Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Pull up a carpet sample and gather round

Boys and girls, I have a very special book to share with you today!

I've mentioned before, I think, my interest in the Bayeux Tapestry. Well, this is essentially a picture book for adults about the Bayeux Tapestry.

The author, Jan Messent, is an embroiderer, who discusses the tapestry (or "tapestry") as a piece of embroidery: she uses a close examination of the design to propose her theories about how it was created. She extrapolates from her own experience as a stitcher and from contemporary mentions of textile production to construct the whole story of the creation of the tapestry. It's precisely up my alley. The book itself is oversized, exactly like a picture book, and features whole-page drawings in full color, with handwritten text (the second half of the book consists of the text typewritten in slightly larger font on a white background, which is very considerate of those who might have difficulty reading the handwriting).

Messent points out that most writing about the Bayeux Tapestry is focused on the politics of the piece and on the men who commissioned and are depicted in it. In several places she is able to point out how understanding the embroidery process can help clear up discrepancies without a whole lot of complex theories. The culmination of the book is a stunning reconstruction of the missing eight feet -- yes, eight feet. I spent a lot of time peering at the photos before I turned the page and found that the publishers had provided close up photos (heh). A section of her reconstruction is pictured there on the cover.

One of the "problems" in understanding the production of the tapestry is that here you have conquered women embroidering the story of their menfolk's defeat, which tends to make the women seem sort of weak and/or disloyal. Messent argues that women of the time would have been able to acknowledge military prowess and victory without necessarily thinking the worse of their own men. I thought she could have stressed a little more the expertise and skill of large-scale narrative embroidery. She lays out the evidence that big wall-hangings like this were a fairly standard way of commemorating victory, like commissioning a statue or something. In that kind of environment, it seems like it wouldn't be all that strange, in the grand scheme of things, that the losing side would end up depicting their loss, especially given the limits of communication. (And weren't English women known throughout Europe for their embroidery? That must come later.) I thought, at any rate, that there was room to claim that perhaps, in that society, it would have been fairly unremarkable that Anglo-Saxon women, as skilled artisans, would be asked to depict the Norman conquest, rather than the big insult some male authors have apparently interpreted it as. I should probably stop there as this isn't my period by a long shot. I did think one of her most important observations was that many Anglo-Saxon noblewomen displaced by the invasion fled into convents, and very probably ended up pitching in on the tapestry. If you imagine nuns (used to producing commissioned needlework) working side-by-side with noblewomen (used to producing needlework for the glory of their own families), it helps to explode the simplistic question "how did the women feel about it?"

I thought there was a slight gap in the book in that there was very little discussion of the replicas that have been made of the tapestry. That's probably just me thinking in terms of a literature review, though.

Perhaps one of the most striking things about Messent's book is that although she did go to see the original, she had no special access to it. In fact she researched the tapestry mostly through books; which I think really shows how far practical knowledge helps in something like this!

All told, this is probably one of the more satisfying books I've bought in a while. It's perfect for sitting cross-legged on the bed... with a cup of tea or hot chocolate... maybe a cookie? I felt like I ought to have a stuffed animal under each arm. Which is pretty high praise.


  1. Oh man, from the carpet sample grade school reference to the actual Bayeux content to stuffed animals, I give this an A+. And now I need to post a link to this again:

    BAYEUX TAPESTRYYYYY. I want to see your book when you get back.

  2. I know nothing of this book, but the Bayeux Tapestry has long fascinated me. (If by fascinated one can mean that the few times I've thought about it in my adult life I've wondered about it and its origins and meanings, but otherwise don't spend much time thinking about.)

    I'll have to see if I can get my hands on this book through ILL 'cause I don't think I would buy it, but I'd love to see it. Thanks for the review!