Whilst carrying out some research on the naked characters inhabiting the borders of the Bayeux Tapestry, I came across a wonderful, gendered tirade by a certain Miss Agnes Strickland, author of the 1853 work Lives of the Queens of England.
Her gripe was against contemporary masculine interventions into the issue of restored figures in the famous eleventh-century embroidery. With quintessential, restrained Victorian ire, Strickland wrote:
‘With all due deference to the judgement of the lords of creation on all subjects connected with policy and science, we venture to think that our learned friends, the archæologists and antiquaries, would do well to devote their intellectual powers to more masculine objects of enquiry, and leave the question of the Bayeux tapestry (with all other matters allied to needle-craft) to the decision of the ladies to whose province it belongs. It is a matter of doubt to us whether one, out of many gentlemen who have disputed Mathilda’s claim to the work, if called upon to execute a copy of either of the figures on canvas, would know how to put in the first stitch’!
Leaving aside what appears to be a misplaced defence of Queen Mathilda’s actual handiwork – no Bayeux Tapestry scholar, female or male, would today attribute even the commissioning of the Tapestry to the wife of William the Conqueror – I find myself rather moved by Strickland’s needled vehemence. After all, she has a serious point: don’t comment on things about which you don’t understand!
I’m not agreeing per se with Strickland’s gender bias, but I do think it is relevant, when attempting to argue about meanings within the Tapestry, that we recognize the importance of practical knowledge of embroidery production.
Which brings me back to my involvement with the Tapestry’s naked figures. I have to confess that in writing the initial draft of my chapter for a forthcoming collection of essays on the Bayeux Tapestry, I rather ignored the issue of post-medieval needlework restoration – or should I say I was actually ignorant of the extent of this in connection with the naked figures.
You see, to get to the point, I have a naked man in the lower border – let’s call him Adam – who may or may not have an erection! He certainly has one now – rather serpentine, if truth be told.
But in drawings of the Tapestry, commissioned by a certain Bernard de Montfaucon and published in 1730, the bottom half of the man is missing. Never mind a penis, Adam doesn’t even have legs!
However, his active member is apparent in the later drawings by Charles Stothard, published between 1818 and 1823, though Stothard’s version of the man’s legs are not as they appear now on the Tapestry.
You see my problem?
There was no point in me waffling on in my chapter for this book about the metonymic significance of this man’s overt masculinity to the Bayeux Tapestry’s overall narrative (yawn) if there wasn’t an erection in the first place.
So you see, with Strickland’s words ringing in my ears, I realised that I needed an expert in medieval embroidery.
Luck would have it that my friend and former colleague at the University of Manchester, Alex Makin, is both an expertly trained embroiderer (Royal School of Needlework) and an expert researcher of medieval embroidery. (She is also contributing a chapter to the new book.)
So I have put Adam’s problematic penis in her hands ... better rephrase that ... I have asked Alex for her professional opinion on the stitch work of the offending scene.
In due course, we will hopefully all know, with a higher degree of certainty, whether or not Adam had an eleventh-century erection. So stay tuned.
But, alas! If only Miss Agnes Strickland were still alive! I’m convinced she would have been delighted at my careful scholarship.
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