Visual History of the World
The Middle Ages
5th - 15th century
The upheaval that
accompanied the migration of European peoples of late antiquity
shattered the power of the Roman Empire and consequently the entire
political order of Europe. Although Germanic kingdoms replaced Rome,
the culture of late antiquity, especially Christianity, continued to
have an effect and defined the early Middle Ages. Concurrent to the
developments in the Christian West, in Arabia the Prophet Muhammad
in the seventh century founded Islam, a new religion with immense
political and military effectiveness. Within a very short time,
great Islamic empires developed from the Iberian Peninsula and the
Maghreb to India and Central Asia, with centers such as Cordoba,
Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand.
The Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 1 3th—14th century
in the Gothic style; the cathedral served for many centuries as the
location for the ceremonial coronation of the French king.
The Cathedral of Reims, by Domenico Quaglio
England in the Middle Ages
Between the fifth and seventh centuries, the Anglo-Saxons founded
a number of kingdoms on the territory of present-day
1 England. In
the ninth and tenth centuries, they united in defense against the Danish
Vikings. Following a period of Danish rule, the French Normans conquered
England in 1066. The holdings of the English kings on the Continent
provoked France and, together with English claims to the French throne,
led to the Hundred Years' War. In the 15th century, the disputes over
the royal succession escalated into the War of the Roses. The nobility
used the weaknesses of the monarchy to institutionalize their right to a
share in decision making through the creation of a parliament.
1 First page of Bede's Ecclesiastical History
of the English People,
Settlement by the Anglo-Saxons and the Founding of Kingdoms
The Anglo-Saxons, and after them the Danish Vikings, conquered
wide areas of the British Isles and drove out the native Britons as they
settled in their territories. The native British tribes were pushed
North and West into Scotland and Wales.
Germanic tribes from the North Sea coast landed in the British Isles
around 450. They were initially summoned by the Celtic Britons as
mercenaries against the Picts, who were invading from Scotland.
under their legendary leaders, the brothers 2 Hcngist and Horsa, the
Angles, Saxons, and Jutes settled permanently.
The native Britons were
pushed into the fringe regions of Cornwall and Wales, where Celtic
princes were able to maintain their independence until the 13th century.
The occupation and settlement by the Germanic tribes, who merged to
become the 3 Anglo-Saxons, was complete by the seventh century.
point, there were seven major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Mcrcia, Northum bria,
East Anglia, Wessex, Essex, Sussex, and Kent. These were known as the
Heptarchy. Northumbria's initial hegemony in the seventh century was
overtaken by Mcrcia in the eighth century. However, it was out of Wessex,
in defense against the Vikings, that the eventual unification of England
The first raid by Danish Vikings in 793 targeted the
4 monastery of
Lindisfarne off the coast of Northum-bria. Further attacks and raids
followed until the Danes, from around 866. set about the total conquest
of the British islands. From the Thames estuary, they occupied the areas
north of the river, the Danelaw. At the same time, Norwegian Vikings
conquered the coastal areas and islands of Ireland. Scotland, and
England, where they founded kingdoms such as Dublin and the Isle of Man.
2 Hengist and Horsa land on the
English coast, steel engraving,
3 Anglo-Saxon helmet,
4 Ruins of the monastery on Lindisfarne or "Holy Island,"
The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons
St. Augustine, who was sent by Pope Gregory I to convert the
Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, began his mission in Kent in 597.
reigning king, Ethelbert, had married a Christian Frank and, under her
influence, converted to Christianity and was baptized. Augustine became
the first archbishop of the city of Canterbury, which remains to this
day the most important bishopric.
Later, Anglo-Saxons themselves became
missionaries, such as St. Boniface, who died in 754 and was known as the
"Apostle of Germany. "
King Ethelbert of Kent is baptized by St. Augustine of Canterbury,
copper engraving, 17th century
The Battle of the Anglo-Saxons against the Danes and Normans
The Danes were unable to conquer the kingdom of Wessex, which
became the starting point of England's national unity.
King 5 Alfred the Great of Wessex came to the throne in 871.
5 Alfred the Great, painting, 19th century
At first he made a peace agreement with the Danes, but they did not
abide by it.
In 878, Alfred defeated the Danes in the 6
Battle of Edington; in 886,
he captured London, and by his death in 899 he had been able to extend
his territories even further north.
6 Battle between Anglo-Saxons and Danes,
a still from the film Alfred
the Great, 1969
Alfred was also a notable legislator
and a translator of historical and philosophical works from the Latin.
