Welcome to History Undressed, Sarah Bower, author of Needle in the Blood--which I have sitting on my TBR pile, cannot wait to read it! Today she is giving us a bit of history behind the book. Leave a comment for your chance to win a copy.
Thank you for inviting me on to your blog to talk about my new novel, THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD. I’d like to set the book in its historical context by telling you something about the Bayeux Tapestry.
Given how we like to celebrate our failures in this country (Dunkirk, the Charge of the Light Brigade), it isn’t surprising that the one historical date every school child knows is 1066, the year in which these islands were conquered by William, Duke of Normandy, francophone descendant of the legendary Roland/Odo/Orlando (depending on who is writing about him) who had moved from Scandinavia to settle in northern France about a hundred years earlier.
Although the Normans were, without doubt, brutal, ruthless and destructive in the way they went about their conquest, they also planned shrewdly for the long term. Despite incidents of staggering violence such as the Harrying of York in 1069 to 70, when farm animals as well as people were slaughtered wholesale, William’s main weapon was to pension off former Anglo Saxon leaders, buying their loyalty with gifts of land, and to encourage the Norman governors with whom he replaced them to marry native women and facilitate a blending of cultures. This is why, although we still speak of ourselves as an Anglo Saxon people, and use this concept to explain ourselves to ourselves in all kinds of ways, from our drinking habits to our economic structures, much of our most famous heritage – our castles and cathedrals, our hereditary monarchy – is attributable to the Norman Conquest. So we remember 1066, not just as a glorious failure but also as a foundational date in the modern history of Britain.
William may have been a tough soldier, a merciless disciplinarian whose wife and children all fell out with him, but he also abolished slavery and the death penalty in England and Wales, and he had an affection for hares, whose killing was forbidden under his hunting statutes. The contradictions of the history inhere in the character of the Conqueror himself.
The Bayeux Tapestry is the best known record of the Conquest, and the events leading up to it which William believed justified his claim to the English throne after the death of Edward the Confessor without heirs. Its central narrative is a shameless piece of Norman propaganda, presenting William as the rightful heir, wronged and cheated by a duplicitous Harold Godwinson. Even its most familiar image, of King Harold being killed by a shot in the eye, is more symbolism than truth. The putting out of an eye was a Norman punishment for theft. Harold probably met a much grizzlier end, but the truth of that did not matter to the Tapestry’s Norman patron so much as the symbolic message sent out by showing him losing an eye.
Once I began studying the Tapestry while researching THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD, however, I quickly discovered that, like the story of the Conquest itself, nothing is as straightforward and clear cut as it seems. Even this scene is ambiguous, because the caption, ‘hic haroldus interfectus est’ could refer to another Anglo Saxon soldier, shown felled by an axe, a little to the right of the famous image of the man shot in the eye. Perhaps somebody has attempted to bear witness to the truth while still paying lip service to the propaganda.
The Bayeux Tapestry is both utterly familiar and completely mysterious. Although most scholars believe Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William’s half brother, to have been its patron, there is only circumstantial evidence for this, arising from the way he is portrayed in the narrative and the fact that the Tapestry had its first showing at the dedication of Bayeux Cathedral in 1077. Although it is likely the Tapestry was made in England, because England was the go-to place for embroidery in the mid-eleventh century, again, we do not know for sure. Looking at the images themselves, while the main narrative is fairly – but not entirely – straightforward, the top and bottom margins are very strange indeed. They contain images of heraldic beasts, illustrations from Aesop’s Fables, violence far more graphic than anything found in the main narrative and several overtly sexual scenes. Nothing in the margins seems to bear a direct relation to the main narrative; clearly there is a conversation going on here, perhaps between the Norman patron and his English embroiderers. Or perhaps there is no conversation at all, but the ‘official’ Tapestry on one level and coded messages of resistance on another.
I was attracted by the idea of the Tapestry as an expression of tension between the patron and the conquered embroiderers, between the celibate bishop and a workshop full of women, and also by another mysterious, and much discussed, image, that of Aelfgyva and the priest.
Again, nobody has been able to identify these two figures for certain, and you can see immediately that the priest’s apparent act of violence towards Aelfgyva may not be all it seems. Look at the way in which the naked figure in the lower margin mirrors his action. Could it be that these two are lovers rather than enemies?
This image, and its ambiguity, are central to THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD, which is both a love story and a story about how the trauma of conquest affects conquerors as well as conquered. I hope my readers love Odo and Gytha as much as I do, but I also hope the novel sheds some light on how England became England and how, as we so enjoy doing, we managed to make a triumph out of what remains our biggest disaster to date.
If you would like to know more, please visit THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD Facebook page where you will find a bibliography of the texts I used in my research, links to other blogs – oh, and evidence of the role Batman played in the Norman Conquest!
Sarah Bower is a novelist and short story writer. Her first novel, The Needle in the Blood, was Susan Hill’s Book of the Year 2007. Her short stories have appeared in magazines including QWF, Buzzwords and The Yellow Room. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 2002. She teaches creative writing at UEA and for the Open University. She also works as a mentor and manuscript reader for leading literary consultancies. Visit her at http://www.sarahbower.co.uk/