Transporting horses a la the Bayeux Tapestry

by cheri block

The last time I visited the stacks at a university library, I believe Judge Blah stole a kiss from me somewhere between The Scarlet Letter and The Marble Faun.

Over thirty years have passed since that kiss and that research, but I am back at it (the research, that is).

Until this quarter, all of our writing assignments have been about the the works we were reading. In some cases, I have shared my literary thoughts here–and you have on occasion, weighed in–helping me to formulate my thoughts by challenging my ideas. You have provided paragraphs of historical information and interpretation better than any online periodical.  Thank you to Zeus, Man of Roma, Richard, and Andreas Kluth.

I wrote on many topics last year–from the Hebrew Bible’s God as CEO to Sophocles’ hysterical Antigone  paired with Virgil’s misinformed Dido. I made some Freudian interpretations about King Beowulf and his dragon and then praised Chaucer’s saucy Wife of Bath. In the spring I made a hash of  Austen’s odd couple, the Palmers, and finished my academic year with a lower scoring essay on  Nietzsche’s use of metaphor in his Preface in On the Genealogy of Morality.

This year my essays have been about Euripides’ The Trojan Women and Shakespeare’s King Henry V.  Writing about such amazing works of literature has been a humbling blast of ancient wind that has knocked me flat on my face, at times.

My latest assignment is a research paper. To the stacks I must go.

With ten library call numbers on a Post-It Note and a yellow legal tablet under my arm, I took the stairs down to the basement of the Green Library and headed to military history. Down in the stacks I found books on the Normans, on Medieval Warhorses, on the Byzantine and Muslim horsemen, on horse transport  in the Medieval Mediterranean, and on the Bayeux Tapestry. When I leave the stacks, three hours later, my book bag is so heavy that I need a pack animal to carry 12 books out to my car.

My adventure has begun.

I am researching and reading about William the Conqueror’s amazing 70 mile crossing of the English Channel with, what most historians seem to agree, were about 2500-3000 stallions loaded on boats that were probably of Viking design.

For those of you who might not remember or be interested in the Battle of Hastings, please keep reading! This story is one of the grabbers (as we say in junior high writing instruction) of all grabbers. William, grossly unhappy about Harold’s ascension to the English crown after the death of the childless Edward, decides to attack England and seize his rightful throne. In approximately 7-9 months, he assembled over 700 ships, outfitted them with supplies, and left in the night for the journey to England. He did this after loading the stallions–not geldings or mares–onto these boats.

The story of Harold of England and William of Normandy and all their angst is told in the amazing Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidery about 224 feet long that miraculously has survived since 1077 or thereabouts and is now housed in Bayeux, France. I am looking at each panel and thread in my search for a thesis.

If William can logistically take so many stallions by small boat to England, I can develop a working thesis. I hope. The prospectus is due Monday at 5:00 pm.

About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
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40 Responses to Transporting horses a la the Bayeux Tapestry

  1. The Viking Drakkars were not so small, granted no QE2s, but could carry quite a lot. with their twin prows and almost flat bottom they were very manoeuverable and could, in a split second, reverse direction or spin around. They gave the Vikings superiority, on the water, over all others. So William was well equiped.
    Check Gwyn Jones, A history of the Vikings, Oxford University Press, 1968, 1973, 1984.

  2. Cheri says:

    Thanks, Paul. I have just asked the library to hold this book for me.
    Not sure if the boats depicted in the Tapestry are Drakkars.

    • Cheri says:

      Looks like a good guess would be the Skuldelev Viking Ship, a deep hulled sailing vessel….it had oars but the Knights could not be expected to watch their horse and row at the same time…

  3. I confess to knowing next to nothing about this historical event, so I can’t shed any light. I have read that William crossed the Channel in “flatboats” and that his cavalry was the deciding factor in the Battle of Hastings. I’m curious to know how long it took him to cross and whether he’d chosen the place he landed in advance or just found a likely spot when he arrived.

    Best of luck with your project and be sure to tell us more as you explore!

  4. Cyberquill says:

    Thank you to Zeus, Man of Roma, Richard, and Andreas Kluth.

    You’re very welcome :-p

    • Cheri says:

      Did I forget you? I remember a long conversation about the French and the Holocaust that you and I engaged in, but I can’t remember (please forgive if I have overlooked something…it’s very possible at my age) your weighing in on the above mentioned topics. Geez Peter. I am 60, you know.

      • sledpress says:

        Never plead your age.

      • Cyberquill says:

        Yeah, yeah. One day you’re 59, then all of a sudden your 60 … it’s like you can’t make up your mind how old you are. So I suggest you get your story straight.

