The 13th Century Church Made Entirely From Wood Without A Single Nail

A story recorded in 18th-century centurycentury English folklore and profoundly embedded in the very foundations of popular culture tells of three small pigs and how each faced the outside danger of the great evil wolf.

The first little piggy, happy as he was, constructed himself a straw dwelling, allowing time for fun and play. The second pig built his home out of sticks, which took a bit longer but still left time for life’s pleasures. Meanwhile, after learning enough about the threat, the remaining tiny pig put in some additional effort and constructed himself a house out of bricks and sand.

A lyrical narrative with a predictable conclusion, it illustrates a lesson that hard effort and perseverance result in success and that it pays to plan ahead of time and not take shortcuts. Except, of course, when the shortcut is the plan itself, or, as Sam Ewing, a former Chicago White Sox baseball player, famously said, “it’s not the hours you put in your job that matters, it’s the work you put in the hours.” The forethought and initiative to put up a trap on the inside, rather than the brick and stone walls, was what stopped the big evil wolf.

Stave church of Heddal, Norway. A painting of the Heddal stave church by Johannes Flintoe (1828)

When we consider this, we are reminded of a society of expert artisans, mankind’s best shipbuilders, who were completely aware of their external threats. They did what they did best: they used part of their incredible knowledge to find a shortcut, building dwellings, and valuable shrines the same way they built ships. Instead of steel and stone, the Nords erected thousands upon thousands of churches exclusively out of wood during the 11th and 13th centuries. Contrary to common opinion, they were the first to do so, and several have survived the test of time and remain exactly as they were erected more than eight centuries ago.

Gol stave church, belonging to the Borgund group. The drawing is slightly erroneous, as the sill under the church floor is missing.

Because of the huge woods they had to work with, the ancient Northmen were considered among the greatest wood artisans. They used wood in nearly every aspect of their existence. They utilized it so extensively that it resulted in the creation of a separate method, one that enabled the building of huge ships, the ones for which the Vikings are most renowned.

Urnes Stave Church. Author: Leo-setä CC BY 2.0

After seeing their ships defy the fury of the sea, the Nords employed the same woodworking skills that had made them such good shipbuilders to build churches throughout the Middle Ages, when Christianity expanded worldwide. Despite the fact that stone would have been more rational, they realized that creating stone buildings was unneeded in a region where the sun is scarce and fires are extremely rarer, or where foreign invaders rarely set foot.

Arch decoration from Urnes stave church. Author: Nina-no
CC BY-SA 2.5

As a result, the Vikings erected shrines like ships, certain that they could withstand the one credible threat: nature itself. Rain, snow, and gale-force winds were nothing compared to an enraged ocean, no matter how hard a land storm huffed and puffered.

Urnes Stave Church drawing by Johan Christian Dahl. CC BY 2.0

It is thought that when Norway converted to Christianity during the 10th and 11th centuries, Nords erected hundreds of them, which were known as Stavkirke chapels or Stave churches. They were made of a specific type of fir known as “malmfuru.” It was an unfortunately extinct evergreen coniferous tree with a straight trunk that was sturdy and flexible at the same time, allowing for beautifully carved joints, powerful beams, and massive pillars.

Pilgrim at a capital on top of a stave. Author: Nina Aldin Thune CC BY-SA 2.5

Many architects who have studied the extant instances believe that the huge pillars (staves) were arranged in such a sophisticated manner that it is a feat of engineering. Furthermore, the walls of the stave churches were made of massive vertical boards that were strengthened with four extra beams to support the roof.

Heddal stave church, sometime between 1890 and 1900.

On top of it, another smaller roof is erected, then another on top of that, until the last one is a thin, pointed roof that appears to be reaching for the sky. Additional beams and staves are installed on each roof to support it. When compared to the closest surviving example to the tree they used the most, the Douglas fir, it appears that the Norwegians built cathedrals that are nearly similar to the tree itself.

Interior of Heddal stave church. Author: Christian Barth CC BY-SA 3.0 no

Indeed, despite how weird it may appear, everything was done entirely with wood. The only metal recovered was from the door latches. Where nails were deemed necessary, the Nords would use dowel pins made of wood, which many believe is the only reason some of the churches have endured for so long.

As some of the architects who have investigated churches throughout the years have unanimously concluded, using wood dowels provides breathing space for a structure during seasonal fluctuations. Simply said, a wood composition might expand and contract with the seasons.

Reinli stave church with the old pillory, Sør-Aurdal Author: Tor Svensson CC BY-SA 2.5

If the temperature or humidity change outdoors, for example, the building moves with it rather than being kept securely in place by iron. This also provided the framework with a great deal of suppleness. Furthermore, the structures would be built on top of a vast foundation of flat stones, which would be used to lift the foundation beams above ground level, protecting the structure from ground moisture and rotting.

Interior from Lomen stave church depicting cross braces between upper and lower pincer beams and posts. Intermediate posts have been omitted. Author: John Erling Blad CC BY 2.5

Only 28 of the hundreds erected throughout the Middle Ages remain today. The Borgund stave church, which is regularly visited, is one of the greatest instances of this unrivaled architectural method. It was erected at the very end of the 12th century in dedication to the Apostle Andrew. This chapel appears to be practically intact in Sognefjord, Norway’s biggest fjord.

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