Richard Burt,

"Re-embroidering the Bayeux Tapestry in Film and Media: The Flip Side of History in Opening and End Title Sequences,"

Exemplaria 19: 2 (2007)

(Click on link above for the pdf file of the article.)

Books, scrolls, comic books, and storyboards in the opening title sequences of medieval films
Film editing as sewing
For image captures from films that cite the Bayeux tapestry, scroll down.
The Bayeux Tapestry

 Provisional abstract of article Richard Burt, "Re-embroidering the Bayeux Tapestry in Film and Media: The Flip Side of History in Opening and End Title Sequences," Exemplaria 18:2 (2006) :

In a cartoon drawn by Richard Jolley, two American tourists view the Bayeux Tapestry in a museum, and the husband remarks to his wife "The storyboard was great . . . why did they never make the movie?"

The punch line depends, of course, on our appreciating the differences between the Tapestry and film, high French fine arts culture and low American film culture, naive and knowing viewers, the past and the present.   The tourists are far from being alone, however, in comparing the Tapestry to modern visual media.   Scholars frequently draw analogies between it and a cartoon, comic strip, screenplay, film, and hypertext. 1  Lucien Musset writes, for example: "For quite some time, the Tapestry has been compared to modern forms of expression such as the comic strip, the animated film, and watching a film in the cinema. Is there a justification for doing so?" (2002, 26).2   Rather than attempt to adjudicate which, if any, analogue is justified, however, I want to explore the afterlives of the Bayeux Tapestry in cinema to ask a series of different questions about the Tapestry from the vantage point of modern media:   How is the Bayeux Tapestry shaped by its framing within or comparison to modern media?   What kinds of effects does it produce in other media?   Why is the Bayeux Tapestry always an analogue for another story when the Tapestry is cited in cinema? Why, in other words, has a film of William the Conqueror's invasion never been made (citing the Tapestry)? And why do cinematic citations of the Tapestry so often drift toward parody?

        I want to address these questions by turning to citations of the Bayeux Tapestry in film.   In his Medieval Imaginary in Western Cinema , Amy Francois de la Breteque notes a large number of films about the Middle Ages that "cite" tapestries, often in their opening title sequences.3 Indeed, The Vikings (dir. Richard Fleischer, 1958), La Chanson de Roland(dir. Frank Cassenti, 1978), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (dir. Kevin Reynolds, 1991), Bedknobs And Broomsticks (dir. Robert Stevenson, 1971), and Blackadder: Back and Forth (dir. Paul Weiland, 1999) all use the Tapestry in their opening title sequences.   (The Tapestry is also used in the closing credit sequence of The Vikings, appears in scenes in El Cid [dir. Anthony Mann, 1961] and Hamlet (dir. Franco Zeffirelli, 1990, mentioned in a scene in Is Paris Burning? (dir. Rene Clement, 1966); appears in two film and two television documentaries about WIlliam the Conqueror; and is echoed by frescoes in Braveheart [dir. Mel GIbson, 1995]).2a Like the Jolley cartoon's framing of the Tapestry in relation to new media--storyboards and film--these films frame it in relation to new media that range from animated cartoon prologues in The Vikings (which has a voice-over narration by Orson Welles) and Blackadder, film stills in La Chanson de Roland, and a film in Robin Hood. 3a  Rather than adapt the Bayeux Tapestry by making a historical fiction film about William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings, the opening sequences use the Bayeux Tapestry as a frame to allegorize it as another story that anticipates or relates to the narrative told in the film. This allegorization not only produces history effects (the story is basd on historical events) but also mythologizes the past, blending fact and fiction in ways attended to by historians and New Historicists such as Natalie Zemon Davis and Stephen Greenblatt. These cinematic remediations, or framings, of of the Tapestry by another medium, occasionally produce comic effects. Yet, unlike the Jolley cartoon, it is sometimes difficult to tell how serious, or how silly the remediations are meant to be as they both unravel the Bayeux Tapestry and put it into stitches, as it were, unsettling distinctions between old and new media, high and low media, naïve and knowing viewers, seriousness and silliness, past and present.

     In this essay, I explore what I call Bayeux Tapestry effects in these films, situating the films in relation to the broader field of remediations of medieval print and visual culture in an admittedly marginal but nevertheless highly significant part of many films about the Middle Ages, namely, the title sequences.   The film credits of Les Visiteurs du Soir (dir. Marcel Carne, 1942), The Adventures of Robin Hood (dir. Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, 1938), Richard III (dir. Laurence Olivier, 1955), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (dir. William Dieterle, 1939), Prince Valiant (dir. Henry Hathaway, 1954), The Passion of Joan of Arc (dir. Carl Dreyer, 1928), El Cid (dir. Anthony Mann, 1961), The Lion in Winter (dir. Anthony Harvey, 1968), and Se7en (dir. David Fincher, 1995) use a book, scroll, scroll and prologue, book and scroll, comic panels, trial transcript, storyboard, marginal architectural Romanesque sculpture, and montage as palimpsest of book and film, respectively.   More playfully and self-consciously, Monty Python's Holy Grail has two opening title sequences and makes use of a "book of the film" with photos of characters in it as well as animated sequences drawn from medieval illuminated books to introduce scenes of the film. The use of medieval multi-media culture in the opening credits highlights an important edge of the cinematic paratext. 4  Drawing on the media theory of Lev Manovich, Richard Grusin, and Jay David Bolter as well as on work on medieval books and visual culture by Michael Camille and Valentine Groebner, I consider how cinematic and print paratexts overlap (joining the written scroll and the film roll, making the comic book protocinematic, and so on). 5  The Tapestry and other medieval media at the fringes of these films double as cinematic palimpsests, setting up continuities between the credits and later scenes in the films and weaving intercinematic connections to other films, some of them deliberate parodies.

      An analysis of the Bayeux tapestry cinematic citations in particuar will help open up a more fully dialogical model of adaptation of history. Critics who have rightly questioned a fidelity model of film criticism have tended to leave behind consideration of the "original." The Bayeux Tapestry's protocinematic potential as well as its parallels with other modern media will also contribute both to an analysis of the "retrotextualization" of film (and expansion of the paratext) that has occurred in the wake of film's digitalization. DVD editions break the film down into "chapters" to which one may skip ahead or skip back; screen captures on computers that can turn the film into a film strip; they include extras such as "making of" documentaries, audiocommentaries by the director and main actors, booklets, film trailers, and so on; the inclusion of trailers; and websites disperse other paratextual material such as trailers, teasers, clips, cast interviews, featurettes, scans of magazine articles, and so on).   As they adopt innovations in new digital media, films often find analogies for the new in older films and older media. The rapidly developing field of film title sequence history may contribute, more specifically, to our understanding of medieval visual culture and its margins.   Nicole de Mourgues' punning concepts of the "li(vi)sible," or "readable/ visible," and the "livisaudible," or "readable / visible / audible," developed in her book Le générique du film (1993, 105-71) to analyze the interplay both of typography and image and of writing and sounds in title sequences, offer productive ways of thinking about word and image in the Tapestry as well as "performances" by a jongleur of it.   

        Though I will show that the Bayeux Tapestry film paratexts engage some concerns of the Tapestry, including gender and sexuality (rape, embroidery, nudity, the gaze), performance, authorship, memory, and purely decorative as well as meaningful borders, my aim is not to show that a particular analogue such as film that is more faithful than others to the "original" Bayeux tapestry or an experience of it. 7  The point is rather to see that any medium tends to remediate and frame others. For the films make clear that our understanding of the Bayeux Tapestry will always be shaped through analogies to other, often new media, while "new media" such as digital film will be defined through analogies to much older multi-media such as the Bayeux Tapestry, media which may often look cartoonish or caricatured as they are remediated.   A consideration of how these films "get medieval" will thus also involve a consideration of how they "get schmedieval," as it were, an examination less of how they instance the shock of medievalism than of how they instance the schlock of medievalism.

       Attention to the Bayeux Tapestry in particular as an old medium, embroidery, remediated in the paratexts of the new medium of cinema is perhaps of more interest than clearly manuscript and print media in that the Tapestry paratexts allow for a reconsideration of the use of (un)weaving tapestries and webs in embroidery, literature, feminist theory, and deconstruction as a metaphor for women's history and for writing and textuality in general. 9  An unravelling of borders occurs in some unexpected places.   What Stephen Greenblatt calls "the touch of the real," the reality effect prized in New Historicism, is tied up with the near absence of paratextual material. 10  Yet the border between text and paratext in historicist and film scholarship has become frayed as it too has gone digital, so that scholarship is increasingly analogous to the audiocommentaries now found on many DVD editions of films.  


1. A parody of the Bayeux Tapestry appeared on the cover of the July 15, 1944 issue of The New Yorker.

The Tapestry was also parodied in a New Yorker cartoon entitled "The Bayeux Tie" by J.P. Rini, published in January 28, 1991. And the Tapestry also appeared in the Classics Illustrated Ivanhoe. On the cartoon as analogue, see John D. Anderson; on the comic strip, see Scott McCloud, Gerald A. Bond, 20n, and Lucien Musset, 26-28; on a screenplay, see Michel Parisse, 53-63; on film, see Marie Therese Poucet, 65-90, Gerald A. Noxon, Parisse, 54-56, and Lucien Musset, 26-28; and on hypertext, see Martin K. Foys.   The comparisons are made so frequently that scholars such as Bond, Musset, and Foys note some of these analogies in passing without seeing the need to documenting fully their sources.   Scholars have also compared the Tapestry to contemporaneous and older analogues. On chansons de geste and the epic, see C.R. Dodwell; on medieval manuscripts, see David Wilson, 208-212 and David Bernstein; on marginal architectural sculpture, see Karen Rose Mathews; on the frieze, see John West, Ute Engel, and David Bernstein; on a play with two acts, a prologue, and an epilogue, see Richard Brilliant.   Marie Therese Poncet's unjustly overlooked   Etude comparative des illustrations du Moyen Age et des dessins anime (Paris: A-G. Nizet, 1952) was extremely far-sighted in reconceptualizing medieval visual media in relation to film and Disney animated cartoons.   The page facing the title page of Poncet's book also announces a book by Poncet "in preparation" entitled A Medieval Film: The Bayeux Embroidery followed by this description: "Its animation technique; its realization as an animated cartoon; its cinematic [filmographique] aesthetic." Interestingly enough, Disney's Bedroom and Broomsticks did animate the Tapestry.

2. La Tapisserie de Bayeux . Paris: Editions Zodiaque. 2002. "Depuis longtemps, on a rapproche la Tapesserie de certaines formes tres modernes d'expression, comme la bande dessinee, le dessin anime, voire le film de cinema. Qu'y a-t-il la de justifie?"   My translation.

2a. The documentaries are The Conquerors: William the Conquerer (2005, History Channel); The Battle of Hastings: 1066 (dir. Marcel Badou 1966) Films for the Humanities English translation video); The Norman Conquest of England, as Seen Through the Bayeux Tapestries (Roger Leenhardt and Jean Pierre Vivet, 1961, color, 20 min.) and Guillaume le Conquérant (dir. Jean-Michel Barjol, 1955).There is also a made for television film entitled Blood Royal: William the Conqueror (dir. David Butler, 1990). It moves through the Battle of Hastings to the suppression of a rebellion led by Hereward the Wake. I have not seen the film, but would guess it too cites the Bayeux Tapestry. I thank Richard Koch for pointing out this film to me.

