Prehistory of Comics Part 4: The Bayeux Tapestry

Edward the Confessor, nicknamed for his piety, seems to be winking here but isn’t.

The Splash Page

A 230-foot-long (over that, really) wool-on-linen artifact commemorating the 11th-century Battle of Hastings brings our tour of proto-comics into the second millennium.

Mounted knights and archers were vital to William’s military success.

Past the Page Turn

When Edward the Confessor died in 1066, the English crown was claimed by his brother, Harold Godwinson, the most powerful of the English lords at the time. William, a Norman duke and cousin to the deceased King Edward, claimed the crown for himself. After receiving vital support from the Pope and building an invasion fleet, William took his army of French and Italian knighs and Norman archers to England and fought Harold’s forces at the Battle of Hastings.

William, who would soon become William the Conqueror, had a smaller army, and he had ceded the high ground to the English. Both major disadvantages. But William had archers and horsemen, and that was enough to win the battle and the crown. 10,000 men died to put a Norman on the English throne, beginning a process of cultural and linguistic synthesis that would transform Old English into Middle English and change British history.

A few years later, artists completed what is known as the Bayeux Tapestry, which records events surrounding the Battle of Hastings and the conquest of England by the Normans. The piece is made from wool thread colored with vegetable dyes and stitched onto linen. It’s a massive piece, over 70 meters (76.5 yards) long and almost a meter tall, and the friezes at top and bottom collect moments from daily life, stories from Aesop’s fables, and random marginalia include at least one totally naked dude.

Harold Godwinson, the usurper, is killed. Scenes show him with an arrow in the eye and then run down by a mounted knight. (It’s a tough look there at the end.)

Finding Closure

Other than imagining the terrible hand cramps that must have afflicted the artists who created the Bayeux Tapestry, the big thoughts that occur to me are similar to those that spring from looking at and thinking about Trajan’s Column. In both cases, it’s impossible to take in the entire piece at once, which pushes all kinds of ideas about time and history and human perception around in my brain.

This idea of time here is interesting. Watching the animated Bayeux Tapestry video, it feels as if the way items sometimes blur together and sometimes stand separately is intriguing. Things happening in and around structures, inside houses and palaces for example, feel fully separate in time. The architecture acts as a kind of comic panel, separating what happens in from what happens out.

But the things that happen outside sort of all seem to occur in a rush, one thing bouncing off another, one thing flowing into the next. Does being inside increase our sense of events in our lives being fully separate? Has the transition to living and working indoors transformed our sense of our lives in a way that makes it more sterile, more categorized, less flowing, less a thing and more a hundred thousand little things?

Are standing desks, for example, a sort of low-fi way to increase our awareness of time, of living? Should everybody have an hour a day to walk around? And what does it mean that we have to wait to get home to feel the air of the world and the world around us?

The questions come pouring out.


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