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A Needle in the Right Hand of God

The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry


R. Howard Bloch (View Bio)
Hardcover: Random House, 2006.

A Needle in the Right Hand of God

The Bayeux Tapestry is the world's most famous textile—an exquisite 230-foot-long embroidered panorama depicting the events surrounding the Norman Conquest of 1066. It is also one of the most mysterious and compelling works of art. This hauntingly stitched account of the battle that redrew the map of Medieval Europe has inspired dreams of theft, waves of nationalism, visions of limitless power, and aesthetic rapture. In this fascinating book, Yale professor R. Howard Bloch reveals the history, the hidden meaning, the deep beauty, and the enduring allure of this astonishing piece of cloth.

A NEEDLE IN THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD opens with a gripping account of the event that inspired the tapestry: the swift, bloody Battle of Hastings, in which the Norman bastard William defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold and laid claim to England under his new title, William the Conqueror. But to truly understand the connection between battle and embroidery, one must retrace the web of international intrigue and scandal that climaxed at Hastings. With astonishing intimacy and immediacy, the artisans who fashioned this work of textile art brought to life a moment that changed the course of British culture and history.

Every age has cherished the Tapestry for different reasons and read new meaning into its enigmatic words and images. As Nazis tightened their grip on Europe, Hitler sent a team to France to study the Tapestry, decode its Nordic elements, and, at the end of the war, with Paris under siege, to bring the precious cloth to Berlin. French nationalists in the mid-19th century, fired by the dream of military glory, unearthed the lost French epic "The Song of Roland" that Norman troops sang as they marched to victory in 1066. The richest horde of buried Anglo-Saxon treasure; the matchless beauty of Byzantine silk; Aesop's strange fable "The Swallow and the Linseed;" the colony that Anglo-Saxon nobles founded in the Middle East following their defeat at Hastings are all brilliantly woven into Bloch's riveting narrative.

Seamlessly integrating Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, and Byzantine elements, the Bayeux Tapestry ranks with Chartres and the Tower of London as a crowning achievement of Medieval Europe. And yet, more than a work of art, the tapestry served as the suture that bound up the wounds of 1066. As Bloch writes, "Part of what makes the Tapestry so fascinating is that it rides the cusp of one of the great moments of transformation the West has ever known.... The Tapestry is simply the best picture we have of the Norman Conquest and of the beginnings of feudalism in the West. In this it is no different from many great works—the friezes of Nineveh for ancient Assyria, vases for Greece, Trajan's Column for Rome, Leonardo's 'Vitruvian Man' for the Renaissance, Picasso's 'Demoiselles d'Avignon' for the modern era—which both chart and define our image of an age."

This edition is enhanced by endpaper illustrations of the complete tapestry as well as by a beautiful full-color insert and more than twenty black-and-white illustrations.

"Compulsively readable." — Providence Journal

"The Battle of Hastings in 1066 was ‘one of the determining days in the making of the West,’ says Bloch, and there is no more compelling witness to that watershed than the Bayeux Tapestry. In a fast-paced tale involving medieval armies and embroiderers, Bloch, director of Yale's division of humanities, traces not only the history of the tapestry but also the social and political history recorded in its 230 feet. Bloch considers the mystery of who embroidered the tapestry (many attribute the work to Queen Mathilda, William's wife, and her embroiderers) and whether it was meant to be hung in a cathedral or a castle, and examines the textile as a work of art with elements of not only animal fables but the "bawdy tales" popular in the medieval marketplace. The tapestry, Bloch relates, has survived use by the military during the French Revolution to wrap equipment wagons, and Hitler's attempt to decode the possible secrets it might possess about the Nordic people. The tapestry, now in a museum in Bayeux, brings history to life, and Bloch's splendid account does the same for the tapestry itself." — Publishers Weekly

"With estimable clarity and evident enthusiasm, Bloch delivers variety, surprise, and understanding." — Booklist

"Highly recommended for public and academic libraries." — Library Journal

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