Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! Impressions of 950 years ago

Bayeux Tapestry replica in Oshkosh

OSHKOSH, Wis. - History is visiting this week. It’s in spitting distance. Okay, that’s an exaggeration – but at least you don’t have to go all the way to Bayeux in Normandy in France to see one of the remarkable artifacts of the Middle Ages, the Bayeux Tapestry.

A replica of the illustrious object that drips history – and gore and earthiness – is on display at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. And the campus has loaded the brief visit with pertinent and pithy lectures.

The tapestry – buy-oh is one pronunciation – tells the story of events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 with pictures and snippets of Latin text.

Translated, a key phrase says, “He is slain.” King Harold is depicted reaching to touch the shaft of an arrow in an eye – the mortal wound, legend has it. The victorious William is later crowned at Westminster Abbey in London, starting a long line of reign.

You could go nuts trying to separate fact and legend in the saga – or weigh the import of the event and its essential figures – so I’ll leave that to history books. Instead, I offer this:

The replica is worth seeing. So much has been written about the tapestry for centuries that a viewing quenches the thirst for curiosity. Seeing tells so much.

Viewing will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, March 28-April 1, on the third floor of Dempsey Hall on campus. Admission is free. Info: uwosh.edu.

I saw the tapestry replica during its first two days of showing in the ballroom of the university’s Alumni Welcome and Conference Center. The 230-foot tapestry snaked around the spacious room that has windows looking out on the Fox River.


·         The colors are vivid. They tend to be solids. One stray thought is, “This is like a long comic book, as if the story is stretched out on a single sheet of paper.”

·         Scenes are of what some people wore at the time – not a guess. The people in the scenes tend to be of leader or military figures (vs. townfolk), and something essential is happening in each scene. It might be the building of a vessel or a crowning or a feast or a death and funeral or, most importantly, a momentous battle with horsemen and archers.

·         No glass separates the replica from the viewer. You can peer as closely as you wish, without touching.

·         You can take photographs. That’s not always the case with exhibits, so that’s a bonus.

·         You don’t have to be a scholar to follow what’s taking place in the pictures. A printed program points out the essentials.

·         You can take your time with the viewing.

·         Along with the main scenes in the center of the tapestry, there’s more to examine in the top and bottom fringes. Early in the sequence, the images tend to be animals and birds (some realistic, some fanciful) along with a variety of symbols. Eventually, there are human figures that are without clothing and, in one case, are of a man and woman in readiness. The earthiness eventually leads to blunt images surrounding the battle sequence. The bottom fringe contains images of dead soldiers. Later, images show bodies being stripped of their armor. Some images are of soldiers with their head, arms and/or legs cut off, or their body cut in half. The scenes bring home the brutality of close-quarters combat for man and horse.

·         Most fascinating for me was the climactic scene – the “He is slain” image. This was a turning point. It is chronicled. Even in replica, it is there in front of your nose – history in tactile form. Harold is buying the farm, and England will grow and nurture from that and eventually produce a more dominant offshoot, the United States.

The replica is on loan from the University of North Georgia. UW-Oshkosh is making the most of the brief stay. As the world turns on the Wisconsin university scene, the project is an interesting example of an institution calling on resources on hand to enhance an experience for not only its students but the community. Professors from UW-Oshkosh are giving lectures relating to the tapestry from the perspective of their areas of expertise, and the titles below reveal the rich scope. Here is the lineup:

+ Tuesday, March 29, 9:40 to 11:10 a.m.: “Material Culture in 1066: Art and History in the Bayeux Tapestry,” Susan Maxwell, department of art, and “William the Bastard in Norse History and Legend: A Brief Overview,” Elizabeth Wade-Sirabian, department of foreign languages and literatures.

+ Tuesday, March 29, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.: “The Needle and the Sword: The Struggle for the English Crown in 1066,” Kimberly Rivers, department of history, and “Language and Literature after the Invasion: William the Bastard to King Arthur,” Karl Boehler, department of English.

+ Thursday, March 31, 9:40 to 11:10 a.m.: “La chanson de Roland: A Literary Masterpiece of the French Middle Ages,” Andrzej Dziedzic, department of foreign languages and literatures, and “‘England Should Have a Copy of Its Own’: The Medieval Revival and the Victorian Bayeux Tapestry,” Christine Roth, department of English.

+ Thursday, March 31, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.: “Worlds in Collision: Competing Military Systems in the Battle of Hastings,” Kevin Boylan, department of history, and “Halley’s Comet before and after 1066: The Science behind the Legend,” Barton Pritzl, department of physics and astronomy.

Yes, the Bayeux Tapestry even contains an image of Halley’s Comet (before it was named such). Mark Twain made a colorful reference to him coming in with the comet and wishing to go out with the comet, which he did. The comet was even more famous from its appearance in 1066 and (again, legend has it) William’s reading of what it foretold for him. The tapestry is endlessly fascinating. Carpe diem.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV between 6 and 7:30 a.m. Sundays.

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