Secrets of The Bayeux Tapestry : Hidden Meanings & Gestures

look closely and you will come across oddities that are hard to explain

The Bayeux Tapestry is an historical artifact that never fails to impress depicting as it does such a pivotal moment in British and Channel Island history, that of the invasion & conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. The vibrant colours and the way it is displayed means that you can be literally centimeters away from a beautiful artifact that’s nearly a thousand years old. It excites the imagination into imagining the events it depicts.

However, look closely and you will come across oddities that are hard to explain. Mysterious characters, some named, some not, appear in the main body and borders. Add to that some of the cuirious rather theatrical gestures they appear to be making and there emerges a sense of mystery rising like a mist from the aging cloth.

Most of these gestures can be explained and for some we have to go back even further in time to Roman and Greek antiquity to uncover their meaning and bring to the surface more subtle meanings than you would at first suspect. Medieval people would have understood the nuances and meanings that are now lost to our modern minds.


Awe & Respect

Hands with outstretched fingers clearly separated from the thumb indicated awe or respect to a superior, such when the messenger who informs William of Harold’s capture and when Harold approaches King Edward after his return from Normandy.

Example : Harold's return to King Edward


Eaves Dropping

A closed fist with only the little finger pointing was the sign of a eavesdropper, Just like Harold ‘s servant who escapes to tell William of his master’s capture.

Example : Harold's servant listens in


Grief & Mourning

The Roman gesture for grief or mourning was touching the face, just as Edith does with her veiled hand at Edward’s deathbed.

Example : Queen Edith mourns' Edward's death


Mysteries within The Tapestry

The tapestry was of course a contemporary document to the people of the 11th century displaying scenes of events that the viewers would have been familiar with and may even have taken part in. It also seems to reference other contemporary ‘known’ events that would have been obvious to the medieval minds viewing the tapestry but have since been lost to us.

One such enigmatic scene shows us a woman with an English name, Ælfgyva, and ‘a certain cleric’, It may represent rape or adultery; the cleric may be making a pass, or slapping the woman for having impure thoughts or for being a witch, The possibilities are endless, but the explicitly male naked figure in the border below perhaps suggests a sexual subject, An unconvincing attempt has been made to identify the lady with Queen Ælfgyfu, wife of Æthelred II. The scene which must have meant something to the contemporary audience and may even refer to some well known scandal of the time. So in the absence of further evidence, it is probably forever lost to us.

Example : A Cleric touches a woman's face



One finger pointed at the person’s own face meant surprise, as when Harold receives the news of the comet.

Example : King Harold's surpise at Halley's Comet


General Dialogue & Interactions

When someone pointed one finger at another character, this showed that it was the latter who was speaking: this works consistently throughout the Tapestry. When Harold and Guy confer, they point at one another, which is unnecessarily re inforced by the inscription Where Harold and Guy are talking. In the adjacent scene, the two messengers point at Guy to prove that he is refusing to hand over his captive. At Harold’s oath-taking, all three witnesses point at him, evidence that he is speaking false words. On his return to England, he adopts the posture of apprehension, while the pointed fingers of Edward and an attendant indicate they are listening to his account of the fatal mission.

Example : Harold and King Edward


Giving a Sacred Command or Oath

People in the Tapestry seldom touch one another. If they do, it is evidence of a Significant relationship. When someone’s finger makes contact with that of another, this means a sacred command has been given, for the motif originated in the gesture of Christ healing. Edward touches Harold twice in this way, to send him on his mission at the start of the story and to pass on the succession in the deathbed scene.

We also see this again in the swearing of Harold’s oath over the Holy relics where we can see onlookers touch their lips as the sacred words are spoken.

Example : Harold, King Edward & William



Author: Robert

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