        And are you saying I have not contributed innumerable paragraphs of historical information and interpretation better than any online periodical???

        I am very upset now.

  5. Philippe says:

    “…….When I leave the stacks, three hours later, my book bag is so heavy that I need a pack animal to carry 12 books out to my car……..”

    Isn’t this, like, antediluvian?

    Why go to all this trouble when you can now sit at your computer at home and Google everything you want to know about Bill the Conqueror and Hapless Harold.

    • Cheri says:

      Apt question, Phillipe.

      Not all the books I need are digitized. Stanford has an agreement with Google Books to digitize a number of them, but many are only accessible by that good old fashioned way I described: going to library and checking them out.

      Also, our assignment allowed only 25% online sources, part of the assignment to teach current research skills for the real Masters Thesis in several years.

  6. I eagerly await your conclusions about how William, nee the Bastard, transported these stallions, for it does seem like a logistical miracle.

    Why no geldings or mares, incidentally? And what would have happened if the stallions had smelled a mare accidentally nearby?

    I’ll just add some other horsey perspective: The stirrup and high-backed saddle had only recently arrived in Europe at that time. In antiquity (think Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry), horsemen fought without stirrups, which meant they could throw spears or javelins, perhaps harass infantry by stabbing once or twice, but they could not charge. If they had charged, the impact would have thrown them off the horse.

    The Franks and Normans, however, innovated. Hence the relatively new use to which those stallions would be put.

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Andreas,
      I think I know why no mares 🙂 but not sure about the geldings. The answer to that question I will be seeking.
      Thanks for the information on saddles and stirrups. In the Bayeux Tapestry, the stirrups go almost all the way to the ground so the knights were riding with a bent knee.

      One of the most interesting parts of this research is learning so much about the Normans and hence, the Vikings.

  7. Man of Roma says:

    That’s a topic I know nothing about. I could do some googling but that you can do it yourself. This all seems to me too a logistical miracle. They spoke French and I have no idea how much Viking culture was left in them. They invaded Southern Italy too and Sicily. There are many traces of them chez nous. But I don’t see why they make you work so much on so many disparate subjects. I would get confused 🙂

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Man of Roma,
      The fact that the Normans invaded parts of Italy and Sicily pertains to my research, as I have found that the Byzantines were highly developed horsemen and horse transporters several hundred years before William crossed the English Channel.

      So you have inadvertently hit upon an important piece of the puzzle.

      • Man of Roma says:

        I guess you are going to study a bit the so-called Italo- (and Siculo-) Normans. Very interesting people. By the way, I hope your Sicilian friend Joe is well. You know, I had this blogger Nita chez moi for dinner. As third course we had a Sicilian white Bronte cake with pistachios.
        My mind is wandering more than usual today.

  8. Philippe says:

    Most of the happenings which we accept as fact about Conqueror Bill’s invasion of England probably didn’t happen. The further back in history we go, the less sure we can be about anything.

    Let’s just take the topic of language, and that we all accept as fact that the language which Bill and his men spoke, replaced the language which the Englanders of that time spoke. Recent research is showing that there was no such language replacement.

    Hence, if the purveyors of the Received Wisdom about 1066 and its consequences got it wrong about language, one can only wonder what else they got wrong.

    • Man of Roma says:

      I’m talking about something unknown to me but it seems that at least the upper classes spoke French after the Conquest. In any case is sounds strange to me that King Richard the Lionheart spoke French, as he probably did (I just read this detail on the wiki, it hit me).

      By the way, Philippe, you could be a descendant of the Normans, which might explain your first name 😉

    • Cheri says:

      Well, the Bayeux Tapestry may indeed yield quite a bit of truth (albeit it biased toward the Normans in most places) of what happened. The poets of the day lend some truth as well.

      Putting it all together is part of the fun.

  9. Philippe says:

    Oops, I’ve just remembered that I, too, got it wrong about the topic of language and 1066.

    It was, of course, the language of the earlier invaders from northern Germany and thereabouts which is supposed to have replaced the language of the Englanders of that time, but didn’t really.

    The same goes with Latin, which we are told replaced the Celtic and whatnot which the ancestors of the denizens of today’s Romance lands of Europe allegedly spoke when the Romans invaded. However, it now appears that the natives were already speaking the ancient versions of the French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, which they speak now.

    The official versions of early history, no matter of what and where, should always be treated with the utmost skeptism. The best we can say is that we don’t know for sure what happened.

  10. zeusiswatching says:

    You pay me too great a compliment.

    The Norman conquest was a subject of great interest to me in my youth. The changes that came of that successful invasion were many, and lasting.

