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Northern Ambitions – Æthelstan and the Annexation of York and Northumbria

On the death of Sihtric, the Danish King of York, in 927, King Æthelstan seized control of the Viking Kingdom of York. It was an event reasonably early in his reign, Æthelstan had only come to the throne of Mercia in 924 and of Wessex in 925. In 926 he had sought a peaceful co-existence with York and Northumbria, marrying his sister to Sihtric, but with the Dane dying less than a year later, things didn’t go according to plan.

Clearly, we’re back with Æthelstan today. Specifically, I’m going to look at his annexation of north-eastern England – York and the region of Northumbria. Chronologically, in previous articles I have worked through Æthelstan’s youth, and his (potentially) troubled succession to the throne of Wessex (I’ve also published an article on the reliability of our key source for these early years of Æthelstan’s life). So, we’re moving the narrative forward today. Originally, my intent was to do this via the medium of a charter (like our article on Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey). The grant of land in question, contained in a charter known as S407, gifts lands at a place called Amounderness to the church of St Peter, York. It provides interesting evidence of Æthelstan’s methods of territorial and political control. But I am going to save that for my next article. You see, I started writing up the context we needed in order to be able to understand the content and strategy behind that charter and, as it grew and grew, I realised that what I had written a full-length article looking at how Æthelstan assumed control of the northern territories without ever getting to the charter! So we’ll stick with the annexation of the Kingdom of York and territories today.

Continue reading Northern Ambitions – Æthelstan and the Annexation of York and Northumbria


Rumour and Rhetoric, Money and Massacre – Jewish-Christian Relations in Twelfth-Century England

Medieval Latin Christendom was a collection of distinct cultural polities, unified by the beliefs and ecclesiastical governance of Roman Christianity, and fundamentally hostile to dissenting religious groups. Yet within this framework, the Jews were permitted to form communities that retained a distinct Jewish cultural identity – an identifiable alterity that stirred Jewish-Christian conflict. While it is largley accepted that the ‘medieval period’ was a violent era more broadly speaking, the underlying causes of this violence and the extent to which such conflict was systemic is up for debate. This is what I will be looking at today – specifically, whether Jewish-Christian conflict in medieval England (and France) owes something to systemic tension, regional politics, or popular misconceptions (or any combination of the above). Continue reading Rumour and Rhetoric, Money and Massacre – Jewish-Christian Relations in Twelfth-Century England

Shame and Masculinity in Medieval Iceland – The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck

There was a man named Thórarin, who live in Sunnudalur; he was old and nearly blind. He had been a fierce viking in his youth, and in his old age he was not an easy man to deal with. He had an only son, whose name was Thorstein; he was a big man, and very strong, but even-tempered. He worked so hard on his father’s farm that three other men together could not have done better.

This simple introduction to Þorsteins þáttr stangarhöggs (The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck) immediately lays out the problem that will lay at the heart of this brief tale. Thórarin was a warrior in his youth a remained a violent and problematic character into his old age, Thorstein in contrast was a farmer, a hard worker who was disinclined to engage in violence and feud. But which man conformed to medieval Icelandic expectations of masculinity? Could Thorstein remain an even-tempered farmer his whole life, even when slighted? What of honour? What of vengeance? What of shame? Continue reading Shame and Masculinity in Medieval Iceland – The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck

Harbard the Ferryman & the Embarrassment of Thor – On the Presence of Odin or Loki in Hárbarðsljóð

Hárbarðsljóð is a flyting poem from the Poetic Edda, in which Thor is challenged to battle wits with a ferryman named Harbard (Hárbarðr) for passage across an inlet. Interestingly, Harbard gets the better of the exchange, ultimately denying Thor passage and sending him around the bay on land. By which we may surmise that Harbard is not a simple mortal to have bested a god in a flyting and confidently sent him away.

In fact, it is something of a trope within Old Norse/Icelandic mythological and legendary literature for gods to travel the world in disguise. There are possibly two figures within the Norse pantheon best known for this trick. Loki, variously appearing as a salmon, a mare and, possibly, an old woman, also noted for disguising himself and Thor as a bridesmaid and bride (respectively) in the famous wedding-feast sequence from Þrymskviða. Loki certainly has form for embarrassing Thor and, of all the gods, he is the most noted for flyting, courtesy of his exchange with the gods Asgard after gate-crashing a feast in Lokasenna. (Both Þrymskviða and Lokasenna also form part of the collection known as the Poetic Edda). Yet Loki’s disguises almost invariably involve shape-shifting. The old ferryman is far more in line with the trope of the Odinic wanderer – Odin-as-vagabond, wandering the worlds of Norse mythology and meddling. And, among his varied roles, Odin does perform as the god of (good) poetry). Cases have been made for Harbard being either of these gods in disguise, and that is what I intend to look at today – the elements of the poem that correlate with other representations of Odin and Loki and thus point to Harbard’s true identity. (Spoiler – it’s Odin).

