Monday, August 19, 2013

The Bayeux Tapestry: The 1000 Year Old Proto-Comic of the Norman Conquest

Narrative art has existed for dozens of centuries and early in Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud details several early narrative pictorial works, which tended to be histories or religious in nature. While there is no straight-line connection between these works and the modern conception of comics - which came from the centuries-old political cartoon and Randolphe Topffer's seismic innovations of sequential narrative art in the 1820s - one such work, The Bayeux Tapestry from circa 1077 CE, deserves wider attention as a stunning proto-comic hundreds of years ahead of its time.

Scene 38, "Here Duke William in a great fleet crossed the sea"
The two most remarkable things about The Bayeux Tapestry that jump out right away are its monumental nature and its level of preservation despite its age. An embroidered cloth of about 20 inches wide and 225 feet long, it has survived in relatively pristine condition despite the countless brutal wars and political upheavals that racked its home country of France for centuries. The other striking features about the Tapestry (which is not an actual tapestry) is the stunning artistry and craftsmanship of its production, and the extraordinary clarity of its sequential narrative.

L to R: Scene 44, brothers Odo, William I and Robert
Scene 32, "These people marvel at the star" (The Star is Haley's Comet)
Scene 55, The stunning moment during the Battle of Hastings where William shows he is still alive
Possibly designed by Scolland, a St. Augustine monk, commissioned by Odo, Earl of Kent, Bishop of Bayeux in the North of France, and de facto regent of England, the Bayeux Tapestry chronicles the recently completed Norman Conquest of England by Odo's half-brother, William the Conqueror. In the mid part of the first century of the new millennium, England and her new King, Harold II, found itself racked by Viking invasions in the North and designs on the throne from French forces in the south. William, The Duke of Normandy, had a tangential claim to the throne and invaded England in 1066, defeating Harold's forces and killing Harold in the Battle of Hastings that October. The Norman Conquest and the reign of William I and his successors resulted in the societal, political, judicial and linguistic transmogrification of England, forever changing the course of Western Civilization.

Scene 51, "Here Duke William speaks to his knights to prepare themselves manfully and wisely for the battle against the army of the English"
The Tapestry is a remarkable primary political and historical document. Reading left-to-right, without panels but told in one long continuous narrative with scenes separated by stylized fauna, the Tapestry features a detailed history of the events leading up to and through William I's conquest. (As it was produced in the middle of William's reign it is slightly propagandist in parts but surprisingly neutral for most of its narrative.) Featuring exquisitely detailed figure work and frequent captions in slightly Anglicized Latin (the tituli), the work is a remarkable documentary of medieval history, culture, and warfare. The artistry is breathtaking. The craftspeople who produced the Tapestry used rich colors and fine stitching of wool on linen, telling the main story down the middle of the Tapestry. The borders of the Tapestry feature smaller illustrations that sometimes compliment the main action of the center of the piece, sometimes just illustrative, but consistently remarkable.
Scene 53, The Battle of Hastings in all its violence; "Here English and French fell at the same time in battle."
It's hard not to see the parallels with the forms of narrative art that would come centuries later, mainly that which is closest to my heart, comics. Looking at the Tapestry, I am continuously struck by the level of detail and the power of the images. From the scale of the combatant armies, the violence of the battles, the detail in clothing and animals and armor, and even the small details like quiet meals on the eve of battle. It is a remarkable and stunning work of art, historically and aesthetically significant.  It uses the intuitive language of comics that would be developed centuries later to stand on its own as one of Western Civilization's most important works of art.
The entire Bayeux Tapestry
The entire Tapestry, via Wikimedia Commons

The Bayeux Tapestry can be seen at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, in Bayeux, France. Or, you can just look at it in many, many places on the internet. I highly recommend, which (like the Wikipedia article on the Tapestry) is an excellent overview with many links to online resources for further study.


  1. I hadn't thought of The Bayeux Tapestry with regard to proto historical comic.. I find your comments helped to bring to life elements of the tapestry I had overlooked and I can understand and appreciate the similarities between modern day comic and the tapestry.