A Needle in the Right Hand of God: The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry

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9781400065493: A Needle in the Right Hand of God: The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry
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The Bayeux Tapestry is the world’s most famous textile–an exquisite 230-foot-long embroidered panorama depicting the events surrounding the Norman Conquest of 1066. It is also one of history’s most mysterious and compelling works of art. This haunting stitched account of the battle that redrew the map of medieval Europe has inspired dreams of theft, waves of nationalism, visions of limitless power, and esthetic rapture. In his fascinating new book, Yale professor R. Howard Bloch reveals the history, the hidden meaning, the deep beauty, and the enduring allure of this astonishing piece of cloth.

Bloch opens with a gripping account of the event that inspired the Tapestry: the swift, bloody Battle of Hastings, in which the Norman bastard William defeated the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, and laid claim to England under his new title, William the Conqueror. But to truly understand the connection between battle and embroidery, one must retrace the web of international intrigue and scandal that climaxed at Hastings. Bloch demonstrates how, with astonishing intimacy and immediacy, the artisans who fashioned this work of textile art brought to life a moment that changed the course of British culture and history.

Every age has cherished the Tapestry for different reasons and read new meaning into its enigmatic words and images. French nationalists in the mid-nineteenth century, fired by Tapestry’s evocation of military glory, unearthed the lost French epic “The Song of Roland,” which Norman troops sang as they marched to victory in 1066. As the Nazis tightened their grip on Europe, Hitler
sent a team to France to study the Tapestry, decode its Nordic elements, and, at the end of the war, with Paris under siege, bring the precious cloth to Berlin. The richest horde of buried Anglo-Saxon treasure, the matchless beauty of Byzantine silk, Aesop’s strange fable “The Swallow and the Linseed,” the colony that Anglo-Saxon nobles founded in the Middle East following their defeat at Hastings–all are brilliantly woven into Bloch’s riveting narrative.

Seamlessly integrating Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, and Byzantine elements, the Bayeux Tapestry ranks with Chartres and the Tower of London as a crowning achievement of medieval Europe. And yet, more than a work of art, the Tapestry served as the suture that bound up the wounds of 1066.

Enhanced by a stunning full-color insert that includes reproductions of the complete Tapestry, A Needle in the Right Hand of God will stand with The Professor and the Madman and How the Irish Saved Civilization as a triumph of popular history.

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About the Author:

Director of the Humanities Division and Sterling Professor of French at Yale, R. Howard Bloch is the author of numerous books, including the award-winning The Anonymous Marie de France. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the recipient of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships as well as the James Russell Lowell Award of the Modern Language Association. R. Howard Bloch is an Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters and has been honored by the Collège de France.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

chapter 1

LANCES, AXES, AND NEEDLES

Bad news reached Duke William of Normandy on the evening of October 13, 1066. In the two weeks since his spectacular crossing of the Channel in a thousand boats, he had pillaged freely in the English countryside between the old Roman ports of Pevensey and Hastings. Now word came that King Harold had defeated Scandinavian invaders near the town of York and was advancing rapidly from the North. By nightfall, Anglo-Saxons appeared along Senlac ridge, the high ground above the Norman camp. Harold held a strategic advantage over William, who was on unfamiliar terrain. He would be even stronger if reinforcements arrived from London.

William ordered his troops on high alert. Many did not sleep at all that night. Others awoke with the first light, which appeared at 5:20 on the morning of October 14. Sunrise at 6:28 brought an ominous sign. As William dressed for battle surrounded by his most trusted advisers—his half-brothers, Bishop Odo of Bayeux and Count Robert of Mortain, and a company of great Norman and Breton lords—his squires put on his corselet the wrong way around. It was a small thing, but William had confessed his sins the night before and made Communion at the first hour. In a world that believed in dialogue between the human and the divine, it seemed a sign from God. As his attendants struggled to turn the padding beneath his finely woven chain mail and breast armor, William made light of the situation. “We shall turn the strength of my duchy,” he joked, “into a kingdom.” He lifted the little sack of relics from Odo’s extended hand and placed them around his neck, and before Odo had finished praying for victory, William ordered the battle ranks. The duke was steady in the face of unpredictable events. In the crossing of the Channel on the night of September 27, William’s ship had arrived before the rest of the fleet. An oarsman reported that “as far as he could see there was nothing but sea and sky.” The Norman leader, certain that “all the others would arrive before long,” sat down to “an abundant meal, accompanied by spiced wine, as if we were in his hall at home.”

The French from France would be on the left, the Bretons on the right, William and the Normans in the center. The archers on foot would open the battle. Set crossbowmen would “pierce the faces of the English with their speeding shafts.” The knights on horse would be to the rear of the foot. William pronounced what he knew might be his final words: “Raise your standards, men, and let there be no measure or moderation to your righteous anger. Let the lightning of your glory be seen from the east to the west, let the thunder of your charge be heard, and may you be the avengers of most noble blood.”

Great shouting could be heard, the clinking of lifted helmets and mail, the clatter of horses’ hooves, and the harsh bray of trumpets on both sides. Dragons could be seen everywhere, on shields and on the banners that caught the wind, as William’s army began to array itself as he had ordered. The horsemen and infantry followed the banners to join their battalion; the archers observed them to know by the angle of their flutter how high and in what direction to shoot. The English could not be far off. Through the dust rising from the Norman camp, the forest glittered, full of spears.