  11. Geraldine says:

    Hi Cheri,
    When I visited Normandy I spent hours studying the Bayeux tapestry, which I truly enjoyed. I, too, noticed how long the stirrups hung and thought they were set in length for standing and control, certainly not for speed, unless they didn’t mind injuring the horses and riders.

    Have a look at the white oars at the rear of the long boats; there is a slight wave turn at the bottom. This may have been a new invention for the times.

    What a feat. Similar in monumental effort to Hanibal’s elephants crossing the Alps, and, moreso, to the logistics of the D Day landings. Good luck with this interesting assignment.

    Ps. Some trivia. It is not unusual for those with the last name of Hastings, in England, to be called Battles for short.

    • Cheri says:

      Oh Geraldine..
      Thanks for this contribution. Just your suggestion to look at the oars in the water reminds me to slow down and study each figure, use my imagination, go with the flow (so to speak).

      All my life I have grown up around boats, horses, and art…so this fusion suits me perfectly.

      I’ll report back soon, after I land on some kind of workable thesis. At this point, I have suggested that the panels depicting the channel crossing on the BT could be accurate. This goes against modern scholarship.

      Interesting though, not too much has been written as you might think.

      Love the trivia.

  12. Cheri says:

    Hi G,
    Joe is doing OK. Thanks for asking about him. He’s had some health problems this year (he’s almost 80), but we still meet for lunch every several weeks. I will tell him of your dinner and menu.

    My mind is all over the place, so you are comfortable here…

  13. dafna says:

    “…The prospectus is due Monday at 5:00 pm….” well? we’re waiting!

    or did you mean monday the 8th? 😉

    • Cheri says:

      Hi dafna,
      Thanks for your interest. I received the prospectus back last night. The professor liked it (relief and hooray).

      My thesis is that the channel crossing depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry could have happened as stitched. Most scholarship (and interesting that there isn’t much here or much conducted recently) would not support my idea. Very challenging.

      My research concerns Viking ships, medieval horses-everything about them (size, temperament, genealogy), and Byzantine horse transport–about which the Normans knew as they had participated in Sicily and very likely would have taken their knowledge back to Normandy..but did they?

      The final paper is due December 10. As I move along, I will post my findings. and in my competitive school girl response to this assignment, I need an A on it.

  14. Man of Roma says:

    Cheri, what’s the reason why you attend university? Just silly curiosity.

    • Cheri says:

      Not silly at all.
      I could see that I would not continue to teach for the next ten years. In other words, I would retire from what had constituted so much of my identity, my sense of self, and my intellectual world.

      I had always wanted to attend Stanford but was too busy raising my family, working, and supporting my husband’s career goals, etc. Several years ago, Judge Blah suggested that I go back to school. I thank him for that advice and grace.

      Now, I can’t imagine not being in school. I am stimulated by my new friendships but most of all by the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. I am humbled (always was humbled) by what I don’t know.

      Going back to school is something I would recommend for anyone who still has a young spirit, a hearty work ethic, and a love of learning.

      Not a silly curiosity at all, G. 😉

  15. Man of Roma says:

    It seems you did the right thing Cheri. New friendships, new stimuli in the pursuit of knowledge, a youthful spirit.

    I wonder why I don’t do the same. I am suspended in a limbo since I retired [not a totally unpleasant place though]. Besides, apart from some initial good imprinting I received, I am basically a self-taught person and always was proud of it. There are books, conferences, debates (and the Internet) that make me suppose I do not need to study again in a university.

    I am probably wrong. I miss the live contact with the great number of people my job gave me. Live discussions and new friendships are not replaceable.

    • Cheri says:

      I understand, G. You are a people person–no question about that in my mind.

      The transition from active work life to retirement can be a bear, especially for people like you and me who thrive on interaction.

      I imagine that your co-workers missed your energy and presence in any room.

      Rome–the amazing city that it is with so much going on all the time–I’m pretty sure there is a continuing studies program for adults that you could investigate. I’m sure there are probably ten programs associated with universities.

      We have no exams. Just lots of papers.

  16. Several universities have Life Long Learning set ups where older people can attend interactive study groups in a participative context called peer learning. Certainly Rome has some, California has.
    I’m involved with McGill Institute for Learning in Retirement (M.I.L.R.), to be called shortly the McGill Community Center for Life Long Learning (M.C.C.L.L.). The younger members are in their mid-50s and our seniors are around 90-91, our champion was 95 and still competing in swimming. Participants are the learning source and all volunteer moderators supply the study subjects that are discussed by the group in 10 week sessions. Noting formal, no degrees involved but lots of fun and we do learn a lot rather painlessly.

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