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Border Images Support Narrative in the Bayeux Tapestry

Xinyu Zheng

AH 240: Early Medieval Art in Europe

April 25, 2016


Some artists opt to convey a narrative by means of images without detailed

supporting text. This creates a challenge for the artist because while images make any plot

more understandable by illustrating the events, they can also introduce misunderstandings.

Without the use of supplementary text, the artist may have difficulty controlling the

experience of the audience. If viewers have different experiences and art historical

knowledge, the same image can lead them to diverse plots. With the help of border

illustration, the designer of the Bayeux Tapestry solved this problem of misunderstanding

efficiently and maintained his audiences interest in reading through images.

The Bayeux Tapestry, which is a 230-foot-long and twenty-inch-tall embroidered

cloth, consists of more than fifty scenes surrounded by a border comprised of more images.

Only a few of the scenes in the main part of the tapestry carry the Latin tituli (inscriptions)

used by other artists in the period to instruct the viewer and support a didactic purpose.

Nonetheless, the tapestry does contain commentary on the central image in the form of the

border. While it may seem that the images in the border merely function as a decorative

pattern, those border images provide explanations, guide the viewers attention to

important aspects of the central image, and even divide historical phases of the famous

Hastings Battle. As J. Bard McNulty says in The Narrative Art of the Bayeux Tapestry

Master, analogy in the Tapestry often comes in the form of something in the borders that

suggests an idea applicable to the action in the main story. 1 Thus, the Bayeux Tapestry is

one of the most famous works of graphic interpretation.

One of the reasons for the tapestrys renown is that its images contain a meaning

that differs from the meaning of its primary image. Meyer Schapiro remarks that spirited,

1. J. Bard McNulty, The Narrative Art of the Bayeux Tapestry Master (New York: AMS Press, 1989), 25.

fascinating pictures, entirely independent of the accompanying text were always

included in Romanesque manuscripts.2

The first strategy the tapestry designer used to help the audience understand his

work was to ensure that both the central and the border images communicated the same

message and emotion. For example, there are two birds depicted in the upper border that

represent the landing of the Norman ships and soldiers. To describe the landing, the

designer depicted these birds wings and feet in extended postures, which reflects the

conditions of the Normans landing.3 When its viewer sees the birds vivid landing

postures, no matter whether they know about the Battle of Hastings or not, they will

understand that the Norman soldiers arrival on the English coast was a hostile action. The

designer applied this strategy to many scenes in the tapestry that are also as effective as

these two landing birds; for instance, the two beasts hunting their prey are shown in the

upper border, corresponding to the Normans preparing to kill the English in the central

zone.4 In another instance, images of pursuit and battle are shown in the upper border,

corresponding to William chasing after Harold. 5

The second strategy is resemblance based on known fables in the lower edge. In the

eleventh century, representations of animals and other creatures are always connected to

specific characteristics, and one of the most remarkable resemblances is the connection

between events in the central zone and the quotation of fables in the border. As McNulty

points out, the designer makes important use of the particular form of analogy provided

by fables, and the creatures and figures in the lower border allude to the nine Aesops

2. McNulty, 24.
3. Ibid., 25.
4. Ibid., 26.
5. Ibid., 27.

fables.6 With regard to those fables, C. R. Dowel said they are clearly associated with the

main narrative and are meant to be read in conjunction with it. 7 One of the best

examples of narrating using resemblance is the Intruding birds are driven off at scene 10,

an image that is meant to parallel the theme of eviction of unwanted intrusion.8 This

resemblance is based on the fable of the birds trying to steal the farmers fruit. When this

fable is referenced in the lower border, a corresponding scene with a similar moral happens

in the central zone: Harold also tries to steal the throne, which for William was the

treasure, as it was the fruit of the famers labors. By connecting the historical event with an

existing allegory with a similar moral, the designer provided a means for viewers to

comprehend his intended message.