Suddenly, one of William’s men rode out before the rest. He was not a knight, but a poet by the name of Taillefer, one of the jongleurs the duke had brought with him to entertain the troops. He tossed his sword in the air and began to twirl it in front of the enemy line. Heedless of death, he pricked his horse, which began to charge. He lowered his lance, which pierced an Anglo-Saxon shield, knocking the ax bearer lifeless to the ground. The jongleur severed the head from the prostrate body and, holding it in the air for the Normans to see, began to sing. “The Norman army,” in the words of a later chronicler, “struck up the song of Roland to fire them into battle with the example of a heroic warrior.” As Taillefer fell, the missiles of war began to fly overhead—arrows, javelins, axes, stones tied to sticks, the square bolts from the crossbows that no shield could resist.

The fighting did not at first go as William planned. The suddenness of the attack left no time for those on foot to place themselves in advance of the mounted knights. Norman archers could not soften Harold’s ax-bearing housecarls, the king’s personal guard. The knights with lances couched under their arms failed to penetrate the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. In the chaos of the first clash, the rumor circulated that William had been killed. His men broke rank. William quickly decided that he must turn the situation as he had turned his corselet earlier that morning. Drawing upon a tactic that had worked in the past and was well known to the knights who had traveled all the way from southern Italy for the campaign against Harold, the Norman chief joined his fleeing troops until he seemed to be leading the rout. Then, wheeling in his tracks, William raised his visor and showed his face. “Look at me,” he cried. “I am alive, and with the aid of God I will conquer. What madness is persuading you to flee? What way is open to escape? The sea lies behind. You will fight to conquer, if you want only to live!” Odo, armed with a club to respect the Christian prohibition against ecclesiastics shedding blood, “rallied the young men.”

The Anglo-Saxons rejoiced to see the Normans flee, and, as William had gambled that he would, Harold charged. The Normans drew the enemy from the high ground. Fanning out and doubling back, they caught the Anglo-Saxon army in a pincer maneuver like that by which Allied forces would trap the German Seventh Army in the Falaise Pocket in August 1944. And the fighting, as in the Battle of Normandy of World War II, was close and fierce. “The dead by falling seemed to move more than the living,” recalled one eyewitness. “It was not possible for the lightly wounded to escape, for they were crushed to death by the serried ranks of their companions.” William lost three mounts, killed from under him as he fought on horseback and hand-to-hand among his troops. “With his angry blade he tirelessly pierced shields, helmets, and hauberks,” writes William’s chaplain and biographer, William of Poitiers. “Utterly disdaining fear and dishonor, the Duke charged his enemies and laid them low.”

The sun set at 5:04 on October 14, 1066, and at the end of the day, six thousand human corpses, half of those who had ridden, sailed, or walked to Hastings, littered the field alongside six hundred horses. “The mangled bodies that had been the flower of the English nobility and youth covered the ground as far as the eye could see,” laments the twelfth-century historian Orderic Vitalis. Harold was dead, so mutilated that his wife was brought to identify his body by “certain marks.” Anglo-Saxons who survived their leader made a last stand along a trench known in the eleventh century as the malfosse, “bad ditch,” into which many Normans, not knowing the terrain, fell and perished without realizing they had won the day. “Many left their corpses in deep woods, many who had collapsed on the routes blocked the way for those who came after. Even the hooves of the horses inflicted punishment on the dead.” As the last of Harold’s followers vanished into the night, William’s army, exhausted, made camp among the fallen of both sides over which he now ruled as king. Having awakened that morning still burdened by the title by which he had always been known, “the Bastard,” Duke William went to sleep that night having earned the name history would accord him—“the Conqueror.”

The meeting of Normans and Anglo-Saxons at Hastings was the most decisive battle of the Middle Ages and one of the determining days in the making of the West. Hastings changed Britain, which had been dominated since the end of Roman rule by invading tribes from the Continent and the North—Angles, Saxons, and Vikings. This day more than any other turned Britain away from its Scandinavian past and toward Europe. Hastings inaugurated the era of the knight, the social dominance of those who fought with lance on horseback. With the watershed of 1066 came the beginning of the end of the chaos and darkness—the political disintegration and the lack of learning— between the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire after his death in the early ninth century and the flowering of state institutions and culture of the Anglo-Norman world. How fitting that the Norman army should enter battle singing of the heroic deeds of Charlemagne’s nephew Roland, as if William would begin where the emperor of the Franks had left off. William had himself crowned king of England on Christmas day 1066, just as Charlemagne had been crowned in Rome on Christmas day 800.

If the Battle of Hastings began with poetry, it ended in the realm of the visual arts. The Norman Conquest of England produced the world’s most famous textile, the Bayeux Tapestry, a 230-foot-long-by-20-inch- high running embroidered account of the events leading to Hastings and of the battle itself. Made in the decades following the Conquest by those who were party to it, the Tapestry, which contains both images and Latin inscriptions, is a principal source of kno...

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