Thor and Harbard discourse over the inlet, Franz Stassen, from Die Edda:
Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen,  Hans von Wolzogen, Leipzig, 1875 [1920].

But first, I suspect you have some questions such as: ‘What is a flyting poem?’ and, ‘What is the Poetic Edda?’ Our readers have varied grounding in Old Norse literary studies, so some of you will know the answer to these questions, yet as this is the first time I have written on either topic for the blog, I will first provide this context. I am, however, going to assume a certain level of knowledge regarding Thor, Odin, and Loki – my primary focus here is on the literature and the history of the literature and, while Norse Paganism is an abiding interest, I want us to keep our attention on the narrative and structure of Hárbarðsljóð.

The Poetic Edda

There are two works generally referred to as Edda. The first, usually known as either the Prose Edda or the Younger Edda is attributed to a single author – Snorri Sturluson. Snorri’s Edda is an early 13th century work comprised of four books and, despite being referred to as the Prose Edda, contains a great deal of verse and even didactic material relating to the composition of poetry. This Edda covers a great deal or Norse mythology and cosmology and preserves a great deal of what we know about Norse Paganism and, though Snorri can be accused of Christianisation and euhemerism, we owe him a great debt of gratitude.

What we are interested in though is the Poetic Edda – an anonymous collection of poems in Old Norse pertaining to mythological and legendary material. Primarily contained in a volume known as the Codex Regius (Árni Magnússon – GKS 2365 4to), the Poetic Edda has something of a confusing life. Firstly, nothing is known of the manuscript until 1643 when it came into the hands of Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson who, in line with contemporary thought, decided that this volume represented the source material for Snorri’s Edda. It was at this time given an erroneous authorial attribution and understood to be a coherent single work. This notion was perhaps understandable as the Codex Regius contained the full texts of a number of poems cited or only partially quoted by Snorri. In reality, it is rather more complicated than that. The Codex Regius was, in fact, compiled in the late 13th c., around fifty years after Snorri authored his Edda. Further, considering the corpus of eddaic poetry as a whole, in some instances the fragmentary quotations within Snorri’s Edda are our the earliest extant recording. However, for clarity’s sake, let’s now ignore Snorri entirely.

What we have in the Poetic Edda is a collection of poems that were composed in various periods and, unsurprisingly given its interest in pre-Christian religion, many of them likely predate the Christianisation of Scandinavia in composition. While the majority of these, as noted, are found in the 13th c. Codex Regius, some poems found within modern editions of the Poetic Edda are drawn from separate manuscripts – notable among these, AM 748 I 4to, which along with the Codex contains our focus text, Hárbarðsljóð. Now, I won’t try to tie a date to Hárbarðsljóð, simply because, trying to date any of these poems is fraught with difficulty. Most authorities cannot agree on a dating methodology, no less specific dates for each individual composition – suffice it to say that Hárbarðsljóð certainly predates it’s 13th c. textual record.

GKS 2365 4to 12v-13r
Facing pages of Hárbarðsljóð in the Codex Regius – the entire of the poem is only four pages in length (GKS 2365 4to f.12v – 13r).


Flyting should be easier to explain. The words ‘Old Norse poetry-slam’ come to mind, but that would be deeply unprofessional, so let’s go for something else.

Flyting is in fact far from unique to Old Norse or Scandinavian cultures and can be found in Old English and Irish literature, through to high-medieval tales, Shakespeare and, one could argue, into modern poetry and rap ‘battles.’ At its most basic level, flyting is an exchange of verse insults, with those insults normally designed to attach themselves to rumour and innuendo, thereby questioning the recipient’s ability to function as a normative member of society. Essentially, that means things such as parentage, sexual-normativity, personal bravery, largesse and other intangibles would be called into question. Such accusations could be particularly damaging in medieval society where proof to counter such slander was not easy to obtain. How does one prove instances of past bravery? Or ability to perform sexually? Or parentage? It was enough of a problem that Iceland legislated against slanderous verse, with punishment set a three years’ outlawry.

Lokasenna – Loki’s Mocking, a flyting exchange with the gods, W.G. Collingwood, from The Elder or Poetic Edda (trans. Olive Bray), London: Viking Society, 1908.

