Sunday, June 6, 2010

Traces of Norman History

Susie and I visited two sites in Normandy that preserve the evidence and meaning of the history of Normandy: the Scriptorial in Avranches, and the Tapestry Museum in Bayeux.

The Scriptorial conserves all of, and displays a selection of, the surviving manuscripts and books from Mont Saint-Michel. While the monks of Mont Saint Michel evidently did not produce much in the way of original writings, they collected and copied many works, many of which were essential to their religious life. The Scriptorium is housed in a new, specially designed building that was constructed through integration into Avranches's medieval fortifications.

As you wend your way up ramped exhibits, you learn about the provenance, creation, maintenance and history surrounding the documents conserved in the museum. There's a lot of hands-on material. Eventually you reach the "treasure"--the display of a dozen or so of the documents, in a low-light, climate-controlled room. Every three months the museum changes some of the documents displayed.

The earliest documents, two sheets of parchment in an open Carolingian hand, date from the 9th Century.

The Scriptorial's treasure also displayed some beautiful illuminated works, including this book of Gregorian chants, which was created in the 13th Century.

We also were able to view this illuminated manuscript with gold leaf and brilliant colors.

In Bayeux, we visited the museum that displays the Bayeux Tapestry. I'd seen the tapestry in 1967-68, in the old viewing room, in which the tapestry was displayed around the walls of a large, well-lit room. In the early 1980s the display of the tapestry was changed to a long, light-controlled case that wraps around an interior wall, and this is how we saw the tapestry on our visit. Needless to say, the museum does not permit photos, but there are lots of resources on the Web for information about the tapestry.

In brief, the Bayeux Tapestry is an extended embroidery (rather than a woven tapestry), probably created around 1170, that recounts the history of the Norman Conquest. William, who had won the crown of England in 1066 after defeating King Harold at Hastings, faced a population and nobility who were likely not predisposed to like him as their sovereign. Thus the tapestry serves to present the story of the conquest from the Norman perspective; it is likely a sort of early Medieval propaganda presented in the form we would recognize today as Classic Comics.

The tapestry's connection to Bayeux, which even today is is a picturesque city with Medieval elements, is not haphazard at all. Rather, William's half-brother Odo, who fought at his side in the Battle of Hastings, was the Bishop of Bayeux. Thus the tapestry's presence in Bayeux, like size and grandeur of Bayeux's cathedral, which housed the tapestry, reflects the city's prestige and importance. Actually, it's amazing that the tapestry survived to our era. The museum recounts the tapestry's history, which includes being saved from use as packing material.

Seeing the tapestry in the museum is aided by a audio-guide. The interesting commentary helps visitors understand the tapestry's origins, craft and meaning. The audio, though, is a little rushed, moving you quickly from panel to panel. It's true that you can pause the audio whenever you like, but I would have preferred the option to get more in-depth information about panels, and even the border, at many points along my viewing of the tapestry. At the museum boutique Susie and I bought a book that collected papers from a recent symposium dedicated to the tapestry, and I'm hoping that it will answer many of my questions.

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