His successors continued the fight against the Danes. Alfred's grandson. Athelstan, completed the reconquest in 937 with a victory over the Danes
and their Welsh and Scottish allies. Though the Danish kingdom on
English soil was eliminated, further attacks ensued from Denmark itself.
King Ethelred II tried in vain to buy off the Danes by paying large sums
of 8 "Danegeld" tribute.
8 English coins used to pay the Danegeld
tribute to the Viking invaders,
However, the Danish king Sweyn I Forkbeard
forced him into exile with a military campaign of invasions that
followed the massacre of England's Danish settlers. Sweyn's son, Canute
the Great, eventually defeated Ethelred's son, Edmund II, in 1016 at the
Battle of Assandun and was thereafter generally recognized as king of
the English. Canute married Emma of Normandy, widow of Ethelred II, and
converted to Christianity. After he also became king in Denmark and
Norway, he ruled over a vast kingdom situated on the coasts of
the North Sea that also encompassed northern parts of Germany.
When Canute's son 7 Hardecanute died in 1042 without an heir, Godwin,
earl of Wessex, the leader of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, brought
the Confessor, the son of Ethelred II, out of exile in Normandy and made
him the new king.
7 Hardecanute orders the body of his
half-brother and usurper, Harold,
decapitated and thrown into the Thames,
copper engraving, 17th
9 Edward the Confessor, book illustration,
late twelfth century
Edward, however, became unpopular because he brought
Norman counselors with him into the country and preferred them over the
Anglo-Saxon nobility. When his marriage to Godwin's daughter remained
childless, he designated his cousin, Duke William II of Normandy, as his
But the Anglo-Saxons chose Godwin's son, 10 Harold II, as king
after Edward's death in 1066.
Harold was able to repulse an invasion by
the Vikings, who wanted to reconstitute Canute's North Sea kingdom, but
then was defeated in 1066 at the 11 Battle of Hastings by William of
Normandy's invading troops.
Harold fell in battle, and William the
Conqueror had himself crowned king of England.
10 Coronation of Harold II, detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, late
11 Armed with battle-axes, Anglo-Saxons fight against the Norman
cavalry, detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, late eleventh century
"Propaganda on cloth"
Artist unknown: The Bayeux Tapestry, after 1066
Propaganda on cloth
First exhibited at Bayeux Cathedral in 1077, the tapestry
(0.5 x 70.34 m) marks a turning-point in European history: it tells
the story of William the Conqueror's victory over the English army
at Hastings in 1066. The work now hangs in the Centre
Guillaume Le Conquerant, Bayeux.
In 1025, at the Council of Arras in northern France, the clergy decided to
embellish their churches with decorations of a new type. Historical events and
figures were to be portrayed on cloth hangings to help educate the many
illiterate members of the congregation. The Bayeux Tapestry, the most famous
example of this form of medieval instruction, is - as a historical document and
work of art - sans pareil.
Consisting of several joined lengths of linen, the hanging is 50 cm wide and
70.4 m long. The final section of the work is missing, suggesting the original
may have been several metres longer. The linen ground is embroidered in eight
different colours of wool. It is not known who designed the cartoons or
embroidered the cloth. The latter was probably the work of nuns. All that is
known for sure is when and where the hanging was first exhibited: 14 July 1077,
in the newly-built cathedral at Bayeux, a small town in Normandy.
The town is depicted in the detail above. In fact, it is less "depicted" than
reduced, in symbolic form, to two essential features: a hill - most towns in
those days were built on high ground to facilitate their defense - and a large
edifice, probably a church or castle. To preclude misinterpretation, occasional
Latin inscriptions were added to identify scenes. To the left of the town on the
hill we read: "Here William arrives at Bayeux."
The narrative is framed above and below by a decorative border. Extending the
entire length of the linen, these are filled with symbolic animals whose
relation to the main action remains obscure. This is not always the case,
however: the border under the battle scenes contains naked, mutilated corpses.
Notwithstanding its reductive symbolism, the hanging contains a wealth of
documentary detail: the shape of the shields, the spores worn by cavalry, raised
and reinforced bow-props at the front and rear of saddles. The props provided
support during battle, but they could also jeopardize the rider. William was
fatally injured when the pommel of his saddle ruptured his abdomen during a fall
- but that was not until 1087.
William is one of two main protagonists of the narrative. The story is told from
his point of view: crossing the Channel as the Duke of Normandy in 1066, he
routed his English opponents at the Battle of Hastings, was crowned King of
England and entered history as William the Conqueror. The sole topic of the
hanging is the representation and vindication of the
victory won over England. Hung at Bayeux Cathedral,
it served as an official declaration, as well as a
means of religious and moral indoctrination.