There are some superb examples of Old Norse flyting, with particularly fine exchanges found in Lokasenna – which I have already mentioned, the Icelandic family saga Bandamanna saga, and, of course, Hárbarðsljóð. In Hárbarðsljóð we see Harbard referring to Thor as a knave, a trouserless peasant, the god of serfs, strong but cowardly, and finishes with ‘go where the fiends will get you.’ All the while, Harbard compliments his own sexual prowess and bravery, while questioning Thor’s own. Thor certainly has the worst of the exchange, succumbing to exclamations of shock as opposed to witty retorts, but he nonetheless calls Harbard variously a peasant, a pervert, and a man-ling, ending with ‘I’ll reward you for refusing to ferry me, if we ever meet again.’

(A note that, given the sexual nature of much of the flyting, I strongly recommend the Larrington translation from the reference list. The older translations tend to self-censor).

Identifying the Ferryman

Thor was travelling from the east and he came to an inlet. On the other side of the inlet was the ferryman with his ship Thor called:

  1. Who is that pipsqueak who stands on that side of the inlet?

He answered:

  1. Who is that peasant who calls across the gulf.

And just like that, with little introduction, no attempt at civility between the two men, 60 verses of flyting have begun.

Thor faces Harbard in a flyting exchange, W.G. Collingwood, from The Elder or Poetic Edda (trans. Olive Bray), London: Viking Society, 1908.

We have already established that Harbard is unlikely to have been a mere mortal, yet he is unrecognised by Thor. So is he a god in disguise, or something else? While there are other creatures that resemble people and the Æsir gods in Norse mythology, such as the Vanir (gods), the Jötnar (giants), and the varied elves and dwarves, this is not one of those. The figure on the other side of the inlet is deeply intimate with Thor’s doings – indeed, so much so that Harbard frequently references events for which we have no other record. While the deeds that Harbard claims to himself are at the very least the deeds of a legendary hero if not the deeds of a god. Here we see a combination of common tropes within the literature – the god in disguise, and Thor’s inability to adapt to other’s subterfuge.

Now, it is not difficult to see why some commentators thought that Harbard was the trickster God Loki. Not only does Lokasenna represent the best-known example of flyting in Norse literature, but there are some distinct parallels between what Loki says to Thor in Asgard, and what Harbard says to Thor at the inlet. In verse 48, Harbard says:

Sif has a lover at home, he’s the one you want to meet,

then you’d have that trial of strength which you deserve.

This is a reasonably standard bit of insult verse – Harbard is accusing Sif, Thor’s wife of infidelity and naming Thor a cuckold. Nowhere else in the Old Norse corpus is Sif recorded as being unfaithful to Thor, except in verse 54 of Lokasenna where Loki says to Sif:

I alone know, as I think I do know,

your lover besides Thor,

and that was the wicked Loki.

So here Loki is stating that he alone knows who Sif’s lover is, and that is himself. Yet to identify Loki with Harbard on this logic, we must assume that the events of Lokasenna take place after the meeting in Hárbarðsljóð. The flyting in Lokasenna takes place before a gathering of the gods and thus the accusation exposes the secret, the rumour thus becoming a tool for any who wish to denigrate Thor. Moreover, Harbard’s verse implies that the lover is someone other than Harbard himself.

What else may speak to Loki as Harbard? Well there is the reference in verse 26 to Thor and Loki’s journey to Útgarðr in Jötunheimr. One of the more famous tales of Norse mythology, the gods and their companions are terrorised by Skrýmir, a giant so large that the group sleep the night in Skrýmir’s glove, thinking it a building:

Thor has quite enough strength, and no guts;

in fear and cowardice you were stuffed in a glove,

and you didn’t then seem like Thor;

you dared in your terror neither

to sneeze nor fart in case Skrýmir might hear.

Likewise, in verse 60 of Lokasenna, we have Loki telling Thor:

Your journeys in the east you should never brag of before men,

since in the thumb of a glove you crouched cowering, you hero!

And that was hardly like Thor.

This is certainly open to the same accusation as that previously quoted. Loki was with Thor in the glove, thus he is able to claim a unique position as an eye-witness, making the accusation difficult to counter. As Loki reveals the secret of Thor’s cowardice in front of all the gods, it becomes available for all to use who wish to taunt Thor. Though it should be noted that we do have full accounts of the Útgarða-Loki narrative, and in these Thor is represented as uniquely courageous – the only one of the group not fearing the rumblings of the giant.

