Tapestry by Arthur C. Wright

  1. Jo Shafer says:

    I’m keenly interested in this period, beginning with William himself in Norman history, because this era is the beginning of my own family in England and, eventually, to the American colonies. Thank you for reviewing this books for I know very little about The Bayeux Tapestry’s story. Most tapestries from the period illustrated historical events, Bible stories, fables as opposed to the Muslim floral and geometric designs. They’re sort of an extension of Egyptian hieroglyphic arts, these tapestries, aren’t they?

    • Helen says:

      You might enjoy this book as you have a particular interest in the period. I hadn’t thought of the similarity to Egyptian hieroglyphics, but yes, you’re right.

  2. BookerTalk says:

    At first I thought this would be an ideal book to take with you if you were going to see the tapestry in situ – you could read the explanation as you viewed each section. But given your later comments about all that additional detail I changed my mind. seems a book without a clear market in mind

    • Helen says:

      There were illustrations in the book showing some of the sections that were being discussed, but it was hard to follow in ebook format. I’m sure it would be much more interesting to be able to read the book as you viewed the tapestry in real life (and then you could just ignore all the extra detail and concentrate on the descriptions of the pictures).

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    This sounds like a delightfully geeky explication of an arcane subject. If I were not already woefully behind in all the books I want to read, I would add this to my lists.

  4. Laurie @ RelevantObscurity says:

    I would really love to take a look at this book, but it isn’t readily available to me. Kind of like the graffiti Medieval scribes wrote in the margins of Medieval manuscripts, I think they say something. But what that is seems to be a mystery.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you’re able to find a copy of this book at some point. Although I had one or two problems with it, I did find it fascinating to read about the messages in the margins.

  5. grdtobin says:

    The Bayeux Tapestry is barely understood. Not having read Wright’s book yet, I look forward to every insight he provides.

    He’s mistaken about one thing, though: King Edward’s watchful canid isn’t a dog, he’s a red fox, the Breton rebus for Alan Rufus, the second son of Edward’s elder maternal first cousin, Eudon of Brittany. (This rebus is extant in English: the Australian journalist Alan Reid was known as ‘the red fox’.) This is easy to miss because the tail has been mangled and patched over the centuries, but even so, the animal’s head, body and posture are carefully drawn as an elegant fox. (By contrast, the foxes in the margin’s fables are crudely drawn and could as easily be wolves.)

    Alan is the principal narrator of the BT, which follows his journeys from scene 10 to scene 53. The family of BT’s designer, Scolland, the master manuscript illustrator of the Abbey of Mont St Michel and subsequently Abbot of St Augustine’s in Canterbury, were associates of Alan’s; a later Scolland was steward at Alan’s Richmond Castle.

    Since the BT was designed by Bretons, it particularly favors neither the English nor the Normans, and both the Breton-Norman War of 1064 and the actions of the Breton cavalry in the Battle of Hastings are highlighted.

    In the decades after the Conquest, most English lords were deposed, the major exceptions being the many who were protected by Count Alan as Earl of Richmond and Earl of East Anglia. For example, one English family under Alan’s aegis gave rise to the great House of Neville.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you for all of this information – you’re obviously much more knowledgeable on this subject than I am, so I think you will probably get more out of the book than I did! I might have done Wright a disservice by saying ‘dog’ instead of ‘fox’; I can’t find the reference in the book, but it’s possible that was just how I interpreted the picture myself when I was writing my review. I wasn’t aware of the significance of the fox in relation to Alan Rufus, so thanks for clarifying that.

      • grdtobin says:

        It’s likely your memory is accurate: most scholars think the animal is a dog (perhaps King Edward’s pet). However, notice that the tail has been replaced by gold stitching so we don’t know what it originally looked like. The shape of the animal’s body, legs and head are very foxlike.

        The other ‘foxes’ on the BT resemble shaggy wolves, so the care with which this animal is drawn is significant in itself. Orderic Vitalis described Alan Rufus and his men as exceptionally elegantly attired (even by French standards).

        I wish I could match the scholarship of the professional historians, but I make up for my amateurism by reading their publications widely, in Latin, French and English. I try not to predict what I will find. It’s amazing how the dots connect when you collect enough of them!

  6. Gregorio says:

    I selected this book to read and review because of its title and its strap-line suggesting that the author would interpret the images in the top and bottom border of the “Tapestry”. The Bayeux piece is extraordinary in itself, in its survival and in terms of the window it opens on life, art and the culture of its period. So a book with quality pictures would seem to be a huge open goal to aim for. Wright, however, has additionally decided to use this book to explore wider things key people, the historical narrative of the events depicted, the accuracy of the defensive buildings and weaponry – and he has then tried to match the illustrations against his understanding of the rural landscape of the area in 1066. This would be a big ask and to be achieved successfully would need clear focus (after both broad and detailed research) – regrettably something that seems to be lacking in this volume.

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