Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1905:
LA TAPISSERIE de BAYEUX

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the Bayeux Tapestry. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry, but a huge piece of embroidery. It's displayed in the Museum of Queen Matilda, in the Norman city of Bayeux. It's only twenty inches high, but it extends 231 feet. It wraps around the inside walls of a huge otherwise-empty room. It tells the story of how, in 1066, the Normans conquered England. And it does so entirely in comic book form.

The Bayeux Tapestry is reminiscent of a Medieval stained glass window, but it's simpler to read. The windows of Chartres Cathedral, for example, tell Bible stories in a series of pictures that begin in the lower left and read, panel by panel, to the upper right corner. This account simply moves left to right. Some three hundred pictures tell the story, beginning with political machina-tions, and ending in the Norman victory at Hastings.

The very end of the tapestry is lost. It probably showed the coronation of William as King of England. But what remains, is a stunning achievement -- both primitive and wonderfully sophisticated. Simple angular figures unfold with astonishing detail.

From the tapestry, we learn just what armor and horse tack were used. We're shown the form of Norman ships and how they moved men and horses. But first, come scenes of ship-building in preparation for the invasion. They tell us about eleventh-century carpentry. We also learn about English and Norman hairstyles and dress -- furniture and falconry, the whole tapestry (dare I say) of life in the French aristocracy.

Ista Mirant Stella One astonishing detail is a picture of six men pointing up at a very strange star. Isti Mirant Stella, the tapestry intones -- They marvel at the star. Actually, this had to be Halley's comet. It passed six months before King Harold's defeat and death, and it's being presented as an omen.

We see the Normans loading their ships with weapons and wine. We learn that William used spies -- that he killed off enemy wounded, and butchered their dead. Remember, this is history told by the victor. We see Harold trying to pull an arrow out of his eye; then a Norman soldier hacks at him while he lies dying. And all the while, the borders run along, merrily filled with figures from medieval fables.

As best we can tell, William's half-brother Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, commissioned the tapestry. It was finished within seventeen years of the Battle and undoubtedly included plenty of eyewitness input. One reason we know Odo was behind it is that we keep finding him and his retainers in the story.

As a history of kingly conflict this is, no doubt, slanted. But hasn't that always been so? Yet here is also the history of how people lived and managed a millennium ago -- a theme of life, not of slaughter. And that is exactly why the Bayeux Tapestry is such a marvel among historical documents.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


The best full representation of the tapestry is to be found in: The Bayeux Tapestry (Introduction and commentary, by David Wilson), New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. You may also find the full tapestry online at
http://hastings1066.com/
and     http://www.bayeuxtapestry.org.uk/BayeuxContents.htm

See also the various encyclopedia articles on the Bayeux Tapestry.

And a number of articles on various aspects of the Tapestry may be read in The Study of the Bayeux Tapestry (Richard Gameson, ed.) Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1997.


William's shipbuilders
Details from the Tapestry showing how William's shipbuilder's prepared his transport vessels for the invasion


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.