Skrýmir and his glove, with Thor poised to attack, by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1882)

There are various other reasons that Harbard has been identified with Loki. A number of other lines like those above hold clear similarities between the flyting of Harbard and Loki; the detailed knowledge of the deeds and misdeeds of other deities is very characteristic of Loki; so too is the apparent willingness to twist those deeds to mock and embarrass. Yet this is an argument that has not stood the test of time, and I must give a quick reminder that we are dealing with a literary corpus. The similarity between the verses quoted above speaks to inter-textual borrowing and may owe as much to a laziness in composition as a genuine attempt by the composer to create an inter-woven narrative in which Loki and Harbard are the same person, or in which Harbard is making use of the rumours spread by Loki in Lokasenna. We don’t often like to accuse medieval authors or the development of oral narrative of laziness though, so let’s stick to ‘inter-textual borrowing.’ Yet it is not unusual nor extraordinary within medieval texts to find similar sentiments and similar lines delivered by different characters. Indeed, with a tradition such as eddaic poetry in which the verse narrative had a period of significant oral development before being committed to the page, it is reasonably common to find that while independent narratives have evolved, famous or well-known verses may remain intact with them.

Harbard is, in fact, Odin in disguise. While a simple comparison of like-verses may point to Loki, the deeper implications of the allusions within the verse point clearly to Odin. There are many indications as to who we are dealing with: in verse 16 Harbard is a war-god wreaking slaughter, in verse 18 a cunning seductor, but let’s look briefly at verses 20 and 24 as most representative of Odin.

Mighty love-spells I used on the witches,

those whom I seduced from their men;

a bold giant I think Hlebard was

he gave me a magic staff,

and I bewitched him out of his wits.

Loki may be a trickster with powers to wreak havoc, but Odin has more tangible powers as the god of sorcery and knowledge. Both elements of this verse are far more representative of Odin than Loki: the use of magic to gain advantage, and the use of cunning to gain power and knowledge. Within the corpus of Old Norse literature, Odin does not shy away from using magic to his own ends, even to seduction and rape as seen in the particularly dark tale of Rindr (told in full in the Gesta Danorum, but only alluded to elsewhere). Odin is similarly morally suspect in his pursuit of knowledge; indeed, I would suggest that is one of his defining characteristics within the mythology. Odin favours the acquisition of knowledge by means of craft and guile and gives little consideration for those who lose in such exchanges. Thor’s response to this verse is representative of how markedly he differs from his father: with an evil mind you repaid him for his good gifts. Odin/Harbard replies by saying each is for himself in such matters.

This is not, however, the most definitive example of the differences between Odin and his son as god-figures within Hárbarðsljóð, that comes in verse 24:

I was in Valland, and I waged war,

I incited the princes to never make peace;

Odin has the nobles who fall in battle,

And Thor has the breed of serfs.

In the first half of that verse we once more see Harbard as a war-god, inciting battle and pitting princes against one another. These men will die in the battles Harbard (let’s just call him Odin at this point) instigates and perpetuates, and dying in battle they will be called to feast with Odin in Valhalla until Ragnarok. The second half of that verse is perhaps the most interesting as it is almost a summation of the characters of the two gods as displayed throughout the flyting. Thor lacks subtly – he provides simple responses and fails to recognise allusion or even recognise his father, though he is in his usual ‘disguise.’ Thor is thus portrayed as simple and straight forward, and assigned to him are the simple-folk – the serfs. Odin in contrast is portrayed as witty, powerful, and morally ambiguous, and assigned to him are the nobles. Undoubtedly Odin intends these lines as an insult. By referring to only a noble class and a slave class, he places himself among the nobles and Thor among the slaves. However, if we take the hyperbole out of Odin’s delivery and imagine that his cult primarily comprised of the noble and warrior classes, while Thor’s cult was most popular among farmers, labourers and common classes, this does match our archaeological and literary evidence for the cults of both gods. In this verse more than any other does the Hárbarðsljóð author most clearly allude to Harbard being Odin.