An oath, extracted and broken
William, the Norman duke, sits to the right of the hill of Bayeux,
his power symbolized by the sword resting on his shoulder. The
second protagonist, the figure standing between two shrines, is the
English King Harold. In 1063 Harold was cast ashore on the coast of
France and held captive there. After ransoming him, William promised
Harold his daughter in marriage. Here he is shown swearing
allegiance to his new liege-lord. The shrines on which his hands are
laid contain relics.
The significance of the oath, a ritual whose function was pivotal to
contemporary society, was far from confined to the
context of the Bayeux narrative. An individual was not the citizen
of a state, but the vassal of a lord. Expressed in simple terms,
feudal society was constructed along the lines of a pyramid: the
peasants took their tenures from knights or barons; the baron was
invested with estate by a count; the count received his county as a
fief from the duke, while the duke himself was given land by the
king. To defend the country against aggressors the monarch needed
the military and financial assistance of his nobles, who, in turn,
required the service of their vassals. With few exceptions, feudal
obligation was established not by written contract, signed and
sealed, but sworn in the form of an oath.
Oaths were sworn at a ceremony, with the procedure fairly strictly
defined. Kneeling, the vassal recited a set formula by which he
acknowledged homage to his superior. He would then stand and swear
fealty to his new lord on the Holy Bible or on the authority of a
relic. Following this, the lord granted his vassal a fief in the
symbolic form of a branch, a staff or a ring.
The Bayeux Tapestry shows only the most important part of the
ceremony: the oath sworn on the relics. This act had the force of
conferring upon the church the office of official custodian. When
Harold broke his oath, mounting the English throne in 1066, William
sought the jurisdiction of the pope. Excommunicating the perjunous
Harold, the pope placed a papal standard at William's disposal to
accompany his Norman troops. William's campaign thus practically
gained the status of a Holy War.
Things looked rather different from Harold's point of view. In
swearing allegiance to William, he had not been a free man. By
paying Harold's ransom, the Norman duke had become his superior.
Harold's oath had acknowledged fealty to William, but without it, he
presumably could never have left Normandy and returned to England.
Furthermore, an English account of the event contests that Harold's
oath was sworn on a table under which relics were concealed - with
Harold quite ignorant of the trap William had set for him.
The previous king had promised the English throne to his cousin
William. Harold knew this. He may have used his powerful allies to
put pressure on the dying monarch. A contemporary chronicler cites
the following dialogue: King: "It is known to you that I have taken
steps to ensure my kingdom shall pass to William of Normandy after
my death. Were it to pass to Harold, I do not think he would keep
the peace." Harold: "Give it to me and I will look after it!" King:
"Then you shall have my kingdom, but if I know William and his
Normans, it will be the death of you."
To England with weapons and wine
William built a fleet and prepared it to carry his soldiers across
the Channel to England. The hanging shows swords and a battle-axe
being carried to the ships, a cart loaded with a row of twenty
spears, helmets ranged on posts along the side of the wagon,
following which three men carry suits of chain mail, the typical
armour of the day. The latter consisted of connected links of thin
iron covering the trunk and stretching to the elbows and knees, with
slits at the front and back ensuring freedom of movement on
horseback. In the centuries that followed, chain mail was replaced
by solid coats of armour, the spears by heavy lances. In the
eleventh century, however, soldiers were relatively lightly armed
and still quite mobile.
The prominence given to wine indicates its relative importance as a
provision: the embroidery shows a larger and smaller barrel, as well
as a leather bottle slung over one bearer's shoulder. In peacetime,
wine was imported to England by merchants; it was also grown in
England as far north as the Scottish borders. The most important
beverage of the age, wine was cherished less as a luxury than for
its nutritional value. With no effective means of storage, however,
it was generally drunk when little older than a year. Beer was more
perishable still, and, what was more, impossible to transport. It
could therefore be drunk solely in regions where it was produced.
Raising an army to conquer England proved something of a problem.
Like all vassals, those bound to a duke were obliged to perform only
certain clearly defined duties. William could set them smaller tasks
- punitive expeditions against unruly neighbours, for example - as
often as he wished, provided he did not require their services for
longer than a week at a time. Only once a year at the most could he
call upon his vassals to undertake a longer military campaign
covering larger distances, though even the duration of these
expeditions was limited to 40 days. All further services were seen
as voluntary, requiring additional remuneration by the duke.
Fighting which took them across the Channel was considered entirely
beyond the call of duty.
