I’ve taught a unit on the Bayeux Tapestry now for two years, and I like exploring it more and more each time. The Tapestry can make a great filler when you want to transition between units and try something quick and different! The Latin is easy, so it’s a chance for a lower-level Latin class to see authentic material sooner. How easy? There’s only two deponent words, a smattering of passives, and some easily glossable ut-clauses. The sentence structure is super simple – no complex word order, no periodic sentences, just the basics with some delayed subjects. A fair amount of repetitive vocabulary, too. You can expand the historical sources in an upper-level class to explore the period in greater depth by adding some of William of Malmsbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum, selections from the Carmen de Hastingae proelio or the Vita Aedwardi Regis, or even Phaedrus.
The Tapestry is more than a simple embroidery of a famous battle scene with some easy Latin. It’s politicial propaganda, maybe (depending on who you read) with some subversive elements in it. It’s a collection of evidence of medieval dress and customs. It’s awash in references to popes, knights, kings, God, and feudalism. It’s a bestiary with references to Phaedrus’s fables. It has famous buildings still in use today. There’s mystery to explore – who is Aelfryga, for example, and did Harold really take an arrow to the eye, and who promised what to whom when and under what circumstances. It’s ultimately a testament as to why there’s so much Latin to be found within the English language. What’s not to love?
Here are a few things that I’ve done to really dig deep into the Tapestry. Hopefully you can find something here to inspire you!
- Use the images to practice oral / written Latin! It’s easy to practice noun/adjective agreement, questions (what do you see? how many of x? What kind of x? What is someone doing?), participles (I see knights riding horses, etc.), or purpose clauses (Why are the soldiers cutting trees?)
- Find the fables hidden in the Tapestry and puzzle out what messages their inclusion might mean. For example, one story, vulpes et corvus, is embroidered three times, each with the cheese in a different place, at significant places.
- Study the politics between Edward, Harold, and William, and how they led to the war. The archbishops aren’t there for show, either, and indicate much of the power play going on behind the scenes to justify William’s invasion of England.
- Examine the musical/metrical composition going on in the art. Really! Don’t believe me? Check out this theory of the way figures and scenes are laid out on the Tapestry.
- Discuss issues of bias and propaganda, and how the Tapestry might have turned out differently under another patron, maybe one more favorable to the Anglo-Saxons.
- Read related materials in Latin (see above) and compare / contrast with what is seen on the Tapestry.
- Examine the spelling variations, font style, writing abbreviations, and other typographic features of medieval texts.
Ever done the Tapestry in one of your classes? I’d love to hear about what you did and what you thought about it.