The French have got a thing about comic books – bandes dessinées, as they are known in the adult world. Go into any bookshop, and the busiest place will be the adult B.D section. The (mostly male) customers may do more reading than buying, but there they will be, leafing through the pages for hours on end. These books are works of art: so much so that there are annual B.D. festivals, where aficionados gather to dissect and discuss the latest books and the classics.
There are all types of these books. Anything from flying ace war stories to the Wild West: improbably-chested heroines, muscular heroes, sci-fi, insects, dinosaurs, erotica: it’s all here, in glorious colour or black and white. You only have to think of Tin Tin (though he was Belgian so he doesn’t count).
Well, there’s nothing new under the sun: the first cartoon story, in words and consecutive pictures, was the Bayeux Tapestry.
Which isn’t tapestry at all, it’s embroidery. No-one knows who made it, or commissioned it, or where it was supposed to hang. It may have decorated the Cathedral; it may have been in some lord’s castle. For now, it’s safely displayed, out of reach of bugs and humidity, in a converted seminary in Bayeux town.
We dropped in to see it on the way back from England, and coincided with market day, which may or may not have had a bearing on the lack of car parking places. We followed the signs, and found the place, and paid our entrance, knowing what we were going to see.
Actually, we didn’t: nothing prepares you for the reality of this long band of linen, decorated in 3 or 4 colours, which tells the story of how Harold was a liar and a cheat and said first of all that he wasn’t after the throne, oh dear me no, whatever gave you that impression? And then he turned round and said, Surprise! I lied! So William gave him a poke in the eye to prove that liars never prosper.
Rather like in TinTin, the English are depicted with wide moustaches. They’re the medieval equivalent of the baddies in black hats.
The horses are wonderful, prancing, falling, hooves aloft and flailing: and pretty much as horses continued to be depicted until well into the 19th century, with all four feet off the ground at once, bouncing across the scene at full stretch.
The boats are open; you’d have thought the chain mail would rust in the salty air on the Channel crossing. The battles are rather clean – just lopped off limbs lying around bloodlessly. And there is Harold with an arrow in his eye (we’ve talked about boys playing with sharp objects before, some five hundred years earlier: they never listen). For some reason, people like to linger here for a better look, which is more than Harold was getting at the time.
The audio guide that sounds rather like Edward Fox takes you through the whole thing at a brisk trot. ‘Here in Scene 4… Here in scene 8’, with no mention of the interesting things going on in scenes 5,6, and 7. You get the idea that a coachload of tourists is just about to burst in behind you, so you go with the flow as directed, until you arrive rather breathlessly at the end of the story. William wins, every time.
But – and this may be because I’m English – I have to wonder: what if Harold had ducked?
And one final thought: the Normans won at Hastings because they had the best archers. So what happened between then and the Battle of Crecy, when the feared English longbow triumphed? Is that a case of being hoist with your own petard? Or, as we say, what goes around comes around; and if you don’t listen to your mother, you’ve only yourself to blame.