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Sometimes I dream about textiles. A quiver of moonlit banners drift colour streams across a mirrored lake. Yards of soft-sheened silk are flung by villagers edging a river bank, cast into the water's flow, the people watching silently as the cloth, ripple-etched, is carried out to sea.
Most of my dream settings, however, are more prosaic; a deserted warehouse, a musty charity shop in which rails of clothes stand abandoned. I trail my hand through long-forgotten fabrics – crêpe de chine, duchess satin, tulle net – grazing my knuckles on a crust of beading, smoothing down languid lengths of fringing, stroking the braille of lace, drumming my fingers along a rhythm of pleats: small collapses of spent glory, discarded, uncherished, their makers unknown.
When I wake, it is always with a sharp pang of loss, more acute than might be felt for actual textiles. Because the textiles I touch in my dreams have never existed. There is no hope of their re-discovery.
I am on a train out of Paris, the hem of the city unfolding into a pretty patchwork of rural France. I'm on my way to Bayeux, where its celebrated tapestry is on permanent display. The tapestry is a rare survivor of medieval stitchery, now championed as a precious cultural relic deemed worthy of special safeguarding by UNESCO's Memory of the World Register. But it wasn't always so well protected. Indeed, for its first 500 years it languished in obscurity, its exposure limited to an annual outing as ecclesiastical decoration for the Bayeux Feast of Relics, when, for a few days, it would be looped around the nave of the cathedral as a reminder to the congregation of the triumph of right over wrong, of a French victory over the English.
The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It is an embroidered narrative cloth with fifty-eight numbered scenes depicted in linen cloth and wool yarn, the simplest of materials. At its heart, it is a morality tale: a warning of the cost of betrayal. It tells how the English Harold recanted his oath of allegiance to the French William and seized the throne of England for himself; how William retaliated, prepared for war, defeated Harold's army and conquered England. A wrong righted, arrogance and greed avenged.
Images of the Bayeux Tapestry are embedded in our popular culture. It has become an iconic illustration of medieval life in Britain, its stitched narrative reproduced in countless books, on greetings cards and as needlework kits. It is much beloved by cartoonists amused by the incongruity of medieval stitchers and sharp contemporary comment. All of this has won it familiarity, an affection of sorts. But although I have read about it extensively and seen numerous printed versions of it, I only know the tapestry one frame at a time. I have no sense of what impact it will have when I see it in its entirety, no real understanding of its scale or its tangible presence.
When I arrive at Bayeux station, the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux seems disappointingly close. There is only a road to cross, a few hundred yards to walk, a conker-crunching stroll through a tree-lined carpark to reach the museum's entrance. I had hoped for more of a pilgrimage, a little more time to savour the quest.
I buy my ticket and snake through a surprisingly lengthy maze of red-corded barricades used to corral the swell of visitors in high season. The Bayeux Tapestry is a popular tourist destination, attracting close to 400,000 visitors a year. Even today, on a cold October morning, there is a queue. The girl at the desk hands me an audio guide and instructs me about its function keys, but in truth, I'm not listening. I am like a greyhound waiting for the retort of a starting pistol. I am ready for the off.
A long, dark room is illuminated by a gleam of cream, a river of textile that stretches as far as the eye can see and flows back on itself again. I forgo the audio guide; this is to be an encounter between me and the tapestry. I want it to be my guide, to hold me back or beckon me forward, to insist on discovery at its own pace.
The thrum of audio commentaries intrudes, and while I can block out its babel of different languages, I can't avoid the sonorous soundtracks, the chanting of medieval songsters whose voices follow me – rising and falling, rising and falling – to chorus my meanderings. For the Bayeux Tapestry invites promenading. I stroll along its banks, surprised at how easily, given its vastness, it draws you in to its smallest details: the pattern on a cushion, the emblem on a shield, the liquid spill from a pitcher.
It begins grandly with an ornamented, turreted palace with lions growling below on the border: a symbolic portent of warring kings. Edward, his name writ large above his sewn portrait (the soon-to-be-dead King of England), is counselling his son Harold about his mission of peace with France. Seventy metres later, it ends tragically: the border is strewn with the war-dead and there is a final distressing image of a naked and cowering English soldier clutching the torn-off branch of a tree as his only defence.