Ultimately, however, Harbard’s name reveals all. Hárbarðr means grey-beard and, identifying his various cognomens in the poem Grimnismál, also found in the Poetic Edda, Odin finishes verse 49 with the line Gǫndlir oc Hárbarðr með goðom: [they called me] Gondlir and Harbard among the gods. It is apt. As he says near the opening of Hárbarðsljóð: I am called Harbard, I seldom conceal my name. It is Odin, the grey-bearded wanderer, calling himself Grey-Beard, who sits across the inlet taunting his son. Why I could not tell you. Odin does not always need a reason to meddle. Was it a test? Was it just for fun? Was it a punishment? I’ll leave that to your own speculation.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Thor faces Harbard in a flyting exchange, W.G. Collingwood, from The Elder or Poetic Edda (trans. Olive Bray), London: Viking Society, 1908.
  2. Olive Bray, ed. and trans., The Elder or Poetic Edda, London: Viking Society, 1908. [Bilingual]
  3. Carolyne Larrington, trans., The Poetic Edda, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. [Translations drawn from this text]
  4. Jónas Kristjánsson, Eddas and Sagas, translated by Peter Foote, Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 2007.
  5. Rory McTurk, ed., A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature, Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.
  6. Gustav Neckel, ed., Edda: Die Lieder des Codex Regius, 1983 – Titus online version [Old Norse-Icelandic]
  7. Margaret Clunies Ross, A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics, Cambridge: Brewer, 2005.
  8. Benjamin Thorpe, trans., The Poetic Edda, reprint, Lapeer: The Northvegr Foundation Press, 2004 (1907). [Translation]

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas

Blood Eagles, Fatal Walks, and Hung Meat – Assessing Viking Torture

Kingship in the Viking Age – Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon Kings, & Warrior Poets 

Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong

See our bibliographies on the Viking World and Chronicles and Editions.

Death, Treachery, & a Victory Against the Odds: Sir Thomas Dagworth & the Battle of la Roche Derrien

The Hundred Years’ War highlighted significant changes to both the nature of warfare, and to status and standing within late medieval English society. Prior to the more than century long conflict between England and France, the noble knight was both a symbol of chivalry and prestige, in addition to being the undeniable might and power of the battlefield. In a relatively short space of time, medieval military tactics took a substantial transformation. Continue reading Death, Treachery, & a Victory Against the Odds: Sir Thomas Dagworth & the Battle of la Roche Derrien

Art, Allegory, and the Authorship of the Bayeux Tapestry

Depicting the Norman Conquest of England, its causes, justifications, and political context, the Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most immediately recognisable, and most complex sources of European history.  Importantly, granted the location of its conception, the overt concerns of the Tapestry’s narrative are the religious and political interests of Latin Christian Normandy in the late 11th century.  However, it would be a mistake to characterise the Tapestry as mere Norman propaganda – the allegory, analogy and imagery used by the collaborators of the work have given it complexity beyond a simple chronology of events. It is this complexity I want to focus on today, with a particular interest in the authorship of the piece (in so doing I will, to a large degree, be treating the Tapestry as a historical document).

But before we begin on authorship and authorial intent, it is perhaps worth noting that, in form, the Tapestry was not entirely unique.  Remnants of similar artworks have been found in the Scandinavian countries.  Sweden, Norway and Iceland all preserve embroidery fragments dating between 900 – 1200. Literary evidence in turn points to the existence of such narrative embroideries, the Liber Eliensis of Ely cathedral in the 12th century mentions the bequethal of a hanging woven upon and embroidered with the deeds of [Byhrtnoth] and, in a separate event, notes the theft of a very valuable and famous hanging from the cathedral by rival monks. Despite our lack of extant examples, it seems likely that a tradition of narrative textiles existed throughout Western Europe.  Although, perhaps we could take this a little further. Aside from the Tapestry, the extant physical examples are exclusively Scandinavian.  As such, the evidence points to a tradition of narrative embroidery that was endemic to the Scandinavian world.  England had been a part of the Scandinavian world for over a century prior to the Conquest, with an increasingly Anglo-Norse population ruled by Scandinavian kings prior to the start of the Tapestry’s narrative.  Likewise, the Duchy of Normandy had significant Scandinavian influence in its genesis.  With Norman and Anglo-Norse authors, the decision to tell the history of the Conquest through textile art would not have been unusual.  It is from this cultural tradition that the Tapestry was born.

Nonetheless, the Tapestry is unique in form as a surviving history of the Conquest, though the narrative and themes of the Tapestry reflect those of other, near-contemporaneous, literary sources relating the story.  Yet unlike these, no single author can be attributed to the creation of the Tapestry, it was a collaboration of patron, designer and artisan.  Each party had their own contributions that can be teased out from the frequently ambiguous motifs of the Tapestry.  Its visual nature, as a piece of textile art, allowed its authors to adapt symbolic imagery to convey narrative tropes, familiar to a receptive, and likely illiterate, 11th century audience.

