Monday, January 7, 2013

Aesop's Fables and the Bayeux Tapestry

By Rosanne E. Lortz
A Crow having stolen a bit of cheese, perched in a tree and held it in her beak. A Fox, seeing this, longed to possess the cheese himself, and by a wily stratagem succeeded. "How handsome is the Crow," he exclaimed, in the beauty of her shape and in the fairness of her complexion! Oh, if her voice were only equal to her beauty, she would deservedly be considered the Queen of Birds!" This he said deceitfully; but the Crow, anxious to refute the reflection cast upon her voice, set up a loud caw and dropped the cheese. The Fox quickly picked it up, and thus addressed the Crow: "My good Crow, your voice is right enough, but your wit is wanting.”  
This fable, attributed to the Ancient Greek slave Aesop, appears pictorially three different times in the margins of the Bayeux Tapestry. Other fables, also from Aesop, show up as well, leading historians to pose an interesting question: Why were they included? Are they merely decoration? Or are they commentary on the larger narrative of the Tapestry itself?

The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth over 70 meters long that tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England. The Tapestry begins with the depiction of Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, journeying to Normandy. There he is taken captive by the Normans and brought to Duke William, to whom he swears some kind of oath, most probably an oath pledging his support to William in the matter of the English succession. The Tapestry goes on to show Harold sailing back to England and becoming king himself after Edward the Confessor’s death. Duke William then launches an invasion, defeats and kills Harold, and takes the crown.

"Where Harold made an oath to Duke William"

The origins of the Bayeux Tapestry are debated by historians. Most agree that it was commissioned by a Norman in the decades following the Conquest (since it seems to tell the version of events as given by Norman historians like William of Poitiers and William of Jumieges). But the jury is out on whether it was commissioned by the Conqueror’s wife Matilda, the Conqueror’s brother Odo, or someone else entirely. There is also healthy discussion on whether it was created in the French town of Bayeux or embroidered somewhere in England.

One segment of thought believes that the Tapestry, although commissioned by a Norman, was embroidered by the conquered Anglo-Saxons, and thus has a subversive subtext stitched into its borders. The fables and their interpretation play a key part in this fascinating theory. While I do not have time to look at each fable in depth, I want to show you how the embroiderers’ use of “The Fox and the Crow” bears out this idea of an Anglo-Saxon subtext rebelliously commenting on the larger narrative. 

In the story of “The Fox and the Crow”, we see a strong animal taking advantage of a weak one. The fox uses guile to trick the foolish crow into giving up the coveted piece of cheese. The moral of the fable, “Flatterers are not to be trusted,” leads the reader to identify with the unfortunate crow as the hero of the story. The Fox, although clever, is still the villain of the piece. The cheese was never rightfully his—it was something that he stole through deceit. 

First Appearance of "The Fox and the Crow"

There are several pictorial clues in the Tapestry linking the Crow to Harold and the Fox to William. The first time the fable appears, it is beneath the scene where Harold is setting sail for Normandy. The Crow is on the left, and the Fox on the right. If the Crow is symbolizing Harold, then this is exactly what we would expect since in the historical narrative Harold is leaving England on the left, journeying toward Normandy and William on the right. 

The cheese has already dropped from the Crow’s mouth and is halfway between the Crow and the Fox. What does this indicate? Perhaps that Harold, just by setting sail has as good as lost the prize. Or perhaps it is a foreshadowing of what is to come. 

The Second Appearance of "The Fox and the Crow"

The second instance of this fable occurs after Harold has been captured by Guy of Ponthieu and brought to William. It is shown beneath the scene where Harold is accompanying William to the Breton war. In this picture of the fable, the cheese is already in the Fox’s mouth.  Harold, now in William’s clutches, has already lost the prize. 

The Third Appearance of "The Fox and the Crow"

The third instance of the fable comes in the upper margin just as Harold has left Normandy to return to England. The arrangement of the Fox and the Crow in this third version of the fable is interesting. The Fox (which we have already established as William) is on the left, in the direction of the Normandy that Harold has just left. The Crow is on the right, in the direction of Harold’s voyage. The historian David Bernstein notes that the Fox and the Crow are “no longer in the same compartment.” They are “separated by a panel, a spatial composition similar to that of William and Harold below,” for Harold has just put the sea between William and himself.  

In a strange twist, the Crow now has the cheese in her mouth. You will recall that in the two previous showings of this fable, the cheese was either in midair, or firmly in the clutches of the Fox. Escaping from Normandy unscathed, Harold has regained his prize for a time by putting a watery barrier between William and himself. 

Throughout this story, the cheese in question is a symbol of the throne of England. Harold has it. William wants it. And somehow, through trickery, William will contrive to get it. Harold may have been as foolish as the flattered bird to travel to Normandy in the first place, but it is only because William is as rapacious and guileful as a Fox that Harold’s cheese is in any danger. (See my earlier post on what William was like Before He Was the Conqueror).

The clever use of Aesop’s Fables in the Bayeux Tapestry—of which “The Fox and the Crow” is just one example—provides us with an even greater appreciation for the makers of the Tapestry. Were they members of the oppressed Anglo-Saxon race, trying to hint at their own perception of events, even while they stitched out the story their conquerors demanded? The use of the Fables hints that such a subtext could be possible, and though the evidence might not be enough to make an unqualified historical claim, it could be enough to inspire the story for another historical novel. 

I've noticed that a couple novels have been released recently featuring the Bayeux Tapestry. I haven't had the chance to read them yet, but when I do, I'm curious to find out if Aesop's Fables get a mention....


Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.



Aesop’s Fables.  Trans. Rev. George Fyler Townsend [on-line collection]. Available from 

Bernstein, David J. The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Bridgeford, Andrew. 1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry. London: Harper Perennial, 2004.

Wilson, David M. The Bayeux Tapestry. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc. 1985.