Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gaits of Horses on the Bayeux Tapestry

This Bayeux Tapestry panel illustrates Guy de Ponthieu surrendering Harold to William Soon-to-be-the-Conqueror.  Harold rides a mare with the ears of a mule (barded in blue).  Riding a prancing stallion, William faces Harold.  Embroidery, circa 1070. From 
Interpreting the “story of the horse” as told by its depiction in medieval art, one needs to consider the horse as a cultural emblem or signifier within the world view of that time.  The Bayeux Tapestry, illustrating key events leading up to the Norman invasion of Britain led by Duke William II of Normandy, was stitched in th 1070s AD. Horses are prominently featured on the Bayeux tapestry.  Robinson (n.d.) analyzes the gaits and sex of the equids depicted in this tapestry.  She counts 160 equid bodies (includes  mules and mythical winged horses) and 38 horse heads with an additional 10 horses in the upper and lower borders.  The majority of the horses are male: 66% stallions, 19% geldings, 8 % mares, 7 % cannot differentiate.   Gaits represented are: walk 23.1 %, trot 1.8 %, gallop 66.6%, amble 3.7%, and unknown 4.6%.  The preponderance of male horses and galloping horses serves to underline the military nature of much of the story told by the tapestry and purveys important information about their riders.

Keffer (2011) analyzes the gender, type, and other details of the horses shown on the tapestry to propose that these details are “formulaic rather than representational” (p. 95).  The horses ridden by key figures shift in both gender and type.  For example, in the panel where Guy de Ponthieu captures Harold, Harold is riding a stallion but in a later panel where Guy hands Harold over to William, Harold’s mount is a mare with the head and neck of a mule, as shown in Figure 8.  “If this shift is formulaic rather than representational, then it indicates ranked status within the Norman hierarchy, with Guy’s mount inferior by both breed and gender to William’s great stallion which prances…” (Keffer, 2011, p. 95). 

Keffer (2011) goes on to explain that Harold’s changing status can be accurately determined by examining his accouterments and horse. At the height of his accomplishments, Harold is mounted on a stallion, wears spurs, and carries a hawk.  Reduced social status is indicated when he rides a gelding; an even more reduced status, when he is shown mounted on a mare.  Wearing spurs can signify either “warrior’s pride” and/or the ability to ride away to freedom.  In most of the panels, Harold carries a hawk which reinforces his social position as a noble.  By learning to read "horse,"  one can understand a lot more of the underlying story behind medieval art.

Keffer, S.  (2005).  Body language: a graphic commentary by the horses of the Bayeux Tapestry.  In G. Owen-Crocker (Ed.), King Harold II and the Bayeux tapestry (pp. 93-108).  Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press.
Robinson, P.  (n.d.)   Le cheval dans la tapisserie de Bayeux.  Retrieved December 5, 2013, from

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