Post-classical history


The Bayeux Tapestry and the Babylonian Conquest of the Jews

In the biblical account, a puppet ruler of Judah, Zedekiah by name, had been installed by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of powerful Babylon.1 Nebuchadnezzar took the precaution of requiring Zedekiah to swear an oath in his favour but in the ninth year of his reign Zedekiah rebelled. It was not long before he was captured by the Babylonians and was charged with having broken an oath of fealty. Like Harold, terrible punishment was now wrought upon him and his country. His sons were killed before his eyes and Zedekiah himself was blinded and taken in chains to Babylon. The Jewish kingdom of Judah was reduced to the status of a colony. Its royal officials, warriors and intellectuals were killed or exiled. The Temple and the houses in Jerusalem were burnt down and a large amount of treasure was carried off as booty. So began the long, sorry Babylonian Captivity of the Jews.

The Bible was the most widely read and studied book in the Middle Ages. People looked to its stories in order to make sense of the present. They regarded history as a complex working out of the will of God and chroniclers frequently interwove into their accounts allusions and references to biblical events, which they took to be illustrative or explanatory of the events of their own day. The Jewish disaster of the Babylonian Conquest must have seemed very much like a precursor of the Norman Conquest of England. It seemed clear from the Bible that God's anger had been roused by Zedekiah's breach of oath and that the Babylonians had been the instruments of God's anger in punishing the Israelites for their sins. Thus, having described Zedekiah's breach of oath, the prophet Ezekiel reported: ' "As I live," says the Lord, "surely my oath which he despised and my covenant which he broke, I will requite upon his head . . . And all the pick of his troops shall fall by the sword, and the survivors shall be scattered to every wind; and you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken."'2 Harold, too, had broken a holy oath and the country had been conquered and plundered by foreigners. It could well have seemed that God had punished England, just as God had punished even the 'chosen people' by inflicting upon them the scourge of the Babylonians.3

In a book published in 1986, the American historian David Bernstein examined the subversive symbolism of the Bayeux Tapestry more closely than had ever been done before.4 He identified some intriguing clues suggesting that the artist of the tapestry was drawing just such a parallel. Thus a pair of winged lions in the upper border seems to be associated with the appearances of Duke William. Two of these lions, in particular, appear above William in the famous oath scene [plate 5]. Is it possible that the winged lion has a particular meaning in this context? In the Old Testament Book of Daniel the eponymous author is said to have a dream of four great beasts, the first of which 'was like a lion and had eagle'swings'.5 Commentators from the first century AD onwards interpreted the four beasts as standing for a succession of four worldly empires: and the winged lion, or lioness, was universally taken as representing the Babylonian empire. Thus a French illuminated copy of Jerome's Commentary on Daniel, produced in the eleventh century, depicts the mythical beasts with labels identifying them and adjacent to the winged lioness are the words: leena alas aquile habens regnum babilonium 'a lioness having the wings of an eagle is the Babylonian kingdom'.6 Could it be that Duke William was being deliberately associated with the pagan Nebuchadnezzar?

Bernstein further suggested that the artist's choice in depicting Harold as struck in the eye by an arrow may be another pictorial echo of the blinding of King Zedekiah. It will also be recalled that, shortly before the slaying of Harold, there is a very curious illustration of the death of an Englishman, who bears neither arms nor armour [scene 56]. In the midst of battle, a French knight grabs this man by the hair, revealing the Englishman's naked outstretched neck; the French knight's sword is poised to decapitate the helpless victim. Here we find an image that bears marked similarities with early medieval illustrations of the death of Zedekiah's sons; in Spanish Bibles of the ninth and tenth centuries, the two sons are likewise shown as decapitated by an executioner who triumphantly grasps the victim's head by the hair. This imagery was possibly based upon a lost but common stock of illustrative material about the Babylonian Conquest with which the tapestry's artist was familiar.7

The most intriguing, though ultimately unprovable, of the parallels identified by Bernstein concerns Duke William's mysterious Breton campaign. Nebuchadnezzar had led campaigns against two of Zedekiah's predecessors, the similarly named father and son, Jehoiakim and Jehoiachim. The latter was known by the nickname Coniah, a name which is uncannily similar to Conan.8 Moreover, according to early rabbinical legends, although not, it should be stressed, the Old Testament itself, the father, Jehoiakim, escaped from Jersusalem by 'gliding down from the city walls . . . by a chain'. When his son 'Coniah' was subsequently attacked by Nebuchadnezzar the young man climbed on to the roof of the Temple in order to hand over its keys. The illustrations of Conan escaping down a rope from Dol and handing over the keys to Dinan are uncannily reminiscent of these old rabbinical stories. Such stories were certainly known in Jewish circles by the eleventh century. Although no evidence has yet been found that they were known in Christian circles, the parallel with the Bayeux Tapestry is again certainly suggestive.9

