Recognizing Women’s Agency in the Borders of the Bayeux Embroidery

Tricia Amato, Independent Scholar, Montana,

As one of the few extant large-scale textiles from the Middle Ages, the Bayeux Embroidery continues to challenge scholars who endeavor to unlock its meaning, identify its function, and illuminate the circumstances of its production. The Embroidery can be experienced on many different levels—as a superb example of medieval craftsmanship; a heroic story of war, kingship, and conquest; a picture of post-conquest national identity; or a moralizing tale about breaking solemn oaths—and yet, when we look more closely, another layer begins to emerge. Incorporated into its borders, I suggest, is the story of the women of the embroidery workshop who added their viewpoints about the Conquest to the work in the form of marginal imagery. Relegated to the sidelines, the women who brought the Embroidery to life with needles and woolen thread provide the viewer with a series of disparate commentaries on the story of the Norman conquest of England by populating the borders with fanciful animals, fables, and a variety of characters and scenes.

Current scholarship generally assumes that the embroidery was designed by a single “master” who conferred with a patron, also male, in order to devise the entire composition—entrusting only the needlework to female laborers. I argue, however, that the borders depart markedly from the main narrative; and therefore, could not have been designed by the individual who conceived the principal tableau. Rather, a close analysis of style, composition and iconography reveals that the border imagery was designed by the female needleworkers who produced the piece.