When it all boils down to it, it’s just a big piece of cloth. But they built a multi-story museum to hold it and tell its story because it is no ordinary piece of cloth.
The Bayeux Tapestry tells the pictorial story of William the Conqueror and the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It was a pivotal moment of English (or even world) history, something all school children used to have to study in school, though usually all anyone remembered was the parody.
The tapestry is a marvelous artistic creation, 70 metres long and about 18 inches high. It is, quite naturally, propaganda, the Norman perspective on the Conquest. The Anglo Saxons might have suggested the Tapestry’s tale wanders from the truth in spots. But this is the history we have, created about 1070, when the event was still fresh in the victors’ minds.
I first heard about the Bayeux Tapestry in August 1966. My maternal grandfather had given me a subscription to National Geographic Magazine, and I think that was the first issue I had received, featuring the then newly restored tapestry on the cover. I remember reading the article, and, since it was National Geographic, looking at the pictures, but I must confess the significance of the Tapestry really didn’t hit home. I was young; I just didn’t know any better.
I think everyone who visits Bayeux goes to the Tapestry museum. Bayeux is a delightful village that managed to be spared when the Allies steamrollered over the German forces in the summer of 1944. Apparently its medieval streets were too narrow for the American tanks, so the troops just bypassed the area, preserving much local history.
The Tapestry is a popular attraction, and there is a sneaky method of crowd control, making sure you move along quickly as you take in the exhibit. The audio guide has no controls. I was told when you enter the room where the Tapestry is kept (behind climate controlled glass of course) the audio player would start automatically and as I moved from segment to segment the commentary for that segment would be triggered in the guide. That wasn’t quite true.
The audio guide did indeed start as I entered the room. And it kept going. There was no lingering over one panel or another to examine the tapestry’s richness more closely or to consider that part of the story. The narration, once started just kept on going. I was a little annoyed. I could have re-entered the Tapestry room and gone through the whole process again, but there were other things to do and see, so I decided once was probably enough. It was just that there was a lot to absorb in each of those panels, which sometimes tell three parts of the tale simultaneously. I suppose I can look it up online, where you can also find the story of how the Tapestry survived fires and war and destruction.
Does anyone care about what happened in 1066 on a field in southern England? Not really, even if it was a pivotal moment in history (though I suspect one no longer mentioned in Canadian public schools). It is too far removed from our daily lives. Yet we are products of our past, shaped by what has gone before, as individuals and as a culture. We need an awareness of that past, even if our information comes from propaganda like the Bayeux tapestry. It might be fun if the Anglo-Saxon side of the story was given equal weight, but the victors write the history books.