It is a known fact that the most popular movies and TV series significantly increase tourism in filming locations; a recent and spectacular example is “Game of Thrones”, filmed (and produced) largely in Belfast, but also – among others – in Croatia, in Spain, Island or Malta. Touristic traffic in those countries is now advertised in reference to the famous series: with videos, tables in particular locations, adds and publications… and Ireland (Tourism Ireland) decided to invest in something special: a tapestry, exhibited in Ulster Museum in Belfast, with embroidered story of “Game of Thrones”, completed in style of a famous Bayeux Tapestry. Moreover, right now (until the end of December 2019) Game of Thrones Tapestry is temporarily exhibited in Hôtel du Doyen in Bayeux, next door to the museum that houses original Bayeux Tapestry.
On one hand I find the idea of producing Game of Thrones Tapestry brilliant on many levels. On the other hand, I am tempted to ask: why produce such a thing, while most of the content is already present in the medieval original? Because, as I like to say, everything already happened in the Middle Ages. Let’s take a look at the Bayeux Tapestry: we have explicit sex scenes there (featuring both male and female nudity), there is a lot of violence (including beheadings), there are battles with horses, there are ships, there is fire, there are dragons (of course!) and even a dwarf named Turold (note how close it is to “Tyrion”! I wrote about him in my previous post, available HERE). And also, let’s not forget that the main character is… a Bastard!
Many times my British friends told me: “your country (that is Poland) had such a difficult history, you have been invaded so many times! And the last one we had, it was William the Conqueror”. Well, that is actually true: the Norman Conquest of 1066 was the last time a foreign army successfully invaded England. And that is what the Bayeux Tapestry is about.
William the Conqueror – it has a nice ring to it. Only few people remember today that before the Battle of Hastings duke William had much worse nickname: the Bastard (fr. Guillaume le Bâtard). That is because he was indeed the illegitimate son; his father, duke of Normandy Robert I the Magnificent (also known as “the Devil”, allegedly because he poisoned his own brother to win the throne) never married, so all his children were out of wedlock. He sired William with a common girl called Herleva (Arletta), probably the daughter of a tanner from Falais. Later Herleva married a nobleman Herluin de Conteville, and had two sons with him: Odo, future bishop of Bayeux, and Robert, count of Mortain and earl of Cornwall. Both half-brothers supported William in his conquest and they are both depicted in the Tapestry.
In January 1066 king of England Edward the Confessor died leaving no heir. William duke of Normandy decided that he should have the English throne; first of all, because allegedly Edward promised him to make him the heir to the throne, and secondly because they were related (but not very closely: William’s grandfather, Richard II, was a brother to Emma, mother of Edward)
Meanwhile, the English throne was taken by Harold II, supported by Anglo-Saxon nobility. Harold was late king Edward’s brother in law (brother of the king’s widow). He took the English crown in spite of the fact that allegedly he earlier swore to be loyal to William of Normandy. The latter collected his army and invaded England; the crucial battle took place in Hastings, on October 14th 1066. William won and gained the nickname “Conqueror”, and Harold died in the battle.
The Bayeux Tapestry was created contemporarily; most likely soon after the Norman conquest. It an embroidered piece of cloth of 50 cm wide and almost 70 meters long. It is unknown when precisely, where and on whose commission this masterpiece was created; for the first time it appears in 1476 in the Bayeux cathedral inventory. Most of the scholars assume (on the basis of – among others – spelling of the inscriptions) that it was created by Englishmen, however the story point of view is Norman.
It is possible that the donor may have been Odo, mentioned above half-brother of William the Conqueror, the bishop of Bayeux since mid-11th century. After the conquest he also became the earl of Kent, so he was a rich man. He appears in the tapestry several times and already in the 18th century it has been noted that the estimated dating of the Tapestry coincides with the consecration of Bayeux cathedral in 1077. On the other hand, some scholars point out that the tapestry includes too much explicit erotic content to have been originally destined for the church interior. That, I think, may not be entirely true: in the Middle Ages sacrum and profanum were much more merged than we assume today; if obscene images appeared in the margins of sacred books, why wouldn’t they be permitted in other items belonging to the church?
Prof. George Garnett (St Hugh’s College, Oxford) published some time ago a paper in History Extra (BBC history service), analysing 93 penises included in the Bayeux Tapestry. Most of them belong to the horses, but there are also at least 5 depictions of completely nude men (and women, but those have no penises, obviously). Those figures adorn tapestry’s margins and most likely create bawdy comments to the main scenes. Indecent common stories often dealt with such issues as infidelity, betrayal or treason – those aspect may as well refer to the political games and the heroes of the main story included in the tapestry.
Especially interesting piece is also a mysterious one: it depicts a woman that seems to be harassed by a young cleric. The inscription reads: Ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva (a certain cleric and Ælfgyfa), but we can’t figure our today what it was about. Ælfgyfa remains unidentified (as, of course, “a certain cleric”), and only the gestures of the characters and the obscene depiction of a naked man in the lower margin suggest that it may refer to some scandal. It was probably well-known to the contemporary viewers.
The difference between our modern “liberated” times and the Middle Ages is interesting: note, that the “Game of Thrones” has been rated in the UK and Ireland as unsuitable for the viewers under 18. That is because of explicit sexual content, graphic depictions of violence and vulgar language. Meanwhile, more or less the same kind of content (perhaps without vulgar inscriptions) in the medieval England may actually have been exposed in a church! And even if it was somewhere else, I’m pretty sure no-one kept it out of sight of children – it was simply assumed that kids should learn how the world goes.