Metaphors in the Bayeux Tapestry

Here’s an interesting article examining semantic aspects of the Bayeux Tapestry that just appeared in the latest issue of Review of Cognitive Linguistics.

I’ve written before about Charles Forceville’s work applying conceptual metaphor theory to aspects of the visual language of comics. His approach has subsequently been applied by other researchers looking at comics, animation, and film. Now, here’s an article that examines conceptual metaphor in historical visual language, particularly the images in the Bayeux Tapestry.

There are several things that are interesting in and about this article. First off, it is one of the few explicit studies of historical examples of visual language that have been done using a linguistic analysis (another being this).

Second, the article nice details various systematic representations in the “drawing style” of the Bayeux Tapestry. As I argue in my book, drawing systems use a “visual vocabulary” of graphic patterns that are reused when people draw. The “styles” of different cultures’ drawings emerge from various people sharing the same visual vocabulary. Here, we see the visual vocabulary of medieval English drawing detailed in systematic ways—perhaps “Medieval British Visual Language”?

Finally, the actual metaphors that are examined relate to various aspects of conveying emotion. Conceptual metaphor in general relates to how one domain maps to the ideas in another domain. For example, the metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY, is invoked when saying things like she’s got a long road ahead of her or he’s starting on a path of discovery. In these cases, aspects of living life are mapped to concepts of travel or a journey.

The metaphors described by this article mostly involve aspects of emotion, such as ANGER IS HOT FLUID IN A CONTAINER, which in comics and cartoons occurs when steam comes out of someone’s ears. Similar metaphors are described here, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Of particular  interest though, is that the authors claim that the same metaphors appear here in the tapestry as in the Old English language. This taps into issues related to how much connection there is between the conceptualization in spoken and visual languages, and in questions of cross-cultural universality and diversity.

As always, I’d love to see more careful, systematic research of this sort with existing comics and historical representations alike.

Full abstract:

Following Forceville (2005, 2011), in this paper I show that the same conceptual models underlie the expression of Old English emotions in both the language and the visual modes. Kövecses (2000, 2005) and Stefanowitsch (2004, 2006) have shown that verbal expressions and idioms used to describe emotions can be traced back to a limited number of conceptual metaphors. In the light of these findings, I will analyze here the pictorial representations of emotions in the Bayeux Tapestry, an 11th century embroidered cloth that narrates and depicts the events that led up to the Norman Conquest of England and the invasion itself. The tapestry, which has been described as an example of early narrative art (McCloud, 1993, pp. 12–14), shows hundreds of human figures in an astounding range of poses and circumstances. My analysis of the set of pictorial signals used in the Anglo-Norman Bayeux Tapestry to represent emotion types such as ‘anger’, ‘grief’ and ‘fear’ shows that (1) Anglo-Norman artists used a well-organized set of visual stimuli to convey emotion-related meanings in a patterned way, that (2) the same idealised conceptual models are shared by verbal and visual modalities, and that (3) whereas verbal expressions of emotions regularly draw on non-embodied, behavioural concepts, visual representations show a clear preference for embodied container concepts.

ResearchBlogging.orgE. Díaz Vera, Javier (2013). Woven emotions: Visual representations of emotions in medieval English textiles Review of Cognitive Linguistics, 16, 269-284 DOI: 10.1075/rcl.11.2.04dia


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