Thursday, 20 October 2011

Reflections on the Bayeux tapestry

The famous multimodal tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 combines figurative images (the events depicted), symbolic images (around the borders), and written text (the Latin commentary), all mediated via a popular representational technology of the time -- embroidery. Here's a typical section of it:
This bit shows William' s men feasting before they get on the boats for England. (Actually this is not a picture of the original tapestry, but a drawing I did  of it while I was on holiday. Yes they did have postcards that I could have bought but I wanted to see how difficult it would be to draw. The hardest bit turned out to be getting the colours something like the originals. I don't think I was particularly successful here - despite having 10 times as many colours at my disposal than the original authors did).

It's interesting too from a literacy-and-technology point of view, not least because you wonder why they bothered with the literacy bit - the Latin commentary which runs throughout the strip and simply describes what you can see happening. It identifies some of the characters, like the Bishop (Odo) in this example,  but they could have done that just as easily with little labels, like political cartoonists do today. You can read the whole text at  and it's clear it must have added quite a bit of work to the overall job. Given the relatively few people at the time who could actually read it (mainly the bishop and his mates),  you wonder if the authors were thinking about readers from the future who might not necessarily already know the story-- like putting a message in a time capsule. Or perhaps they were using the Latin as a kind of stamp of authority - validating the account, as it were, by giving the Church a hand in it.  

Also interesting are the little pictures in the borders top and bottom which as well as decorating the strip apparently contain all sorts of allusions to Aesop and other myths and fables.  According to ( the running theme  of these references is cunning  and betrayal -- and interesting literary, if not exactly literate, device.   

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