Unfolding between these two scenes are tales of feasting and farming folk, of spies and ship building, of hunting and harvests, of nobility on horseback and slain unarmoured archers, and of slaughter in the rough fray of battle. Its narrow frieze, only fifty centimetres high, has stylised sentinel trees to separate scenes. Embroidered borders provide an emotive and satirical commentary that amplifies meaning and mood in a procession of symbolic motifs and cameos of everyday life. Text travels across its surface in bold stitching to chronicle characters and events, and the visual story is punctuated by boasts of learning and travel: borrowings from Nordic sagas, images copied from illuminated manuscripts, designs culled from Greek and Roman sculpture and illustrations of some of Aesop's fables, including 'The Fox and the Crow' and 'The Wolf and the Lamb'. This is not just one story. This is a complex, multi-layered series of historical, biblical, mythical and cultural narratives, some of which we can still decipher, but much of which is long lost. We can no longer interpret all the tapestry's double meanings, unravel its intellectual challenges or unpick all the creative connections caught within its coloured threads.
It is generally agreed that the tapestry was designed by a man. The vivid illustrations of war preparations, the knowledgeable portrayal of horses and the detailed attention to weaponry all point to a male provenance. Recent research by the historian Howard B. Clarke of the University College in Dublin strengthens the case. He identifies Abbot Scolland, who died c.1087, the head of the illuminated manuscript scriptorium at St Augustine Monastery, as its likely designer because many of the tapestry's images seem drawn from life or memory and are closely connected to places and people associated with the abbot. Bishop Odo, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, is thought to have commissioned it, although some scholars believe that Queen Edith, the wife of the dead King Edward, was its commissioner, pointing to the earlier precedent of a donation by the widow of the English Earl Brythnoth of an embroidered hanging depicting his achievements, given to Ely Cathedral in AD 991. Conquered Saxon women sequestered in English nunneries are thought to have sewn it. This has been disputed by those who argue a French origin, proposing that the tapestry was created in the textile workshops at the Norman monastery of St Florent of Samur; that the yarn used has similarities with that spun in the Bessin district of Normandy; or that Queen Mathilda, the wife of William the Conqueror, who was known for her embroidery, was its principle author.
What is irrefutable is that English embroiderers were renowned for their craftsmanship in medieval Europe at the time, a reputation endorsed by William of Poitiers, chaplain to William the Conqueror, who reported that 'the women of England are very skilful with the needle'. If, as is widely believed, the tapestry was sewn by different hands, then the involvement of women from the nunneries in and around Winchester and Canterbury (there were seven within a day's ride of each other) seems plausible. Some are known to have housed celebrated workshops of fine embroidery supported by church and royal patrons. The proposition that the embroidery was executed by women of varying skill again points to these nunneries as the origin of creation since, in the eleventh century, they were not merely a cloistered retreat for women with a religious vocation, but also a safe house for others who needed a respectable haven, such as the unmarried daughters of nobles given, sometimes unwillingly, to God, widows lacking male protection, poverty-stricken girls and those whose mental or physical disability made them vulnerable in the wider world.
On the other hand, the Bayeux Tapestry is not typical of English embroidery of the period. It has none of its magnificence wrought in silk and metallic threads, nor its complexity of stitches, although the use of such materials and methods on a tapestry of this scale would have been prohibitively expensive. Controversy and conjecture continue. For all the intensive study, the origins of the Bayeux Tapestry remain a mystery, its provenance speculative, its stitchers unknown, its nationality unresolved, its present sequence questionable, its narrative considered incomplete.
During its first five centuries of oblivion, it was only mentioned once, in Bayeux Cathedral's 1476 inventory: a perfunctory entry that describes it as a very long and narrow embroidery with images and inscriptions of the Conquest of England. In 1792 it was nearly destroyed, seized by zealous French revolutionaries who thought the old cloth would make an excellent cover for their military wagon. Its reprieve was short lived. Two years later it was saved again from being cut up to make a fetching backdrop for the Goddess of Reason float in a local carnival.
It was the tapestry's story rather than its stitching that saved it; its political rather than cultural worth, its propaganda value. Napoleon was its first champion. He commandeered the tapestry as a talisman and used it as a rallying cry when he had his ambitions fixed on England. He put it on public show at the Musée Napoleon in Paris in 1803, where it proved to be a popular exhibit. But the sudden appearance of Halley's Comet in French skies quenched his enthusiasm. It was an echo of the comet stitched on the tapestry itself: a star tailed in streaming flames – a phenomenon witnessed in England in the Spring of 1066, a mere four months after Alfred seized the throne. Below the comet on the tapestry's bottom border lies a beached fleet of phantom ships. Both are omens of impending disaster. Napoleon dispatched the tapestry back to Bayeux.
During the Second World War the tapestry was moved for safekeeping to Modaye Abbey near Bayeux, then relocated to the Château de Sourches. When Germany invaded France, Heinrich Himmler, leader of Hitler's SS guards, appropriated the tapestry for German appreciation. He organised private views for his inner circle and tasked the Ahnenerbe (the bureau of German ancestral heritage) to document it exhaustively. Over 700 photographs were taken, two documentary films were made, watercolours were commissioned and a 95-page description was written.
