Hiya, Graphixians. I’ve been away for a while and wrote this post “on location” in France where I had the chance to view the Bayeux Tapestry up close and personal.* It was a marvellous experience, even with the crowds and the constructed setting, but as I looked at it I was mostly finding myself thinking of how this historical artifact fits the parameters for a graphic novel.
I’m not the first person to have this thought. Lots of us who want to see comics taken seriously in an academic context have looked to historical examples of graphic communication as a way to validate or historicize this field of study. What makes the Bayeux Tapestry different than examples of, for example, cave paintings, is that the tapestry combines images and text as we’ve come to expect graphic narratives to do.
The tapestry is also interesting because its narrative follows a long period of time and includes historical backstory. It tells, as I’m sure you know, the history of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It’s a fantastically detailed text; we come to understand motivation, the passage of time, intrigue, deceit, and the complexity of victory. It’s a testament to the depth and complexity of the text that people make arguments for it both as a work of victor’s history and a challenge to the dominant narrative about Norman Conquest. In and of itself that’s kind of cool.
I want to focus on the interplay of time in the Bayeux Tapestry, because I think it’s the element that makes this storytelling most sophisticated, thereby speaking to the way we read graphic narratives now.
Notice here the order of events. King Edward’s funeral is occurring in the central panel of the portion shown here. This is the main event in this part of the tapestry because it moves the narrative along. Without Edward’s death, we don’t have Harald’s betrayal and the story doesn’t roll forward. So that’s the present moment. But look to the right — the tapestry does not always move chronologically. In this panel, we see the king very ill in the top portion (Harald at his side), and dead in the bottom portion. All of this comes after the funeral scene. The tapestry weavers seem intent on us knowing that the funeral is the central focus, with the next panel serving to explain and illustrate rather than moving the action along chronologically.
Isn’t that cool?
If you’re wondering why all this matters, that’s totally ok. I’m not sure where I’m headed with these** observations. But I think it’s interesting to see the depth and complexity in early graphic texts and to recognize the history of interpretation that we draw upon when we approach graphic narratives.
Also, man, I saw the Bayeux Tapestry! And it was really cool! So this is also a post about that.
* This should be read to mean “through a glass cabinet, mediated by careful lighting and an audio guide, and in a throng of German tourists.”
** Or any.