As everyone knows by now President Macron has agreed to loan the Bayeux Tapestry to the UK, possibly in 2022 and definitely subject to conservation decisions.* Since the announcement, I’ve been engaged in lively conversations on social media about the politics of the decision, matters of conservation and whether the Tapestry should be moved at all, as well as doing my bit to promote research and scholarship at my place of work by writing pithy comments and being interviewed by a local news channel. Such is the lot of the medievalist when their work becomes unexpectedly topical.
I am, however, genuinely conflicted about this announcement.
There is a very large part of me that is excited about the prospect of the Tapestry paying a visit to the UK, most likely the British Museum, and the possibilities that entails for exhibiting it alongside the Canterbury manuscripts, which it parallels, and other eleventh-century objects. No doubt there would be major international conferences — not that there is a shortage of those on this object — television programmes, episodes of Melvin Bragg’s ‘In Our Time’ and all manner of other things that would give medieval history a welcome boost. It would inspire new generations of historians and students.
The sensible part of me that sees the Bayeux Tapestry not just as a wonderful and remarkable piece of evidence, but as a fragile, damaged and utterly irreplaceable artefact, wonders why now, what’s going on? Of course this is taking place against the backdrop of Brexit and the government’s attempted negotiations to leave the EU. I’m intrigued as to the motives of Macron and May: one wants money for Calais and the other is in desperate need of political allies. I worry about the use that would be made of this loan by the right: just see today’s Sun with its ‘BYE-EU Tapestry’ showing Theresa May surrounded by decapitated Europeans (I refuse to link to it). Above all, I’m concerned about the potential to damage the Tapestry further. The curators have an enormous and formidable responsibility.
Then my historian brain kicks in again. ‘Come on! You know objects are exchanged and loaned for diplomatic purposes and have been for centuries! Why should this be any different?’
The Tapestry has been used as a political tool since its creation (discussed in part here). It was most likely commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother Odo bishop of Bayeux and earl of Kent. It was probably made in Canterbury at St Augustine’s by a team of embroiders before being transported across the channel for display in Odo’s cathedral. As a relic of the ancien régime it was used as a tarpaulin during the French Revolution, Napoleon studied it for tips on how to invade England and the Nazis viewed it as a masterpiece of Ayran art. To that end it is no surprise that Macron and May are using it to generate political capital in a time of great uncertainty between Britain and the Continent.
But do we need to move it at all? One of the conversations I’ve had over the past two days mentioned the potential of digital humanities. There is a digital version of the Tapestry and so the both it and the Canterbury Manuscripts could be brought together in imaginative ways. This could actually create a more permanent (or less temporary) exhibit of great value in teaching and research. Given the expense of moving the Tapestry and creating an exhibition space for it, this would be my preferred way forward, along with investment in the teaching of History and maintenance of freedom of movement to allow us to go to Bayeux to see the Tapestry and explore the history of the Normans. But I fear that ship long since sailed.
*The Bayeux Museum plans to construct a new exhibition space for the Tapestry and so its visit to London would coincide the the period it would not be on display in its home.