As the Allied troops advanced on France, Himmler set in motion Germany's coup de grâce: to raze Paris to the ground. But he safeguarded the tapestry. In June 1944 he had it secreted in a basement of the Louvre. Even then, he was troubled. Hitler's deputy sent Himmler a coded order instructing its immediate export to Germany. The code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park in England, intercepted the message: 'Do not forget to bring the Bayeux Tapestry to a place of safety.' But Himmler had left it too late. When his SS guards arrived to take possession of the tapestry, the Louvre was already in the hands of the French Resistance. The Bayeux Tapestry stayed in France.
The Bayeux Tapestry has not only been saved but reinvented over its long life. Originally called La Telle du Conquest, it was re-christened La Tapisserie de Reine Mathilde after the wife of William the Conqueror, who, some proposed, had had a hand in its creation. By the nineteenth century it had become known by its current name. Of course, it is not a tapestry. It is an embroidery. But the misnomer elevated it from the indignity of any association with women's needlework, which, over the centuries following its creation, had become an increasingly de-valued art form. In 1738 the English traveller John Breval dismissed it as a 'most barbarous piece of needlework.' In 1843 John Murray III in his Hand-Book for Travellers in France described how the tapestry was subject to 'the fingers as well as eyes of the curious' and derided it as being 'rudely worked with figures worthy of a girl's sampler.' Other nineteenth-century critics found its stitchery primitive, its cream ground too empty, the whole effect lacking finesse. Even the great English writer Charles Dickens was dismissive, describing it as the work of 'feeble amateurs.' While its antiquity secured it as a work worthy of scholarly interest and curatorial care, its re-invention as a tapestry distanced it from criticism, inferring the skilled craftsmanship of professional male weavers whose guilds ensured they had the monopoly on the production of large-scale tapestries. This tale of war became widely accepted as an artefact of male history, of masculine creation.
Indeed, the tapestry is concerned with the world of men, albeit translated through the feeling hands of women. That world is its stage. It is a drama of war with a male cast – huntsmen, soldiers, kings – and events located at court, at sea, on farms, in foundries. There are no scenes of home, no flowers in the muddied fields, no apparent insight into women's lives.
Within its depictions of 632 men, over 200 horses, 55 dogs and more than 500 other animals and birds, there are only six women. They include Queen Edith lamenting her husband's death; a young woman being caressed or more probably struck by a cleric; a mother holding her son's hand as they flee from a burning house; a naked woman turning away from a nude man advancing on her with an erect penis; another naked woman holding a lamp in argument with a naked man who is brandishing an axe. The women are vulnerable, much smaller than their male companions. They are shown as diminished. They all seem powerless.
There is also the suggestion, however, that parts of the tapestry were drawn by hands other than those of its main designer, and that female stitchers inserted images of their own making, evidenced by less accomplished draughtsmanship. It is perfectly possible, through the long years of its making, that there would have been opportunities for covert additions, the chance to slip in a personal testimony of life after invasion, or even to document abuse.
Whether they inserted unsanctioned motifs and cameos or not, the presence of the embroiderers is palpable, held fast in their stitches. It is there in the diversity of needlecraft, the same stitches executed with a variance of skill. And it is there in the telling humanity of small errors or expediencies: a sudden shift to linen thread when the wool yarn ran out; a horse sewn in green thread; some armour etched in cross stitch rather than the more challenging chain stitch by some less accomplished stitcher. There are sections overlooked, a wrong stitch employed: mistakes, inconsistencies, omissions which lead us back to them, those stitching women – skilled, undoubtedly, but tired, hurried, careless at times. It is there in their awareness of the expense of their materials, the labour involved in hand-dyeing and hand-spinning wool. They attempt small economies as in their use of satin stitch which is sewn without looping the thread on the back, to save on yarn; a thread of colour allowed to travel to this place and that until it was all used up, servicing an eye, a letter, an element of chain mail before it reached its end.
As I scan the tapestry, lingering over its scenes of monarchical triumph and military devastation, I feel pulled into its story. It is as if, in its many reproductions, it has withheld its spirit, determined to disclose its fully tactile self only to a live audience. It is its needlework that brings it immediacy: characters, events and emotions animated by the skilful, imaginative deployment of coloured threads and surface stitches. This is its potency. It is the needlecraft that captures texture, rhythm, tone, personality, the sewing that traps its appeal.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Threads of Life"
Copyright © 2019 Clare Hunter.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Unknown 1
2 Power 17
3 Frailty 34
4 Captivity 49
5 Identity 65
6 Connection 82
7 Protect 96
8 Journey 110
9 Protest 123
10 Loss 143
11 Community 163
12 Place 183
13 Value 205
14 Art 227
15 Work 252
16 Voice 275