So, let’s have a think about the motivations behind the creation of the Tapestry. It was not created to record the political history of Normandy and England from 1064-1066. Neither was it created to provide an official Norman account of the Conquest. It was created to satisfy its patron – as that great Anglo-Saxonist, Frank Stenton stated:  the designer […] could do no other than follow the tale most acceptable to his patron. This creates an interesting dichotomy of authorship.  The patron commissioned the Tapestry, but did not create it. As such, though the interests of the patron informed the Tapestry’s creation and the narrative it wove, the subtleties of designer and artisan provide the narrative with depth and expression.

Taking each of our collaborators in turn, I am going to look to our patron first. The commissioning of the Bayeux Tapestry has traditionally been attributed to Odo of Bayeux, William of Normandy’s brother. This provenance would mean the Tapestry is one of the earliest sources recording the Norman invasion of England, made within memory of the Conquest. Yet, without direct evidence for the authorship of the Tapestry, the identification of its patron needs to be ascertained from the narrative of the Tapestry itself.  A brief study of the case for Odo of Bayeux commissioning the Tapestry will begin unravelling the motives for the Tapestry’s creation.  The argument rests upon the fact that the Tapestry assigns him a role within the overall narrative that exceeds his role in other accounts of the Conquest. Odo makes four appearances in the tapestry and is named three times in the inscriptions. Two appearances are at significant points in the narrative: the commissioning of the Norman fleet (scene 15), and the rallying of the troops at the Battle of Hastings (29). While this prominence is unlikely, it can be justified by Odo’s station as bishop, vassal and brother to Duke William.  This cannot be said of four minor characters named in the Tapestry of which three were vassals of Odo.  Significantly these men do not feature in any chronicles of the event, and Odo is not given prominence in other early records of the Conquest.  Most notably, the Kentish monk Eadmer makes no mention of Odo in his Historia Novorum.  While paralleling the moralistic themes of the Tapestry, Historia Novorum is Anglo-Saxon in tone and either slighted Odo, or Odo’s contributions to the Conquest were not sufficient to warrant note outside Norman sources.  The Bayeux Tapestry had definitive purpose in providing prominence to Odo and his men.  It was created for display at Odo’s cathedral in Bayeux, and was designed to appeal to an audience that was to view the Tapestry and remember and recognise the contribution of its leaders to the Conquest.

(Scene 15) Odo at the commissioning of                   (Scene 29) Odo rallying the troops                     the Norman fleet

In addition to providing prominence to the Bishop of Bayeux, the Tapestry provides prominence to Bayeux itself. One of the key events preceding the Conquest was the swearing of an oath by Harold Godwinson to Duke William, pledging his support for William’s claim to the English throne.  However, Harold went on to claim the English throne, despite his oath, giving the Normans the moral justification to mount the expedition to England.  The idea that the Normans were a tool of God’s retribution on a perjurious usurper is attested in numerous contemporary sources, and hinges on Harold’s oath.  Aedmer, who could be expected to support the Anglo-Saxon claim to the throne, casts the Norman victory as an indictment of Harold’s perjury, the miraculous intervention of God, who by punishing Harold’s wicked perjury shewed that He is not a God that hath any pleasure in wickedness.  The Norman chroniclers, William of Jumieges and William of Poitiers, also make the oath central to their histories and promote the allegory of the Conquest as righteous judgement.  The Tapestry is part of the same narrative tradition, depicting Harold taking an oath to William in Bayeux, over the holy relics held by the cathedral (11).  The only chronicler to place the oath at Bayeux was Wace, writing 100 years later in his role as a canon of Bayeux Cathedral. In contrast, William of Poitiers places the oath at Bonneville, located within his own diocese, while Orderic Vitalis, who wrote somewhat later and was openly critical of Odo, placed the oath at the Norman capital of Rouen.  The location of the oath is unimportant to the moral allegory of the Tapesty, and even to the literal outcome of the Conquest.  Each author was using this aspect of the narrative to their own provincial objectives, in the case of the Tapestry, providing prominence to Bayeux and its bishop.  Odo is placed in the centre of momentous events, the pivotal moment of the narrative centring on his cathedral, and the home of the Tapestry.

