Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Worlds First Comic Strip (Bayeux, France)

guest post by Vera Marie Badertscher, A Traveler's Library

Some wonders of the world consist of rock and water, spectacular plants or unusual animals. I visited a true wonder of the world that consists of a piece of linen material and a whole lot of wool thread.

At first I thought that the Bayeux Tapestry would be of interest simply because it is old. And it is an impressive 934 years old in 2011. Created in 1077, it tells the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

But telling history by recounting the dates of battles can put anybody to sleep. That's why, when I donned earphones and entered the dim hall of the Bayeux Tapestry Museum to shuffle slowly around the length of the glass-encased tapestry, I was surprised and delighted to learn that this old piece of cloth brings history vividly, and sometimes amusingly, to life.

First you notice that this is not a woven tapestry. It is, instead, an embroidery made by unknown fabric artists with just ten colors of wool yarn. Although the creators were once thought to be William's wife and the ladies of her court, current speculation says it was French nuns who did the work. The 75-yard (68.6 m.) long embroidery, only twenty inches (50 cm.) from top to bottom, shows scenes of plotting, betrayal, travel, battle, and triumph in what might be dubbed the world's oldest comic strip. Little vignettes on the border shows fantastic, mythical beasts and scenes from morality tales, including some pretty bawdy ones.

You can learn what soldiers wore, what their ships and horse tack looked like, how they ate and fought in the period when Normans (Norsemen--Vikings) were becoming the rulers of most of France, and led by William, conquering England as well. Somebody has counted 626 people in the tapestry, and of course William (about to gain the title “the Conqueror”) stands out as the most important. I was fascinated by the fact that William's brother Odon, the bishop of Bayeux, fought by his side. And when they returned victorious to Bayeux, Odon commissioned the story-telling embroidery for the consecration of his new cathedral, Notre Dame of Bayeux.

At the Tapestry Museum, you will also learn that the tapestry has led a life nearly as adventurous as William the Conqueror's. It was periodically hung around the edges of the cathedral's interior, and in between festivals, the finely woven cloth was folded into an unbelievably small wooden chest--about a yard long and not that high--that still sits in the Treasury of the cathedral. Two fires ravished the cathedral, but the tapestry survived. French revolutionaries threatened to cut it in pieces because they were against anything religious. Small pieces disappeared over the years as people helped themselves to souvenirs. Napoleon grabbed it at one point, and it was moved from place to place, including in the Louvre during WW II.

In 1983 it was moved to its present location in a former seminary
So when you are in Bayeux to visit this tough survivor-- the tapestry, which is really an embroidery-- cross the cobblestone courtyard with the model of a Viking boat and go across the street to the Cathedral. There you will be in the presence of Bishop Odon, and his brother, William the Conqueror, who attended the consecration of Notre Dame of Bayeux. History definitely becomes more interesting than a string of dates, with such visible remnants as the Bayeux tapestry and Cathedral to see.

Vera Marie Badertscher writes about books and movies that inspire travel at A Traveler's Library. She also blogs about 20th century Navajo artist, Quincy Tahoma. The biography of Tahoma that she co-authored with Charnell Havens will be published in April 2011.


Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi said...

I've never really thought of it as a comic strip, but I do know that there is some revisionist embroidery history going on in that crewel work.

Barbara Weibel said...

If only our teachers could put a spin like Vera Marie did on things like this, students the world over would learn much more about history. Wonderful article!

Jane said...

Who would have thought it was a comic strip=) Nice share, lovely article.

Heather on her travels said...

I like to think of those nuns or ladies of the court chatting away as they embroidered and weaving their imagination into the tapestry

Mark H said...

@melanie: History is always written by the winners...

@barbara: Vera writes beautifully. I am so pleased to feature an article on such a prized piece of history.

@jane: I love the twist of seeing it as a comic strip. In those days, most couldn't read so it is good to make the point through art and pictures.

@heather: I still struggle to view an embroidery that is almost 1000 years old.

Holiday Abroad said...

Wow, that's impressive! I never would've imagined an ancient comic strip!

Mark H said...

@holidays abroad: A wonderful description for this ancient embroidery.

Related Posts with Thumbnails