With some friends we organized a day of Norman history. From Honfleur on the Normandy coast, we drove southwest to the city of Caen that was heavily destroyed by Allied bombing after D-Day. We spent the morning at the Caen Memorial, an excellent museum about the events leading up to World War II, its outbreak and unfolding, with some focus on the D-Day beach landings at the Normandy beaches, and the aftermath and final year of fighting in Europe. The Pacific Theater was referenced a few times, particularly in sections of the museum relating to the violence of war and atrocities committed by combatants (the Pacific Theater focus was on Japan’s fighting in China and the Pacific Islands).
This is an experience we recommend to anyone planning a visit to the Normandy beaches and the cemeteries. A few hours spent on the background history makes a visit to the beaches much more meaningful.
We then drove to Bayeux where we had a nice bistro lunch and then walked around the town, stopping at the Bayeux Cathedral before heading to the former monastery that now houses the incredible Bayeux Tapestry.
“The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth nearly 70 metres (230 ft) long and 50 centimetres (20 in) tall, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later [the usurper] King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings [in 1066, won by William and the Normans].
“According to Sylvette Lemagnen, conservator of the tapestry:
‘The Bayeux tapestry is one of the supreme achievements of the Norman Romanesque …. Its survival almost intact over nine centuries is little short of miraculous … Its exceptional length, the harmony and freshness of its colors, its exquisite workmanship, and the genius of its guiding spirit combine to make it endlessly fascinating.’” — Wikipedia
“The tapestry consists of some fifty scenes with Latin tituli, embroidered on linen with coloured woollen yarns. It is likely that it was commissioned by Bishop Odo, William’s half-brother, and made in England—not Bayeux—in the 1070s. In 1729 the hanging was rediscovered by scholars at a time when it was being displayed annually in Bayeux Cathedral. The tapestry is now exhibited at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France.” – Wikipedia
Although it is called the Bayeux Tapestry, this commemorative work is not a true tapestry as the images are not woven into the cloth; instead, the imagery and inscriptions are embroidered using wool yarn sewed onto linen cloth.
At the Bayeux Cathedral we found an interesting explanatory text that noted how William, Duke of Normandy and the victor at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 in England, used the Church’s great authority to reinforce his power. “During the Norman conquest by William, his half-brother Odo, also Arlette’s son, was Bishop of Bayeux. Historians believe that the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned by Odo to adorn his new cathedral, which was consecrated in 1077. The Tapestry was displayed there once yearly and illustrated Harold’s ill fate to the cathedral’s faithful community. During its consecration, all of the Dukedom of Normandy and the Kingdom of England’s most eminent dignitaries were present alongside Lanfranc, the Men’s Abbey’s very first abbot, who was to become the Archbishop of Canterbuty.”
Ending the day with visit to the Bayeux Cathedral gave us a chance to reflect on the history of war — spanning a milenium — that we had seen recounted in contemporary “technologies” and story telling mediums: the 70 meter long tapestry in bright colors without writing (at a time when there were no published books and few laymen could read) in contrast with 20th and 21st centuries’ video, photography, museum tableaux artifacts and an actual bunker used by the Germans to defend Caen, retelling the story of the second “Great War”. A lot to absorb and reflect on…