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Who Embroidered the Bayeux Tapestry?

In response to:

Women Artists Win! from the May 29, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

I found “Women Artists Win!” by Ingrid D. Rowland [NYR, May 29] richly informative in its survey of women’s accomplishments in the arts. I did, however, notice one error. Rowland states that the Bayeux Tapestry is “a historical chronicle embroidered by Norman noblewomen.” I understand that it is generally acknowledged now that, though commissioned by Norman authorities, the tapestry was embroidered by Englishwomen. Charles H. Gibbs-Smith in his Introduction to the Bayeux Tapestry (Phaedon, 1973) states, “It was, of course, made to a Norman brief, but was designed in England and embroidered in England by English craftswomen. The conclusion that it has such an English provenance is based on comparisons with contemporary illuminated manuscripts and other pictorial sources, and on the English spelling of names in the Latin inscriptions.”

Jean Mallinson

West Vancouver, British Columbia

Canada

Ingrid D. Rowland replies:

The Bayeux Tapestry, although made for a Norman patron (probably Odo, named bishop of Kent after the Conquest), was almost certainly executed by English seamstresses, perhaps in Canterbury, who reveal themselves in their spelling of the tapestry’s Latin labels and in their technique. These same women and their contemporaries also, of course, were busily preserving the Saxon roots of the English language, transmitting it to English children long after the Norman Conquest had added its French vocabulary to the mix. English embroidery, or opus anglicanum, became one of the most prized luxuries of the European Middle Ages; indeed, the tapestry itself is not, in fact, a woven tapestry, but rather a very large piece of embroidery.

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