At Bayeux in Normandy, a little town as old perhaps as our race and older certainly than our records and our religion, there is to be seen in the main room of what was once the Bishop’s Palace a document unique in Europe. There is no other example, I think, of a record, contemporary or nearly contemporary, of an event so remote in the story of Christendom, detailed upon so considerable a scale and relating to a matter of such moment. It is these three characters combined which give to the Bayeux Tapestry its value. We have, indeed, pictorial representation more accurate and more detailed in some few cases, but relating to the periods when material civilisation was high—before the Dark Ages. We have again an ample store of evidence pictorial and written, relating to the vivid life of the earlier Middle Ages, and of course, an overwhelming mass of matter dealing with everything that accompanied or has succeeded the Renaissance. Even of the Dark Ages and of that violent and happy transition from the Dark Ages to Mediæval civilisation, we have here and there sharp pictures—mostly pictures of the pen and not of the pencil. But these pictures relate—almost always—episodes which were not the capital episodes of their time. The Bayeux Tapestry stands quite apart in this: that it represents so faithfully and so thoroughly
one of the half-dozen acts essential to the remaking of Europe, and that it so represents an act which, on the analogy of every other of that early time, we should expect to receive only from a short and doubtful literary account. It is the one picture we have of any magnitude showing us the things of the Crusading turning-point. For Western Christendom, as we know, awoke from its sleep and flowered into the Middle Ages through three great efforts: The Norman Adventures, the Reform of the Church under St. Gregory VII, and the Crusading March. All these were the product of a sort of spring which came upon our ancestry more than eight hundred years ago, and which restored in a renewed form the civilisation of the West. Of that spring the Bayeux Tapestry remains the one piece of ocular description which has survived.
Unfortunately, there must be added to this statement (which would be final if we could be certain of our dates) a critical warning. The date of the work is not certain. I will set forth in a moment the arguments which have been put forward for fixing the work to this or to that moment. We can happily be certain beyond reasonable doubt that it was produced within the lifetime of men who could remember the Invaders of England. It is not later than that. It has even been believed to be actually contemporary with the Invasion itself, and produced under the direction of those who took part in the expedition. But though it is virtually a contemporary document, even if we find ourselves compelled to accept the lower of these limits, yet we unfortunately have not a definite proof of the year or years in which the work was finished. This is the one
point which mars our satisfaction in our possession of this thing. It is here worthy of curious remark that the history of the English is singularly fortunate in the wealth of record which it has at call. No other nation has such an accumulation of ancient testimony to hand. No other nation has such a document as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or as the Doomsday Survey, and, by an accident both of civil and of religious history, no other nation has preserved through the revolutions of a thousand years so much material record undestroyed.