Tuesday, December 28, 2010

1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry, by Andrew Bridgeford

Click here to buy the book!

A word I can't pronounce? A year that wasn't in my lifetime? Thoughts of middle school history class! Shudder!

Now hold on just a gosh-darn minute. I'll admit many (though not all) of my history teachers played a part in such reactions to historical references. The number one flaw in my experience of "social studies" courses was simple: the teachers and the textbooks FAILED TO MAKE THIS HISTORY RELEVANT TO MY LIFE.

If history were no longer relevant, we wouldn't study it. So clearly, all that junk about peoples and rulers and wars had some point. Bridgeford's book puts Point Number One in three-inch digits atop the front page: 1066, one of the only years I (and probably most of you) were forced to memorize in school.

Need a refresher? 1066: the year that a group of warriors from France, often simply (and somewhat erroneously) referred to as Normans, invaded the island of Great Britain and defeated the English king's forces at the Battle of Hastings. Big whoop. But from this battle, and the shift in British power that ensued, was born the language I'm using to type, that you know how to read, and that now dominates the commerce, politics, and technology of the world.

So a pretty big deal. And we all learn about (or ought to learn about) it in school. So what's left for Bridgeford to contribute?

Well, there's this piece of cloth, you see, called the Bayeux Tapestry. Someone made it a lot of years ago to illustrate and commemorate the Battle of Hastings, and the events that conspired to cause it. Everyone thought they understood this woven storybook, and used it to help illustrate history. Then Mr. Bridgeford comes along, sees things very differently, and unveils what subversive tales he reads into the tapestry.

If you're not already hooked (I am, and I already read the book!), I should mention that this book is not just a historian blabbering on for 300 pages. Bridgeford illuminates a tale of political intrigue, romantic scandal, noble heroics, and manipulative backstabbing that you couldn't make up if you tried. He does so with the novelist's flair, the art critic's keen eye, and the historian's desire for truth.

I refuse to go into the details, because that's what reading the book is for. But this is one of the best books I've read, and easily the best history I've read. If we'd been assigned this book in high school... well, my classmates and I would have spent more time studying than singing Doobie Brothers songs in the back row. (Which we did.)

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