Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A masterclass in storytelling

At the end of July I was in Normandy, at the time of the ongoing D-Day 70th anniversary celebrations. I flew to Caen, as a guest of Flybe, who can hop you across the Channel in an hour from London Southend airport.

Both airports are tiny and you wait only 5 minutes to collect your bags from the single carousel at Caen-Carpiquet. We were there to see the Caen Memorial Museum, which is well worth a visit, especially in this summer of War anniversaries.

But our co-hosts were the Normandy Tourist Board who, quite correctly, believed that my small group of fellow journalists would be very disappointed if they didn't also visit nearby Bayeux while they were there. We all know what the Bayeux Tapestry looks like, without ever having seen it, don't we? It's like the Eiffel Tour or the Taj Mahal or Michelangelo's David - one of those immediately recogniseable works of art that lodge in the collective consciousness.

I honestly hadn't known it was on my "bucket list" until I got the opportunity to see it but retrospectively it obviously must have been. Adèle Geras has written a lovely post on The History Girls blog about the "tapestry" - actually an embroidery with wool on linen. Such a coincidence that, after more than three years of running the History Girls blog, I should see this great artwork at the same time as another HG!

But I have this blog too, on which to write about all things literary and I think the Tapestry has a lot to tell us about storytelling. Famously, it is the world's "first comic strip", telling the story from left to right in some 70 metres of scenes from the story of Harold Godwinson, William the First, the Battle of Hastings and ...

Well it stops short of the logical conclusion, which would be the coronation of William of Normandy as the first King of England in the list we now reckon monarchs from. That bit of the Tapestry is missing but has been ably re-imagined by the embroiderers of Alderney in a Finale on exhibition in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum on display till the end of this month.

I won't say more about the Finale here as I intend to put it in my Cabinet of Curiosities on 31st August on the History Girls.

I mention scenes rather than frames above because the numbers on the Tapestry were added in the 19th Century as aids to following the story and for convenience of reference. And there are no verticals separating the scenes, except for those provided by aspects of the mise-en-scène, such as upright walls of buildings and so on.

But it could well have been sectioned into frames and presented as a graphic novel. It is also a terrific piece of war propaganda. History is written by the victors and, whoever conceived the tapestry, thought to have been commissioned by William's half-brother Bishop Odo, it is a trimph of Norman spin.

Nevertheless the Latin text whose lettering is such a recogniseable part of the tapestry's "look" was probably written by an Englishman. Some think the organising mind behind the depiction was William's wife Matilda - a claim dismissed in the Guidebook as an eighteenth century invention. For an in-depth analysis of the possible candidates, I recommend Carola Hicks' book The Bayeux Tapestry: the Life Story of a Masterpiece (Vintage 2006). She plumps for Edith, Harold's sister and the widow of King Edward the Confessor, whose approaching death begins the story.

At first sight this seems unlikely, since Edith was hardly one of the victors. But she survived the Conquest and would have had an interest in promoting William's unification of England and Normandy, so who knows?

What is clear is that there must have been one unifying mind behind the design. It is SO distinctive and coherent: one of its charms in fact is that very consistency. And the story being told here is not just the record of a military campaign and victory/defeat. It is a moral tale about the consequences of breaking an oath.

It begins with Edward the Confessor asking Harold Godwinson, his brother by marriage, to visit William in Normandy and tell him that he is Edward's chosen heir to the throne. Harold and his companions set off from Bosham on the Solent, complete with hawks and hounds, as if on a fine jaunt.

But disaster strikes when Harold is captured by Guy on Ponthieu, a rebellious vassal of William's. One of his company escapes and takes a message to William that Harold needs rescuing. This duly happens but at a price: Harold must swear loyalty to William as heir-designate to the English throne.

 "Harold sacramentum fecit," Harold swears the oath. You can see him doing it in the middle, each hand placed on a shrine or reliquary as he does so. This a serious stuff.  But is it true? The gift of naming an heir did not lie within the power of the reigning king in the 11th century; nor was inheritance of the title determined by family relationship. The succession was decided by members of the Witenagemot, an assembly of nobles. So that immediately undermines the very basis of the moral and historical story.

But what a story! According to the tapestry, Harold breaks his oath and as soon as Edward is dead, has himself crowned king. If that were true, the whole following shebang - the battle, the deaths on both sides, the arrow in Harold's eye - would simply be a tale of an oathbreaker getting his just deserts.

This famous scene of Harold's death is particularly enigmatic though. I looked as hard as I could and could scarcely see the arrow; at was as if it had been added later - or even removed, so pale are the stitches.

The tapestry is truly a masterpiece of storytelling - clear images, a distinctive style, text and pictures forming an integral part of the whole. But as the message is so biased to one view of history (there is no mention, for example, of Harold's army having marched to Hastings straight after a victory in the north against Harold Hardrada and being exhausted), it made me long to invent an opposite view.

A Hastings Tapestry perhaps? What I do know is that I'd kill for an illustrator and art director like the ones Odo employed.

You can see the whole tapestry roll by here.
The images in this post are taken from Wikimedia Commons, and are credited to Myrabella


adele said...

A really fascinating post and yes, an amazing coincidence to be seeing it at the same time, both of us! I agree with you completely that it's clearly the conception of one mind...that's obvious! And it is most beautiful. I am now gong to link to this on twitter....

Unknown said...

I just stop by to let you know I love your page and I had a good time reading it. I’m glad that my friend emailed me the link to this blog. I just bookmarked this blog and I hope your next one is going to be about the same topic again I’m looking for ward to it. One thing I want to add is I like your writting style.
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