Talking Back to the Bayeux Tapestry (Or, How Media Literacy Snuck Into My Summer Vacation)

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Bayeux-Tapestry

The Coronation of Harold as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry[/caption]

I recently turned 40. To commemorate this occasion, I got the extreme privilege and opportunity to travel to the Normandy region of France. It’s been a dream of mine to visit this beautiful and historic area. In preparation for the trip, I consulted many different guides for their recommendations for not-to-be-missed sites (I’m a novice World War II buff). I also consulted a friend of mine who lived in France for 6 years. She gave me a very thorough list of places I needed to hit, but one in particular stuck out at me: The Bayeux Tapestry. Just go, don’t argue.

I’m not someone who adores tapestries or who needs to see every tapestry ever created, but I definitely can appreciate them for their artistry. Based on my friend’s (rather insistent) suggestion, I catalogued it as one of our possible stops.

The day we arrived in France, we immediately disembarked from the plane at Charles de Gaulle Roissy, jumped in our rental car, and headed West. We had been driving for an hour, when we began to look for a place to rest and recharge. It was around that time we started seeing signs for “La Tapisserie de Bayeux.” Remembering my friend’s gentle nudging, we decided to turn off and check it out.

Prior to visiting, I hadn’t done any research on this famous relic. I didn’t know the year it was made. I didn’t know what it was supposed to be documenting. I knew it was large, just not how large exactly (230 feet long). So when I finally saw it, I was completely blown away by its size and its age.

I couldn’t believe I was looking at something that was made in 1070. That’s nearly a thousand years ago! I equally marveled at the craftwork and the story of the 1066 Norman Invasion into England by William the Conqueror. Each panel showed stages of the battle, including council meetings set in ornate castles, parades of armies, voyages upon the sea and bloody battlefields littered with body parts.

As I walked along the full stretch of the tapestry, it dawned on me that, in its time, this was a document of propaganda. William the Conqueror wanted to inform the masses of his conquest and his legitimacy as the rightful King of England, and knowing that the majority of the populace couldn’t read or write, put the story to pictures. Of course, each picture was manipulated and choreographed to shape the story exactly how the victor wanted it to be expressed. These tapestries were carried throughout England and France (another benefit to it being pictorial: it didn’t need to be in two languages), where big festivals were held with the tapestry centrally displayed.

I had a few thoughts enter my mind as I took in this amazing piece of art: The need for media literacy is not a new need that comes from the rise of modern technology. Who were the organizations/groups talking back to this version of the 1066 Norman Conquests? What happened to anyone who challenged or dissented from this form of manipulation? It always amazes me to encounter these reminders where an opportunity for sparking critical thinking actually had an impact on history. I could also just be a little obsessed with the idea of media literacy.

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