The Normans after the Bayeux Tapestry: What the tapestry doesn’t say

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If you swallowed everything the Bayeux Tapestry wanted you to believe – a duly punished perjurer, a crushed and cowed nation of sinners, in effect a wholly successful crusade; vindication moreover from the holy banner of the Pope, Alexander II, and so, by implication, the approval of God – victory for the Normans was complete, perfect, and God-given.  Can’t get it much better than that. Or so the tapestry would have you believe.

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Well, how did King Harold die?

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There is in print somewhere (I forget the details) a book devoted solely to the deaths of the  kings of  England.  Not just the fact, or the date, or the place, or the circumstances, but the actual medical causes and symptoms.  Pretty grisly it is too.  Consider the level of medieval medical knowledge, and the extent to which the practice of medical science was influenced – even at times governed – by charms, magic, astrology, superstition, an over-watchful Church, old wives’ tales, witchcraft, and any other mumbo-jumbo that comes to mind.  Consider too the level of ignorance then about hygiene, poison, antiseptics, anaesthetics, drugs, and microbes generally.  It’s a wonder that anybody who fell ill survived.

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The Bayeux Tapestry: it has words too!

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Like most comic strips, the Bayeux Tapestry carries captions.  True, it doesn’t have word-filled balloons coming out of people’s mouths, but it has a running commentary right across the top of the pictures, just underneath the upper frieze.  Incidentally, the friezes themselves tell us a great deal too.  Put them together – pictures, words, friezes – and you have a Bayeux Tapestry pretty solidly packed with information for those who have the eyes, the willingness, and the imagination to observe.  Medieval scholars to this day are debating what some of it means. 

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Not the first comic strip

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Governments have always had to search for ways to get things across to their people.  Nowadays, of course, they have the internet, social media, radio, newspapers, television, adverts, election campaigns, and a host of other methods.  So they are not short of the means to do it. But, the further back you go in history, the more difficult it must have been.   No radio, obviously, no television, no newspapers. Very people could read or write.  It was extremely difficult to distribute information quickly; from the dawn of time, and right up until the nineteenth century, no man, however rich or powerful, could travel faster than fifteen miles an hour.  How did a  ruler make contact with his subjects?  What means was left?

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Really look at the Tapestry – and not just the ‘important’ bits

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What do you mean by ‘important bits’?

The bits which help to convey or support the general narrative. We know that the Bayeux Tapestry is supposed to be all about Harold visiting Normandy and swearing an oath not to stand in William`s way for the crown, so when we see evidence of that general narrative, we nod sagely and say, ‘Ah, yes, of course, that`s how it was; the Tapestry says so.’ We skip the details which appear not to confirm the narrative, or at least which do not somehow fit the overall picture. Continue reading Really look at the Tapestry – and not just the ‘important’ bits

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