This strategy is similar to metaphor: in scene 38, the designer used a powerful wolf

(or a dog) chasing a weak rabbit to represent William battling with Harold; a vulnerable

rabbit is hunted by a brave hawk to represent the English encountering Williams troops in

scene 48.99 All these animals in the border have symbolic meanings in the study of

expression, and their position, implying a connection with the event in the central zone,

can be helpful to learn the theme of each scene. As Michel Foucault points out, it was

resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation of texts; it was resemblance

that organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible, and

controlled the art of representing them. 10

6. McNulty, 27.
7. Ibid., 27.
8. Ibid., 36.
9. Ibid., 27.
10. Ibid., 24.

Repeating fables with subtle changes can also help the Bayeux Tapestry viewer to

comprehend the motif. In the lower border, a fable called The Fox, the Crow, and the

Cheese appears three times. McNulty explains that the master of the Bayeux Tapestry

cited this fable repeatedly not because of some compulsion to reiterate the same kind of

moral nine times, but precisely because there are that many different points to be called to

the attention of the observer. 11 This fable first appears below scene 4 and shows its basic

characters: an open-mouthed fox, a crow at home in his tree where he feels safest,12 and

the cheese in mid-air. Then it appears below scene 16; however, in this scene, the cheese is

eaten by the fox because in the main zone of scene 16, William has caught his enemy

Harold. This repetition of the fable and corresponding changes makes the lower border

images become a commentary on the motif of the main story.

Besides providing explanations, these border images are also effective indicators of

significant themes or events, which are also related to the order and arrangement of

creatures; as McNulty says, the designer is careful to draw attention to this analogy.13 In

the Bayeux Tapestry, images in the border are arranged in an organized sequence, so any

break in the order becomes an effective way to point out something of importance. This

theory was evidenced to be effective by Ernst Gombrich in his study of the psychology of

decorative art. He proposes that a common device for calling attention to a particular

segment of a decorative scheme is to interrupt the scheme. 14 The regular scheme is that

two creatures face the different direction. However, McNulty finds out that there is a

general rule in the Tapestry that when the symmetrical border pattern of balanced animals

11. McNulty, 27.

12. Ibid., 27.
13. Ibid., 25.
14. Ibid, 25.

and birds is broken, some special meaning is intended.15 Then this scheme is interrupted

in the scene of the Normans preparation for beating the English. In the upper border of

this scene, two beasts are hunting another creature, and all of them face right, which is

different from regular two creatures as a group and face opposite direction. 16 Even though

this looks like a subtle change, the well-organized arrangement seems striking for viewers

and accomplishes the designers intention of creating emphasis.

The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the story of William, Duke of Normandy, soon to be

known as The Conqueror, who leads out his troops to meet the English at the Battle of

Hastings and fights for his throne. 17 His road to the throne is rugged, and his story to win

this battle has a series of phases. For viewers, it is hard to distinguish the divisions between

two phases precisely from the central zone because the embroidered panel is too long to

read in a short time, and when viewers follow the plots, they may get lost. Also, even

though this long series of scenes is separated by stylized trees, those trees are not placed in

a consistent way.18 In the tapestry, its master applies nine fables to the lower border, and

this subtext helps its viewers follow the main plots. Because these fables are simpler than

the long story of the Battle of Hastings, it becomes much easier for the observers to

distinguish the division by the short fables as references rather than reread the whole


Even if it is considered as only a part of the decoration, the design of the border

serves a comparable narrative function.19 As an elaborately designed artwork that cost

15. McNulty, 26.

16. Ibid., 26.
17. Ibid., 1.
18. Lucien Musset, The Bayeux Tapestry (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005).
19. McNulty, 31.

unimaginable effort, the border part with hundreds of animals and other creatures cannot

be a random decorative pattern. Also, as David J. Bernstein says, the border designs

deserve a more systematic analysis than the scope of this work can possibly provide. 20

David J. Bernstein, The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987),


Bernstein, David J. The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry. Chicago: University of Chicago

Press, 1987.

Cohn, Neil. Visual Narrative Structure. Cognitive Science 37 (2013): 41352.

McNulty, J. Bard. The Narrative Art of the Bayeux Tapestry Master. AMS Studies in the

Middle Ages, No. 13. New York: AMS Press, 1989.

Musset, Lucien. The Bayeux Tapestry. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2005.

Pastan, Elizabeth Carson, Stephen D. White, and Kate Gilbert. The Bayeux Tapestry and

Its Contexts: A Reassessment. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2014.

Wilson, David M. The Bayeux Tapestry. New York: Knopf, 1985.

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