Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Texting Women

Richard de Fournival, a learned French author of the fourteenth century, says in the preface to one of his works that there are two ways of teaching and learning, by word (parole) and by image (painture).  Certainly one of the most engaging aspects of many medieval books is the relationship between their words and their images.  Another way of thinking about the relationship is that of text and context--what goes "with the text".  My own doctoral dissertation studied that relationship in scores of manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose—a book read by practically everybody in the Middle Ages, and by practically nobody today.

I have been thinking about the marriage of parole and painture for a somewhat whimsical reason.  In the past couple of weeks as I return to a new and more intensive routine of research and writing, I have moved out of my home study and back into the library, where I still have an office.  There are gains and there are losses in this move.  I’ve had to give up the leisurely spousal sharing of coffee and newspaper, and the pleasing option of being able step away from my desk at will and out into the beautiful autumn landscape forty yards away.  On the other hand I am now surrounded by millions rather than mere hundreds of books, and since there is nothing else to do than read or write, I tend to get more accomplished.

Still one has to get up now and again for calls of nature or simply to move the molecules a bit.  Throughout the day I take five-minute mini-walks through the miles of open stacks in the Firestone Library, sometimes plucking from a shelf some random book that catches my eye.  Last week I found myself reading up in odd moments on the Klondike Gold Rush and the British naval action against the French fleet at Mers el Kebir in 1940.  Those are two different subjects in case you are groping for the elusive connection.

  ISTI MIRANT STELLAM : "These guys are looking at the star"

On Monday the book I picked up from some oversize shelves was more along my beaten path: the elaborate coffee table edition of the Bayeux Tapestry by David M. Wilson (New York: Knopf, 1985).  This book has very large color photographs of every inch of the tapestry, which is many inches (it is sixty eight meters long).  As you undoubtedly know the tapestry, which is named for the Norman town in which it has been preserved, is a huge eleventh-century embroidery that delineates in image and in word the background and history of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the triumph of the Norman Duke William, the death of the English King Harold.  I perhaps should say it provides a version of these events as determined by a Norman propagandist.  History is written by the victors, and in this instance the victors have needled the vanquished in a particularly brilliant way.

The glory of the tapestry is undoubtedly its pictorial wealth, particularly in the many scenes dealing with battle and seafaring.  The astronomical phenomenon now known as Halley’s Comet appeared in the skies of 1066, and it was of course later taken as the presage of some great disaster or triumph, depending upon the side of the Channel from which it had been viewed.  It is recorded in the tapestry.  But there is also a running written text.  The large majuscules of its simple sentences suggest the Dick and Jane genre—or in this instance the Ricardus et Joanna, as it is in very easy Latin.

It’s a Man’s World that the tapestry depicts, but it is to women that we are indebted for possessing it.  There is elegance in the union of pictorial and narrative meaning in this textile, for the word text, like textile, derives from the Latin word texere, to weave (past participle textus).  A story is a cloth of words.  We still talk about spinning a yarn, and there are other verbal memories of the connection.  We may lose the thread of some complicated story.  The literal meaning of clew (clue) is thread, a filament to be followed from confusion to resolution, as Theseus followed Ariadne’s thread out of the labyrinth, or as Sherlock Holmes follows it to the solution of the crime.

Weaving was women’s work, and there are many literary examples of female textual/textile cleverness.   A famous classical instance will readily come to mind: the ruse devised by Penelope, wife of Ulysses, long-absent and presumed dead by many, to keep her suitors at bay.  Penelope has no desire to remarry, but under pressure she promises to become available when she finishes weaving the elaborate tapestry on which she is engaged.  After hours, and out of sight of the slavering aspirants, however, she picks apart each day’s work, so that the project never advances.  Eventually her long-absent husband Ulysses returns and deals harshly with his would-be successors to the conjugal bed.

A second example, much gorier, is the legend of Philomela (the nightingale) from Ovid.  Philomela was brutally raped by King Tereus, the husband of her sister Procne.  He was supposed to be fetching her home by sea for a family reunion.  Attempting to cover up the crime, Tereus then has Philomela’s tongue ripped from her mouth so that she will not be able to report the crime to her sister.  However Philomela is able to convey the necessary information to Procne in a wordless text, an X-rated, historiated tapestry.  Procne wrought a revenge upon her husband too hideous to report in a family blog—and of course way beyond my own weaving skills.

Philomela's Loom of Doom : Sir Edward Burne-Jones

But the great weavers of the late Middle Ages, I take some pride in reporting, were the Flemings.  Most people’s favorite character in Chaucer is probably the Wife of Bath, than whom a more textual lady would be hard to find, as she is made up, quilt-like, of brilliantly recycled and recombined squares from the Bible, Ovid, and Jean de Meun.  One of the first things we learn about her is her textile prowess:
Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt   [talent]
She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt. 

Ypres and Ghent were two of the great wool centers of the Flemish heartland.