Norman writers liked to portray Duke William as a latter-day Julius Caesar, and indeed as a military leader even more successful than Caesar himself. 'Caesar,' wrote William of Poitiers, 'twice crossed over to this same Britain (for the ancient name of England is Britain) with a thousand ships, but he did not perform deeds as great the first time, nor did he dare to advance far from the coast or to stay long on the coast.' 'The Britons often gave battle to Caesar,' William of Poitiers continued, 'whereas William crushed the English so thoroughly that afterwards they could not muster the courage to fight him again.'10 If William the Conqueror could be compared by the Normans to Caesar, a parallel with the Babylonian Conquest of the Jews is nowhere to be found in surviving Norman texts. Such a parallel carried with it a completely different political and psychological resonance. Caesar was a mighty warrior who had invaded a backward people. As understood in the Old Testament, however, the kingdom of Babylon was no more than a great pagan power, used as an instrument of God's wrath, so that his 'chosen people' might be punished for their error and sins. After years of subjugation, the Babylonian kingdom was eventually destroyed and the Jews were able to return to Jerusalem in 539 BC. Such a parallel therefore carried with it not only the solace that the Norman Conquest of England was part of a wider divine plan, but also the hope of eventual liberation.

The Bayeux Tapestry seems to be shot through with a subversive undercurrent rather than any sense of Norman triumph. If Bernstein is right, there is yet another layer to this extraordinary undercurrent. This is hardly inconsistent with the growing body of evidence that the tapestry is not a Norman work at all but was made by English people in conquered England.

There is a twist, however, to all this evidence of the tapestry's 'Englishness'. For a long time it was thought that the inscriptions revealed the work's Anglo-Saxon origin as forcibly as its imagery. For example, the use of the abbreviation '7'for 'and' is said to have been, in the eleventh century, a distinctively Anglo-Saxon usage and the name of Harold's brother Gyrth is also spelt in the Anglo-Saxon style with a barred D (D) instead of a TH. It had long been pointed out that there were one or two Latin words in the tapestry whose usage seemed to be more French than English but this was normally brushed aside. In the late 1990s, however, Professor Ian Short, a specialist in medieval French at the University of London, carried out a fresh analysis of the tapestry's written text.11 Short pointed out that, time after time, the Latin words used in the tapestry were ones that would have been most naturally employed by a native speaker of French rather than English. Thus 'sand' is rendered ARENA in the tapestry, which corresponds to the Old French word l areine', rather than the syn- onyms that might have been used in the context, 'grava' or l sabulum vivum'; horse is CABALLUS, corresponding to the Old French 'chevaus' rather than 'equus'; talk is PARAB-OLARE, corresponding to l parler' rather thanHoqui'. Short'sconclusion is as unequivocal as it is surprising: 'The embroidery was conceived by a gifted artist . . . whose first language was French.'

The words and the pictures are so closely intertwined, relating to each other in many subtle ways, that it is natural to assume that the same man was responsible for both. It is, however, possible that the person who devised the inscriptions (a Frenchman) was different from the artist (an Englishman). Alternatively perhaps there was a single writer-artist who was a French emigre, long resident in Canterbury, since before the Conquest, and heavily influenced by the manuscript library at St Augustine's Abbey. In either case, it seems that a Frenchman was intricately involved in the actual making of the Bayeux Tapestry.

At this point it is even more important than ever to avoid the endemic assumption that 'French' means 'Norman'. It is entirely possible that the Frenchman concerned was not Norman but from some other part of France. Indeed the tapestry's favouring of Count Eustace II of Boulogne and his French army over and above the Normans suggests that our mysterious Frenchman might well have been a native of Boulogne or the surrounding lands in Picardy or Flanders which looked to Count Eustace as their leader. A non-Norman Frenchman would not have been predisposed to favour the Normans and he could easily have been sympathetic towards the English viewpoint, especially if he had long been resident at Canterbury.

We have, then, a work that was probably made by English embroiderers at Canterbury, either to the designs of a long-standing French emigre or to those of an English artist who was working closely with a French colleague. Although at one level the tapestry flatters Bishop Odo of Bayeux, it is also shot through with a succession of subversive viewpoints, all inimical to Norman interests. Despite the widespread modern view that Odo was the patron, there must be a growing sense of doubt that this was ever the case, for a work produced under the directive eye of the Conqueror's half-brother would surely have been a much more straightforward piece of Norman propaganda. The Tapestry also favours, in covert and subtle ways, Count Eustace II of Boulogne. These two men, Odo and Eustace, are the only two companions of the Conqueror who are named by the artist in his very personal depiction of the Battle of Hastings - two men who came into conflict in 1067 when Eustace launched an unsuccessful attack on Dover Castle. This is surely an important clue. The next stage in our quest is to examine the contrasting lives and overlapping careers of Bishop Odo of Bayeux and Count Eustace of Boulogne.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!