Scene 11: Harold swears an oath to William over the relics at Bayeux Cathedral

Yet the Tapestry is more than a simple attempt by its patron to show the justice of the Norman cause and his central role in the events – it is important that the contributions of designer and artisan not be overlooked. While the dual interests of the Tapestry’s patron as both religious figure and Norman partisan provided the allegory we have noted – God’s retribution upon a usurper – the weaving of this moral allegory throughout the Tapestry speaks to the clerical training of its designer.  Trained to read scripture, clerics were taught to interpret events in a religious and moralistic light, and it is likely the designer provided an outline of text, events and figures on the linen that was to become the Tapestry before the artisans went to work. The designer was clearly literate with religious interpretation of history, and literate with the language of the church. Interestingly though, and deepening the dichotomy of authorship, factors such as orthography, letter form and the expertise available indicate that the designer, and his artisans, were English, likely based in Odo’s post-conquest acquisition, the Earldom of Kent. With this in mind, it is just possible to see the hands of the Tapestry’s creators independent of its patron. Though the narrative certainly perpetuates the Norman narrative of Conquest, the designer did not deviate from the main history in order to pontificate upon the virtues of the victors – he even passes over details recorded elsewhere that would have demonstrated the morality of the Normans. The Tapestry’s English authors may have been embroidering to satisfy their patron, but they were not going to do so at the cost of English dignity. Indeed, I would argue that the Tapestry takes something of a ‘middle road.’ Generally speaking, the narrative tends to eschew individual heroism; Harold, for example, is depicted as heroic but morally flawed, while the text inscriptions have been described as studiously non-committal. The result is that both the conquered and conquerors as depicted as men of merit and valour and, as such, the Tapestry provides a vital link between the views of both peoples.

Which brings us to audience. The decision to use a textile medium to depict the events of the Conquest was directly related to audience. Odo likely commissioned the Tapestry for display at Bayeux cathedral in time for its consecration in 1077. The display of the tapestry in a public setting enabled the literal and allegorical narrative of the Conquest to be conveyed to an illiterate audience. In this, the Tapestry was somewhat akin to oral history in its ability to reach a larger audience, and relay both the narrative and the implications of the Conquest more immediately than written chronicles.  Indeed, the Tapestry likely fostered an oral tradition, with the Latin text enabling churchmen to narrate the events of the Tapestry for visiting pilgrims.  As an aspect of this, the Tapestry’s depiction of Harold’s oath (11) would have drawn the pilgrim’s attention to the significance of the relics they had come to see.  Meanwhile, the parishioners of Bayeux would have a constant reminder of the primacy of their bishop, cathedral and relics in grand political events.  In creating the Tapestry, its authors distinctly targeted an audience separate from the chronicles recording the events of 1066.  The chronicles were aimed at a literate, educated audience, while the Tapestry used established traditions of iconography to recount events to an audience conditioned to understand the underlying religious, visual motifs of the embroidery.

At which point it is worth sounding a note of caution and recalling the idiom coined by the great scholar of medieval art, Emile Mâle: the old craftsmen were never so subtle as their modern interpreters.  The Tapestry authors used imagery to convey ideas and individual components of the narrative through devices of allegory and analogy.  Already rich in emblematic meaning, it is easy to find allegory where the authors intended none. This has led to wide ranging interpretation of individual scenes within the narrative. Yet, in searching for meaning in the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry, it is important to read the tapestry as an ensemble: border, text and narrative scene together.

The visual representations in the Tapestry have three readily accessible layers of narrative.  The often terse Latin inscriptions provides a basic narrative that needs to be located within the larger story.  This story is provided by the main pictorial plates which provide the full narrative of the events of the Conquest, imbued with allegory appropriate to a Norman, Christian audience.  Finally, the borders provide analogy and depth of message to the narrative, either commenting on individual scenes, or alternatively providing general commentary on the overarching moral theme.

A closer look at scene 6 will show the manner in which these layers are used to develop the narrative:  Harold is in the custody of Guy of Ponthieu, who receives word from Duke William to send Harold to him. The brief Latin inscription states Here a messenger comes to Duke William; Here Guy took Harold to William, Duke of Normandy.  The narrative panels give greater detail, the previous scene had shown the arrival and capture of Harold in Guy’s territories.  Under the first inscription a messenger arrives at William’s court telling him of the event, William then organises Guy to transfer Harold to his custody, which takes place under the second part of the inscription.  In the lower border, between the two inscriptions there is a deer, caught between two packs of hunting dogs.   Caught between Guy and William, the deer is analogous of Harold’s circumstance.  The scene needs to be read comprising all its component parts to provide the audience a full picture of events.

Scene 6: William is informed of Harold’s capture and organises Harold’s transfer into his custody.

The Tapestry is not always so easily read.  Ambiguity was a narrative device adopted by the designer and his artisans, the dichotomy of authorship allows multiple readings of the Tapestry’s iconography. This ambiguity is displayed in the authors’ analogous use of fables throughout the Tapestry’s borders.  In scene 2 there is a representative depiction of the fable of the lamb, drinking upstream from the wolf.  In the fable, the wolf tries various rationalisations to justify eating the lamb; however, when the lamb rebuts all of these, the wolf simply eats the lamb anyway. The moral is that the greedy will always take what they want – usually interpreted in line with the Norman condemnation of Harold’s usurpation.  Yet if it is understood that the Tapestry’s creators were English, the fable could equally be read as an indictment of William’s actions in conquering England.  Accustomed to reading allegory in visual narrative, conqueror and conquered could read the analogy in the light of their own cultural context.