William therefore had to use all his powers of persuasion, an
undertaking whose success was undoubtedly facilitated by the pope's
blessing. However, the main form of enticement at his disposal was
the promise of enfeoffment: one of his followers was offered an
English monastery, another a town, a third might be lured with a
whole county. William had to make promises on a grand scale, for the
risks to which his vassals were putting their lives and livelihood
were equally great. There was no way of predicting the outcome of
Relatives were the most generous allies of all. At the time, power
usually rested in the hands of an individual ruler, whose entire
family profited as a result. In turn, it was in the family's best
interest to support the ruler. William's brother, Bishop Odo of
Bayeux, who took part in the campaign himself, provided financial
backing for a hundred ships. Forbidden as a member of the clergy to
wield a sword, he held a cudgel instead. William's other brother,
Robert de Mortain, paid for a further 70 boats.
The ships were over 20 metres long and up to five metres wide. They
had no deck, but planking drawn to a curve at prow and stern;
amidships was a square sail, and a tiller was attached aft on the
starboard side. This was the type of boat sailed by the Vikings, a
reminder that the Normans themselves were originally Northmen.
During the ninth and tenth centuries the Vikings had used such craft
to occupy the coastal regions of Europe, founding new states of
their own in England, Southern Italy and Normandy. To help him take
England, William, himself a descendent of the Vikings, exploited the
expansionist designs of the ruling Norwegian king, Ha-rald Hardrada.
He persuaded him to invade Northumberland, the most northerly county
of today's England. The Norwegians landed and forced Harald to march
north to meet them. The invading army was routed and the Norwegian
king killed in the struggle.
King Harold falls in battle
Scarcely had Harold warded off the Norwegian attack when William
landed south of Dover. Harold rode swiftly south, arriving with an
army worn out after a hard-won battle and two forced marches. Taking
up position on a ridge, he
had ditches dug to thwart the Norman cavalry and waited for the
onslaught. The Normans stormed the English position again and again,
but could make no headway against the English shield-wall. Their
principal obstacle was the English axemen, who cut down even their
horses. One chronicle reports that "three horses were killed under
William, one with a blow so great that the English axe, after
severing his horse's head, cut deeply into the earth."
Realizing the ineffectiveness of frontal attack, William used
cunning instead: making a pretence of retreat, he lured the English
from their position. With their powerful formation broken, the
English were no match for the Normans. Two brothers of Harold, both
generals in his army, were killed. One of them had pleaded in vain
with Harold to leave the fighting to them; for Harold, whether under
coercion or not, had sworn allegiance to William, an oath that could
not be broken lightly. Harold, too, fell in battle. The inscription
in the detail reproduced above left reads: "King Harold is killed."
The English king is shown with an arrow piercing one eye. The
hanging shows the maimed king struck down by a Norman cavalryman
while attempting to extract the arrow. The cavalryman was later
banished by William, according to one chronicle, for to kill a
defenceless opponent constituted a breach of chivalrous conduct.
In fact, such battles involved relatively little slaughter. The
corpses heaped in the lower border are an exaggeration. Vassals,
fighting to advance the - more or less - private interests of their
feudal lords, were inclined to see their own interests best served
by maintaining a certain reticence in battle. In any case, it was
less worth their while to kill an enemy than take him prisoner.
Prisoners could be exchanged for a ransom: the more powerful the
captive, the greater the sum that could be demanded for his release.
The mutual obligations agreed by vassals and their lords usually
foresaw the provision of ransom, should either party fall into enemy
Fighting took place only at certain times. In winter, at night and
in wet weather, swords remained in their sheaths. Furthermore,
William's war was hardly a protracted affair: the Battle of
Hastings, important as it was, was over in a day. By the evening of
14 October 1066 the last obstacle had been removed between William
and London, where he was crowned on 25 December. Thus England and
France began a period of common history that was to last 400 years.
And since history is always the history of the victor, the Normans
provided a testimony to their conquest of England in the form of the
Bayeux Tapestry. Hung in the church of a bishop who rose to power in
the land of the vanquished, the embroidery served both to vindicate
and to advertise. No less astonishing than the quality and scope of
the work is the fact that it has survived for 900 years - despite
the Hundred Years' War between England and France, the repeated
destruction of the cathedral, the struggles between Calvinists and
Catholics and the Revolution of 1789.
The hanging was to serve propaganda purposes on two further
occasions. Contemplating an invasion of England at the beginning of
the 19th century, Napoleon had the historic tapestry brought to
Paris for six months in 1803 in order to rouse "the passions and
general enthusiasm of the people". While Adolf Hitler was concocting
plans for an invasion, a book on the tapestry appeared under the
title: "A sword thrust against England." But the Norman Duke William
has remained the sole conqueror of the island kingdom.
Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen