Bishop Odo, half-brother of William l, commissions a hanging to commemorate the King’s conquest of England. The man he chooses to design this tribute, Turold, a Norman renowned for his skill but not his temper, reluctantly travels to the convent in Winchester where nuns will implement his sketches. He’s accompanied by his old friend Rainald the monk, sent to liaise with the nuns and their abbess, and the narrator Robert, his young, devoted but mute apprentice. Weaving in the dramatic sequence of events portrayed by the Bayeux Tapestry, Peter Benson gives a striking impression of the politics, conflicts and religious beliefs of the era. With this intricately wrought and absorbing novel, he has brought to life a fascinating period of English history.
This book gives us an interesting backdrop to the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry. It’s pretty much accepted that Bishop Odo commissioned the tapestry for his cathedral, but who stitched it and who designed it leaves much to the imagination. Here is a possible story that answers the questions nicely. Written in third person from the perspective of Robert, a young mute helper of Turold (who was the designer and inserted himself as the dwarf), we get a disjointed witness whose head is often in the clouds. Because the mute could only express himself through thought, the prose was frustratingly jumbled. We do get the story, but we have to work through Robert’s distractions, including his obsession with the girl next door. What we do see is a nasty, bullying Odo who keeps butting heads against Turold who refuses to humor him. But even their arguments are usually pointless or hard to follow:
“I compare you to no one, my Lord. You are quite unique. There is no one like you.”—
“No one likes me?” Odo’s face twitched, and his right eye blinked five times.
“I did not say that.”
“I did not. I…”
“And you contradict me again.”
“I said that there is no one like you, not that…”
“And you repeat it!” The Bishop was pale now, he was blinking again, and rubbing his forehead.
And Turold ends up in jail for a couple of weeks. This is typical of the dialog between the two of them. Odo starts out as a tyrant and ends up cowed and uncertain, mostly because he fears his brother King William, who is watching the progress of the tapestry. William suggests a panel of his own which remains secret until the end, driving Odo crazy. This, too, enlightens us as to one of the tapestry’s mysteries. Who is the mysterious Aelfgyva?