Scene 2: Fable of the lamb and the wolf depicted in lower border.

Contributing to the difficulties in reading the narrative is the very form of the Tapestry.  The nature of the object necessitates a linear history, however the designer breaks the flow of the story at various points.  Famously, scene 13 reverses the order of the death and funeral of Edward the Confessor. This is not simply an anomaly, the movement of the characters changes in line with the reversal of events.  The narrative reversal supports the Norman view of Harold as a usurper by visually separating his elevation as king from the internment of the last legitimate Anglo-Saxon king.  The highly ritualised scene of procession is moving away from the events of Harold’s coronation and the omens after his crowning.  This funeral scene anticipated Edward’s future saintliness, living on in death and not following the progression from life to death depicted in other deaths in the Tapestry. The representation of Edward as a saintly king benefitted both Anglo-Saxon and Norman views of events, and the narrative break at his death segregates the Anglo-Saxon past from the Norman future.

Scene 13: The death and funeral of Edward the Confessor – scene is in reverse chronological order.

So where to finish up? Designed to be central to Bayeux cathedral, just as Bayeux cathedral was central to the narrative, the Tapestry would have been seen by an audience who would be reminded of the prominence of their leaders in world events and in God’s plans. It was a remarkably simple idea – a visual representation of the Norman view (or Odo’s view) of the Conquest for a largely illiterate audience – Norman propaganda. Yet the Tapestry is a fundamentally complex document that, in its authorship, in its inter-weaved allegory, analogy and imagery, displays a contrast between Norman patron and Anglo-Saxon artisans. No doubt the Norman refrain that they were God’s tools in visiting his justice upon a wayward and perjurious king resounds loudly through the Tapestry narrative, but the Anglo-Saxons scarcely appear as a wayward and perjurious people.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Scene 15  Bayeux Tapestry
  2. Eadmer, A History of Recent Events in England: Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans. Geoffrey Bosanquet, London, Cresset Press, 1964.
  3. Suzanne Lewis, The Rhetoric of Power in the Bayeux Tapestry, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  4. Liber Eliensis, trans. Janet Fairweather, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2005.
  5. J. Bard McNulty, The Narrative Art of the Bayeux Tapestry Master, New York, AMS Press, 1989.
  6. Lucien Mussett, The Bayeux Tapestry, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2005.
  7. Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, trans. T. Forester, London, Henry G. Bohn, 1853.
  8. Gale Owen-Crocker (ed.), King Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2011.
  9. Wace, Roman de Rou, trans. Glyn S. Burgess, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2004.
  10. William of Jumieges, Gesta Normannorum Ducum, trans. Elisabeth Van Houts, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995.

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Creating a Saint – King Edmund the Martyr & the Great Viking Army

Riddled with spears, clinging to his faith, King Edmund of East Anglia was beheaded on 20 November 869 at the orders of Ivar Ragnarsson ‘the Boneless.’ Or at least that is what the tenth-century Passio Sancti Edmundi, Regis et Martyris of Abbo of Fleury would have us believe (note that I am using the Old English redaction of the text by Ælfric of Eynsham as my source). Unfortunately, as great as story as this is, it is just that, as story. The martyrdom of Edmund is an excellent example of late Anglo-Saxon hagiography and, particularly, of the cults of Anglo-Saxon Royal saints I have written about previously (Æthelberht of East Anglia, Kenelm of Mercia, Edward the Martyr). Yet there is something different about Edmund – Æthelberht, Kenelm, and Edward were all young kings, killed in their youth and innocence as a result of political machinations and their naivety. Though they do not suffer what is traditionally considered a martyr’s death – death in defence of their Christian faith – they are accorded a martyr’s death by virtue of their innocence. This ambiguity does not exist in Ælfric’s account of Edmund’s death. Edmund, according to Ælfric, tells Ivar’s messenger, who was sent to demand the capitulation of the East Anglian king: I will not defile my clean hands in your foul blood, because I follow Christ who sets us such an example; and I will happily be killed by you, if God ordains it so. Edmund intended to die a martyr’s death at the hands of the heathen vikings, and so he did. Continue reading Creating a Saint – King Edmund the Martyr & the Great Viking Army