Gale celebrates the tenth birthday of her co-edited journal
BIO Gale Owen-Crocker is Professor of Anglo-Saxon Culture at the University of Manchester, teacher of Old English language and literature, a renowned medieval clothing and textiles expert, and a prolific writer on the Bayeux Tapestry. To date, she has written 23 journal articles on the Tapestry, 14 of which were published as a book, The Bayeux Tapestry: Collected Papers, in 2012. In addition, she edited a collection of conference papers in 2005, King Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry, and co-edited The Bayeux Tapestry: New Approaches in 2011.
Gale has three new Bayeux Tapestry projects on the go. She is currently co-editing a book with Anna Henderson, Making Sense of the Bayeux Tapestry: Readings and Reworkings; writing an authored book, The Design of the Bayeux Tapestry, which is going to be a collaboration with artist Maggie Kneen and the DigiPal Project; and discussing an authored book on The Bayeux Tapestry and the Liturgy with Sarah Keefer.
In the next couple of years she will be lecturing on the Bayeux Tapestry in Britain and America; and in 2016 she will be directing a Day School on the Tapestry in Oxford.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- You may have read Ben Chapple's story a few days ago about a team of embroiderers on the small island of Alderney 'finishing' the Bayeux Tapestry.
I asked medieval textiles expert Professor Gale Owen-Crocker ten questions to find out what she thought about the new ending to the Bayeux Tapestry. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------
What was your initial response to the news that the Alderney islanders had finished the final scenes of the Bayeux Tapestry?
I was delighted to hear it. Many ‘spin offs’ have been produced in this country and abroad but it is particularly appropriate for Alderney to do one because of its geographical position. It is of course quite different from the Jersey Tapestry which is in separate panels, depicts the Second World War, and incorporates different textile techniques.
I was consulted by the Alderney team 2 years ago and I believe the depiction of William (looking askance when the uproar breaks out) owes something to my response at that time. I wish they had consulted me about the archbishop’s dress. Mitres were not worn as early as this – but it helps a modern audience to recognise a bishop.
As a Bayeux Tapestry and medieval textiles expert, what are your thoughts on the materiality of the reconstruction? (i.e. the materials used)
As far as I can tell from photographs, the appearance seems very good. It looks very well executed. The original has thick embroidery – it stands out prominently from the backcloth in a way that you can only appreciate by seeing it in real life. I haven’t seen the Alderney one in real life yet.
What materials were used in the original?
The backcloth is fine linen, in 9 lengths joined together with seams that are hardly visible and are sometimes disguised by being embroidered over. The embroidery is in plied wool in 10 colours.
What are your thoughts on the reconstruction’s design?
The Alderney workers relied on Jan Messant’s designs and I believe she consulted a leading historian. The designer has filled the new Tapestry with major historical events; but we must appreciate that the original Bayeux Tapestry doesn’t always include things that modern historians think of as major events – it omits the Battle of Stamfordbridge – and that it uniquely elevates Bayeux as the location of Harold’s oath when documentary sources say it happened elsewhere. English sources of course don’t mention Harold’s visit to Normandy at all!
The likelihood that William’s coronation ended the Tapestry has been discussed since the eighteenth century. That balances the enthroned Edward at the beginning – or it would if the scene actually ended the new Tapestry but it doesn’t, continuing with a visual anti-climax, I think, through the men outside Westminster Abbey and the building of the Tower of London. Personally I would doubt that there is THAT MUCH missing; my research on the internal geometry of the design would suggest not as much as four scenes.However the feast on the battlefield does some interesting new things. It uses perspective, it has humans with buildings as background, which the original doesn’t, and it introduces women. It is good to see these new ideas.
We mustn’t ignore the borders: what are your thoughts on the new borders?
They revisit motifs that have been found in the original, including for example, a fable and a house burning. There are more human beings here than we usually find in the borders and because it is a reprise of the whole Bayeux Tapestry it doesn’t look like any part of it; but it’s none the worse for that. Who wants a slavish copy?
The embroiderers were most likely English. How much do we know about eleventh-century English embroidery?
It seems to have been already famous, a desirable thing to own. As opus anglicanum English embroidery incorporating precious metal was going to be a collectable treasure of the 12th and 13th centuries. William’s queen, Matilda, commissioned English work. However the English embroidery that survives is earlier. We have some magnificent pieces from the early tenth century and before. What is interesting is that embroidery seems to have been in step with fashions in other artworks. The Durham stole and maniple are in Winchester Style which is manifested elsewhere in manuscripts and carving. The Bayeux Tapestry is in Canterbury Style.
The added four scenes give symmetry to the historical narrative as a whole. Putting a historian’s hat on, is this symmetry something with which you are comfortable?
I am not a historian, but I have done a lot of work on Anglo-Saxon Art and Literature and I would say that the Anglo-Saxons liked balance, echo and prediction, though this is rarely so precise a relationship as to be symmetrical. Alderney’s layout of the coronation scene/border/inscription is in this way rather ‘better’ than the original! Note, though, that Harold’s coronation in NOT in the middle of the Bayeux Tapestry as is often supposed (and as is said in the web link you sent). It’s much nearer the beginning. There is in fact a series of seated authority figures throughout the frieze who play against one another.
Scholars don’t agree on the question of whether the Tapestry has an English or Norman bias. How do the added scenes engage in this debate?
The new border with a fable and the burning of a house are potentially anti-Norman. The hand of God over the Norman construction project is potentially pro.
Why do you think people are still so fascinated with the Bayeux Tapestry?
Its vitality. Historians use it as an original source. It is a monument of art history. As a textile it is unique. It is the largest object surviving from the Middle Ages (apart from buildings) and the largest textile by far. When you consider how delicate textile is, its survival is amazing. A lot of people in the USA and even in the UK think it's funny because it makes them think of modern cartoons which are funny and there are lots of internet things which slightly mock it. In France it is honoured as a national monument, taken very seriously. Actually there are some witticisms in it, which are not generally recognised, but that doesn’t mean that as an artwork it’s inferior or ‘lowbrow’. Actually it tells the story in a highly sophisticated way. I never look at it without seeing something new, and I suppose that is part of its fascination for many people.
How would you end the Bayeux Tapestry?
I wouldn’t. It is as it is.
"I wish they had consulted me about the archbishop’s dress. Mitres were not worn as early as this – but it helps a modern audience to recognise a bishop."
"Personally, I would doubt that there is THAT MUCH missing; my research on the internal geometry of the design would suggest not as much as four scenes."
"The feast on the battlefield does some interesting new things. It uses perspective, it has humans with buildings as background, which the original doesn’t, and it introduces women. It is good to see these new ideas."
"The Anglo-Saxons liked balance, echo and prediction, though this is rarely so precise a relationship as to be symmetrical. Alderney’s layout of the coronation scene/border/inscription is in this way rather ‘better’ than the original!"
"A lot of people in the USA and even in the UK think [the Bayeux Tapestry] is funny because it makes them think of modern cartoons, which are funny, and there are lots of internet things which slightly mock it. In France it is honoured as a national monument, taken very seriously."