3. Francois Amy de la Breteque, L'imaginaire medieval dans le cinema occidental (Paris: Honore Champion, 2004).   "on peut penser que, dans l'esprit de beaucoup de nos contemporains, la tapisserire represente use sorte d'equivalent medieval du cinema--ce qui justiferait la reciproque:   filmer comme pour une "tapisserie". . . .   la tapisserie etait une forme de "precinema."   De la Breteque also notes citations of friezes and frescos (pp. 142-47).

3a. We will see that in La Chanson de Roland and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the Tapestry is also referenced in the films, after the credits, as well.   A wall hanging in a Viking hall, an embroidered English tent, and a painting on the deck of an English ship are seen in The Vikings .

4. I draw on Gerard Genette's notion of the paratext. See Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation ( Cambridge University Press, 1997).  

5. Lev Manovich, Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2002);   Richard Grusin and Jay David Bolter, Remediation: Understanding New Media   (Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2000); Camille, Image at the Edge; Camile, The Gothic Idol ; Valentine Groebner, Defacement .   Grusin and Bolter focus on digital media and on a tension between immediacy or transparency and hypermediacy, or the framing of one medium by another.   They engage issues of liveness and television journalism is their default medium.   Though medieval art is their point of departure, they do not discuss the ways in which remediations of the past in the present or why the medieval plays such a large part in figuring digital media.   Their focus on concealment (their critical gesture being the exposure of what is concealed) does not account for the palimpsestic effects of media either.

6. See Gerard Genette Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree ( University of Nebraska Press, 1998). See also Vivian Sobchack, "The Insistent Fringe: Moving Images and the Palimpsest of Historical Consciousness."   Screening the Past . April 1999

Sobchack does not discuss the paratext of films, however, nor theorize the paipsest as intercinematicity. The insistent fringes to which she refers in her title are to togas worn by Romans in period films.

7. On obscenity in the Tapestry and censorship of it, see Madeline H. Caviness, "Obscenity and Alterity:   Images that Shock and Offend Us / Them, Now / Then" in Jan M. Ziolkowski, ed. Obscenity:   Social Control and Artistic Creation in the European Middle Ages , Boston: Brill, 1998, 155-75.   See also the essays in the same book by Michael Camille "Obscenity Under Erasure:   Censorship in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts, 139-154 and R. Howard Bloch, "Modest Maidens and Modified Nouns: Obscenity in the Fabliaux," 293-307.

8. See Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- And Postmodern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 199) and Kathleen Biddick, The Shock of Medievalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).   Neither Dinshaw nor Biddick (I would add Louise Fradenberg's Sacrifice Your Love as well) reflect on the use of film and pop music to give currency to academic criticism.   See also Valentin Groebner, Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2004); on performance, see Richard Brilliant.

11. See, respectively, Rozika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (London and New York: Routledge, 1989); Marta Morazzoni, The Invention of Truth: A Novel (Ecco Press, 1995);   Lisa Jardine, " Unpicking the Tapestry: The Scholar of Women's History as Penelope Among Her Suitors" in Reading Shakespeare Historically (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 132-47; and J. Hillis Miller, "Ariachne's Broken Woof," Georgia Review (Spring 1977), 31(1): 44-60.   John W. Baldwin in "The Image of the Jongleur in Northern France Around 1200" Speculum 72 (3) (July 1997), 635-663, also uses embroidery, weaving, and web metaphors in making an assertion about historical fact.

10. "The Touch of the Real" Representations, reprinted in Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001),

I first learned of the Bayeux Tapestry when my eye caught the cover of the August 1966 issue of National Geographic in my seventh grade English class, taught by Mr. Robert Downer. Mr. Downer also had us perform a reduced version of Julius Caesar (I played Cassius) and took us to see the play in performance in south San Francisco.

From Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993), pp. 12-13.

From Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993), p. 200. Here the Tapestry looks like a film strip, with the borders like film sprocket areas. Scott McCloud also mentions the Bayeux Tapestry on p. 218 and p. 220 of Reinventing Comics (2000).


Bayeux Tapestry in a comic book

The Bayeux Tapestry as a 70m(m) film (well, almost--left click on the mouse and make the Tapestry move slowly or quickly either left or right)

Bayeux Tapestry effects in the title sequences of five films:

Bayeux Tapestry as inspiration for an animated cartoon prologue (narrated by Orson Welles) in The Vikings. See also the closing credits of The Vikings

Bayeux Tapestry as film stills / friezes / paintings in the opening credit sequence of La Chanson de Roland

Bayeux Tapestry as film (close ups, dissolves) in the opening credit sequence of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves



Bayeux Tapestry as animated caricature. Parodic rewriting of history in the opening credit sequence of Blackadder: Back and Forth


The borders of the Tapestry in the opening title sequence of Bedknobs And Broomsticks recoded to narrate an aggressive response to a Nazi invasion of England looming in 1940.



Bayeux Tapestry effects in four related films:

El Cid scene with the Bayeux Tapestry


Hamlet scene with the Bayeux Tapestry

Is Paris Burning? (dir. Rene Clement, 1966) scene with members of the French Resistance defending the Tapestry from the Nazis, who had orders to destroy it.

Braveheart scene with frescoes that echoe the Bayeux Tapestry


Macbeth scene with wall hanging derived from the Bayeux Tapestry


Bayeux tapestry (at the Bayeux Museum) in History Channel documentary, William the Conquerer (2005).



Bayeux Tapestry in Diablo Videogame

Bayux Tapestry on introductory page of BBC Battle of Hastings webgame.

Women, Weaving, History, and Desire: Analogues and Extensions of the Bayeux Tapestry

That Obscure Object of Desire

The Anchoress

Bayeux Tapestry effects in print and digital paratexts:

The Bayeux Tapestry as Print Paratext



The Bayeux Tapestry Digital Edition as Digital Paratext

Download this digital edition here

1066 and All That and Bayeux Tapestry on bookcover (1997 redition of the 1930 book).

Two seriocomic citations of 1066 and All That and the Bayeux Tapestry:

BBC The Norman Conquest: 1066 and All That

1066 and All That: A Campaign

1066: The Year of the Conquest

Other book covers using the Bayeux Tapestry:

(An earlier edition used the Bayeux Tapestry across the top of the cover.)


Bayeux Tapestry in a television documentary

History of the Bayer Corporation modeled on the Bayeux Tapestry

Quaker Tapestry Loosely Modeled on the Bayeux Tapestry

Gift Shop reproductions

Men's tie

Museum Tickets

Bayeux Tapestry Censorship

George Elgar Hicks, "Queen Mathilda with her Women and Saxon Maidens with the Bayeux Tapestry," 1899. 88.9 X 180.2 cm.

The reverse side of the Tapestry and Gerard Genette's Paratext

Frequently Mentioned Older Analogues of the Bayeux Tapestry:

The Elgin Marble Parthenon Frieze
Trajan''s Column (this website also makes use of cartoons of the column) See also this website.
Column of Antoninus Pius
Romanesque Architectural Sculpture
Mosaics in the Cathedral at Ortanto, Italy
Hildesheim Cathedral bronze doors
Chansons de geste
Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts
More Illuminated Manuscripts
More Illuminated Manuscripts

Enluminures / French Virtual Museum of Illuminated Manuscripts

For more info, click here.

A World in the Margins

The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry with translation of the Latin


A copy of the Bayeux Tapestry on display in a train station in Bayeux, near le Centre Guillaume Le Conquérant where the "original" is on display.

The Reading copy of the Bayeux Tapestry

Books, scrolls, comic books, and storyboards in the opening title sequences of medieval films