Wednesday, June 22, 2011

1066: An Invasion, a Tapestry, and a Mystery

1066:  The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry
Andrew Bridgeford
Walker & Co., 384 p.,  $15.95 softcover, various ebook editions available

From time to time, I like to post something having to do with history, and just history, no fiction.  Or rather, no more fiction than serious history books promulgate.  I came across this book while browsing in the local box store, read a chapter or two, came back a week later and read another chapter, and then bought the thing for my ereader.

I found it quite fascinating.  I knew, of course, who William the Conqueror was.  The coaches teaching my history classes in school were able to impart that much information to me.  And I'd heard of the Bayeux Tapestry, the only surviving tapestry from the time period, and considered one of the primary sources of information (albeit limited) that we have about the events leading up to the invasion.  But I'd never really known many of the details about either.  Until now.

I have to say, I found this to be a engaging book.  The conventional wisdom is that the tapestry shows the invasion of England from the Norman point of view.  Bridgeford, through meticulous but entirely readable, historical detective work, builds an alternative interpretation.  Throughout the book he builds his case that the Tapestry tells the story of the events leading up to the invasion (leaving out Harold's defeat of the invading Harald Hardrada of Norway a few days prior to the Battle of Hastings) from the English point of view.  Furthermore, he argues that William the Conqueror (also called William le Batard, although not often to his face) isn't the central figure of the Tapestry.  Rather Count Eustace II of Boulogne is.
Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Harold's death

While much of the argument is speculative, something the author readily admits more than once, he does his best to build his case on existing records and documents.  He's surprisingly thorough and makes his case, at least as far as this nonexpert is concerned, quite consistent, both with itself and with known facts.

There are a number of mysteries associated with the Tapestry.  To name a few:  How did the Tapestry come to Bayeux?  How did it manage to survive when no other tapestry from that era has?  Who are the four named figures who are not royalty in the tapestry and why are they significant?

Bridgeford addresses all of these at length, providing historical and sociological background.  The history of the Tapestry, so far as it's known, is quite interesting.  He does what any good historian should do, or teacher in general for that matter.  He makes you want to go and learn more.  His prose is easily readable.  While there are endnotes, there aren't so many that they distract from the flow of the text.

I learned a lot from reading this book.  There has been some discussion, to use that word somewhat loosely, at various websites over the last few months about the role of women in positions of power throughout history.  In providing some of the backstory to the events of 1066, we meet several who were at least, if not more, ruthless than the men.

The only place where I found the argument to be somewhat far-fetched was in the chapter on Turold the dwarf.  I'm not saying Bridgeford isn't right, just that this chapter is the most speculative in nature of all of them.

If you like a good history book that's easily accessible and well written, then this is a book for you.  If you have any interest in this time period, check it out.  There's enough information that a good fantasy writer can probably come away with one or two ideas for a good story. 

This book is available at Adventures Fantastic Books

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