Monday, October 23, 2006


During one of our shopping excursions, we took my daughter into a French comic book store. These differ from American comic book stores, because in France, comics are treated as an art form, and are printed primarily as graphic novels. The paper, printing and binding are all top quality, and my daughter was very impressed. However, she didn’t want to buy any books, because they were all in French.

There’s a small town in Normandy where one of the most precious artifacts in the world is kept on display. It’s the Bayeux Tapestry, which documents the events surrounding the Battle of Hastings, where William the Conqueror of France invaded England in 1066. It ranks up there with the Rosetta Stone, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Samuel Pepys’ diary in terms of historical significance. I’ve been hearing about it since high school.

The tapestry was intended to be displayed in the nave of the Bayeux Cathedral, and was completed around 1077. It’s made of linen, and it’s nearly a thousand years old. Today it’s kept in controlled conditions in a library adjacent to the cathedral. It’s a lengthy story, illustrated by embroidery, in one continuous strip, 230 feet long by 20 inches high. I convinced my daughter that it would be interesting, because it’s the world’s first graphic novel. As you walk around the town of Bayeux, you see little brass markers on the sidewalk, which lead you to the tapestry. The symbol on the marker is a stylized tree, used in the tapestry to separate the “frames” of the story.

When you enter the display area, a reproduction of the tapestry winds around in a serpentine path, which all of the visitors follow in a shuffling walk. Information about the period, the symbols, the images and the story is presented. It’s tedious reading, so we ducked out and went into the theater where a film provided a much better summation of the story. Basically, it involves the story of Harold (an English Earl) who is captured and held for ransom by a French Count while on a diplomatic visit to France. William, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy arranges for his release, and the two become fast friends. Because the King of England has no heir, Harold promises William that if he is named successor to the English throne, he will step aside and name William as the king. Unfortunately, he breaks his vow, and is crowned King of England during an appearance by Halley’s comet.


William, outraged by this betrayal, built a fleet of ships, crossed the channel and conquered England in 1066. Harold was killed in the battle. This is the last time in history that England was successfully invaded.

Once the film finished, we went in to view the actual tapestry. As a historical record, the tapestry is invaluable and compelling. As an example of decorative embroidery, it is horribly disappointing. I guess I was expecting something of stunning beauty. Instead, it looks cartoonish and dorky.


It clearly represents a lot of work, but it wasn’t a work of love. Instead, the general consensus is that it was commissioned by a member of the French clergy and produced by a bunch of English monks, sweating under the lash of their new masters. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I thought it was going to be one of those breathtaking artistic experiences. It’s not hard to see why nobody does tapestries anymore.

Bayeux is a picturesque little city, somehow completely unscarred by the events of World War II. However, once you’ve seen the cathedral and the tapestry, there’s not much left to do there.



No comments: