Stave Churches

When we think of ancient architecture, we tend to think of stone and brick: the pyramids of Egypt, the amphitheatres of Rome, the Great Wall of China, the temples of the Aztecs and Maya. These are structures that have endured. We have many fewer models of wooden architecture from the distant past, even though wood—cheaper, lighter, and easier to work that stone or brick—was what most people built with in many parts of the world. Wooden buildings burn, rot, or just fall down if not maintained. Good examples of wooden buildings from more than a few centuries ago are very hard to find. One set of buildings that help fill that gap are the stave churches of Norway.

Heddal stave church, photograph by Micha L. Rieser via Wikimeida (Heddal, Norway; 13th c.)
Heddal stave church, photograph by Micha L. Rieser via Wikimeida (Heddal, Norway; 13th c.)

Stave churches are some of the oldest standing wooden buildings in northern Europe. Most were built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, although the style was copied in later centuries. While examples were built in several parts of northern Europe, the majority, and almost all the surviving ones, were built in Norway.

Hedal stave church, photograph by T. Bjornstad via Wikimedia (Hedal, Norway; 12th c.)
Hedal stave church, photograph by T. Bjornstad via Wikimedia (Hedal, Norway; 12th c.)

The term stave church comes from the staves or vertical posts that hold up the structure. The sizes and styles of churches vary greatly from grand multi-layered showpieces to humble village chapels.

Øye stave church, photograph by J. P. Fagerback via Wikimedia (Øye, Norway; 12th c.)
Øye stave church, photograph by J. P. Fagerback via Wikimedia (Øye, Norway; 12th c.)

The methods of stave church construction closely match the archaeological evidence for earlier Viking-age buildings—such as houses, barns, and ship sheds—that are now lost, so it’s a reasonable guess important wooden buildings in Scandinavia in the medieval period may have looked something like the stave churches.

Image: Gol stave church, photograph by Steve Cadman via Wikimedia (currently Oslo, Norway; c. 1200)
Image: Gol stave church, photograph by Steve Cadman via Wikimedia (currently Oslo, Norway; c. 1200)

Stave churches also preserve exquisite carvings of animals, monsters, warriors, and other themes of Viking art.

Detail of portal carving at Urnes stave church, photograph by Nina Aldrin Thune via Wikimedia (Urnes, Norway; 12th c.; wood carving); Interior of Heddal stave church, photograph by Christian Barth via Wikimedia (Heddal, Norway; 13th c.)
Detail of portal carving at Urnes stave church, photograph by Nina Aldrin Thune via Wikimedia (Urnes, Norway; 12th c.; wood carving); Interior of Heddal stave church, photograph by Christian Barth via Wikimedia (Heddal, Norway; 13th c.)

Thoughts for writers

The pre-modern world, at least in the forested parts of the globe, was a world of wood. Even buildings whose first floors were made of stone or brick often had timber upper stories to save on transport and construction costs. In some places, like the Nile valley or the deserts of the American southwest, timber just wasn’t available in quantity. In places where it was, building in brick or stone, especially large buildings or buildings with large interior spaces, was more than just an architectural choice: it was a statement of wealth and power.

But wood could be luxurious, too. The stave churches give us an example of how beautiful, versatile, and rich wooden buildings can be. Something to think about as you’re imagining the built environment your characters live in and move through.

Post updated for formatting

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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