Caroline Merril
Howard Bloch

The first time he saw it, when he was 20, Howard Bloch was overwhelmed. The Bayeux Tapestry — perhaps the most famous textile in the world — is an exquisite 230-foot embroidered panorama dramatizing in words and images the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings between England and France, better known as the Norman Conquest of 1066. (During that time the Anglo-Saxon King Harold was killed by William the Conqueror of Normandy.)

Bloch, now a noted professor of French at Yale University and director of Yale's division of humanities, has studied the tapestry and considers it to be a stunning example of the rudiments of medieval combat.

It now hangs in an angled glass case on the interior walls of the palace of the bishops of Bayeux, France.

Bloch, who spoke from his office in New Haven, Conn., is a prolific researcher and historian of medieval France. He has written numerous books, including "The Anonymous Marie de France."

The famed tapestry remained vivid in his mind for many years, until he eventually researched his own exquisite book, "A Needle in the Right Hand of God: The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry."

Even though it was created at the time of the Norman Conquest, the tapestry was lost in the 15th century and didn't resurface until the 18th century. Since rivalries between England and France were ripe, it was an appropriate time for it to reappear.

Among other challenges, the document survived being used to wrap equipment wagons during the French Revolution, as well as Hitler's attempt to decode its secrets in the hope it would help him know how to successfully invade England.

In Bloch's opinion, the tapestry brings history to life.

"You have to love it to spend that much time," he explained. "The tapestry has no meaning except as people interpret it, and as it is motivated by current-day interest. There are many questions that are still unanswered and some that are perplexing. There is writing on the tapestry, but at crucial moments it doesn't tell us what is said."

Bloch believes there may have been "an unconscious wish on the part of those who made the tapestry to encourage peace and reconciliation after 1066."

He also thinks that people today often "underestimate the complexity of medieval art. It was often highly complex and self-conscious. People too often think the Renaissance was the rebirth of sophistication. I try to connect it to the classical past. The medieval period was an incredibly rich and undervalued time."

Anyone who studies the tapestry, said Bloch, is engaging in detective work. "It's a historical record with visual images of a world-shaping event. Whoever made it was interested in detail, i.e., what arms and armor were like, the type of dress people wore, the preparation of meals, the nature of battles, etc.

"Yet there are all kinds of mysterious things in it, to which we may never know the answer."

In the book, Bloch writes, "The Tapestry ends with a lucky Norman arrow shot through Harold's eye, though we may never know the nature of the final design since the right edge disintegrates in tatters, much like the disarray of the fleeing Anglo-Saxon army after the death of its leader."

Another thing the tapestry does is picture the Middle Ages as more secular than "church-centered."

Bloch is quite certain that the tapestry was made by women, because numerous Anglo-Saxon records indicate that women embroidered textiles and gave them to church institutions. "There is a record of a battle at the end of the 10th century, in which the wife of a slain man makes an embroidery in his honor. None of these embroideries survive, but the records do. Nothing suggests that men ever did embroideries, although they did some weaving."

It was a surprise to Bloch to discover after he wrote the book "that the rivalry between France and England over the Middle East is still alive, as the whole Iraqi question makes clear. The English stood with the Americans against the French. War in the Middle East could easily become another crusade."

He added that "The Scandinavians were all over the Middle East in the 10th and 11th centuries. The European scholars didn't want to acknowledge that beauty and richness could come from countries they had conquered."

Bloch's next project will detail "the Birth of the Cathedral." He will focus on "Abbot Suger, who built the first Gothic cathedral at the beginning of the 12th century. He did it because of a book he discovered, called 'Celestial Hierarchies.'

"It's my contention that from that book you can deduce the rest of the Middle Ages. Suger was the point man for the rebuilding of cities, the return of the money economy and the return of art."