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A stave church is a medieval wooden church with a post and beam construction related to timber framing. The wall frames are filled with vertical planks. The load-bearing posts (stafr in Old Norse) have lent their name to the building technique. Related church types are post church and churches with palisade walls.

All of the surviving stave churches except one are found in Norwaymarker, but related church types were once common all over northwestern Europe. The only remaining medieval stave church outside of Norway is one from 15th century located at Hedaredmarker in Swedenmarker and one Norwegian stave church relocated and re-erected in 1842 in the outskirts of Krummhübel in Germanymarker, now Karpaczmarker in the Karkonoszemarker mountains of Polandmarker.


Archaeological excavations have shown that stave churches, best represented today by the Borgund stave churchmarker, descend from palisade constructions and later churches with earth-bound posts.

Similar palisade constructions are known from buildings from the Viking era. Logs were split in two halves, rammed into the ground and given a roof. This was a simple construction yet very strong. If set in gravel the wall could last for decades, even centuries. Remains of buildings of this type are found over much of Europe. An archaeological excavation in Lund uncovered the post holes of several such churches.

In later buildings the walls were supported by sills, leaving only the corner posts earth-bound – post churches. Such churches are easy to spot at archaeological sites as they leave very distinct holes where the posts were once placed. Sometimes the remains are even preserved, which makes it possible to give a very good dating of the church building. Under Urnes stave church remains have been found of two such churches, with Christian graves discovered below the oldest church.

A single church with a palisade construction has been refound as a floor in another medieval church, the Hemse stave church. This church used a palisade wall, yet the walls were supported on sills. One other church, the Greensted Churchmarker is also described as a palisade church, but is most probably of Saxon origins.

The next phase resulted from the observation that earth-bound posts are susceptible to humidity, which will cause them to rot away over time. To prevent this the posts were placed on top of large stones, significantly increasing their lifespan. The stave church in Røldalmarker is believed to be of this type.

In still later churches, the posts were set on a raised sill frame, resting on stone foundations. This is the stave church in its most mature form.

It is now common to group the churches into two categories; the first without free-standing posts, often referred to as Type A, and the other with a raised roof and with free-standing internal posts, usually termed Type B.

Those with the raised roof, Type B, are often further divided in two subgroups; the Kaupanger groupmarker with a whole arcade row of posts and intermediate posts along the sides and details mimicking stone like capital. These churches give an impression of a basilica.

The other subgroup is the Borgund groupmarker. These churches have cross braces joining upper and lower string beams and the posts, forming a very rigid interconnection, and resembling the triforium of stone basilicas. This makes it possible to omit the freestanding lower part of intermediate posts. In some churches in Valdresmarker, only the four corner posts have been retained (see image of Lomen stave churchmarker).

Many stave churches had or still have outer galleries running around the whole perimeter, loosely connected to the plank walls. They probably served to protect the church from a harsh climate, and for processions.

Single nave church, Type A

At the base of Type A churches there are four heavy sill beams on a low foundation of stones. These are interconnected in the corner notch, forming a rigid sill frame. The corner posts or staves (stavene) are cross-cut at the lower end and fit over the corner notches and cover them, thereby protecting them from moisture.

On top of the sill beam is a groove, into which the lower ends of the wall planks (veggtilene) fit. The last wall plank wedge-shaped and rammed into place. When the wall is filled in with planks, the frame is completed by a wall plate (stavlægje) with a groove on the bottom side, holding the top ends of the wall planks. The whole structure consists of frames — a sill frame resting on the stone foundation, and the four wall frames made up of sills, corner posts and wall plate.

The wall plates support the roof trusses, consisting of a pair of principal rafters and an additional pair of intersecting "scissor rafters". For lateral bracing, additional wooden brackets (bueknær) are inserted between the rafters.

Every piece is locked into position by other pieces, making for a very rigid construction. Yet all points otherwise susceptible to the harsh weather is covered.

  • The single nave church has a square nave and a narrower square choir. This type of stave church was common at the beginning of the 12th century.

  • The long church, (Langkirke), has a rectangular plan with nave and choir of the same width. The nave will usually take up two thirds of the whole length. This type was common at the end of 13th century.

  • Center post church, (Midtmastkirke) has a single central post reaching all the way up and connected with the roof construction. But the roof is a simple hipped one, without the raised central part of the Type B churches. This variation on the common type of church in Numedal and Hallingdalmarker, dated to around 1200.

Single nave churches in Norway: Grip, Haltdalenmarker, Undredalmarker, Hedalmarker, Reinlimarker, Eidsborgmarker, Rollag, Uvdal, Noremarker, Høyjordmarker, Røldalmarker and Garmomarker.

The only remaining church in Sweden, in Hedaredmarker, is of this type and shows similarities with the one from Haltdalenmarker.

Church with a raised roof, Type B

On the stone foundation four huge beams (grunnstokker) are placed like a # sign, their ends protruding 1-2 metres from the notches where they intersect. The ends of these beams support the sills of the outer walls, forming a separate horizontal frame. The tall internal posts are placed on the internal frame of large beams, and carry the main roof above the central space nave (skip). On the outer frame of sills rest the main wall planks (veggtiler), carrying the roof over the pentice or aisles (omgang) surrounding the central space. The roof thus tapers down in two steps, as in a basilica.

The tall internal posts (staver) are interconnected with brackets (bueknær), and also connected to the outer walls with aisle rafters, creating a laterally rigid construction. Closer to the top of the posts (staver) shorter sills inserted between them support the upper wall (tilevegg). On top of the posts wall plates(stavlægjer) support the roof trusses, similar to those of the single nave churches.

The Kaupanger group consists of: Kaupangermarker, Urnes, Hopperstadmarker and Lommarker.

The Borgund group consists of: Borgundmarker, Golmarker, Hegge, Høremarker (Hurum), Lomenmarker, Ringebumarker and Øye.

This form of church can also be recognized from the holes which remain from earlier earth-bound post churches built on the same sites. Little is known about what these older churches actually looked like, or how they were constructed, as they were all destroyed or replaced many centuries ago.


Jelling church stone in Denmark
Portal in column from Borgund stavkirke
Portal in side wall from Hedal stavkirke
Arch decoration from Urnes stavkirke
Lion on arch decoration from Borgund stavkirke
Stave churches were once common in Northern Europe. In Norway alone, a total of about 1000 churches are believed to have been built, although more recent research has adjusted this number upwards and it is now assumed to have been closer to 2000 [67499]. The number of stave churches constructed in other countries in Europe and in Iceland are unknown.

Some believe they were the first type of church to be constructed in Scandinavia; however, there existed an even older type called post churches, although the difference between the two is very small. A stave church has a lower construction set on a frame, whereas a post church has earth-bound posts. In Swedenmarker, the stave churches were considered to be obsolete in the Middle Ages and were replaced. In Norway, they were not replaced as quickly as they were in Sweden and England. Many stave churches survived until the 19th century, when a substantial number were destroyed.

In Norwaymarker, 29 historical stave churches remain standing. There are also a number of places where there have been archaeological surveys uncovering older post churches. There are also some newer stave churches at various locations.

In Denmarkmarker, traces of post churches have been found at several locations, and there are also parts still in existence from some of them. A plank of one such church was found in Jutland. The plank is now on display at the National Museum of Denmarkmarker in Copenhagenmarker and an attempt at reconstructing the church is a featured display at the Moesgaard Museummarker near Aarhusmarker. Marks created by several old post churches have also been found at the old stone church in Jellingmarker.

In Swedenmarker there is a medieval stave church, the Hedared stave churchmarker constructed c. 1500, at the same location as a previous older stave church. Other notable places are Maria Minor church in Lund with its traces of a post church with palisades, and some old parts of Hemse stave church on Gotlandmarker. In Skåne alone there were around 300 churches when Adam of Bremen visited Denmark in the first half of the 11th century, how many of those were stave churches or post churches is unknown.

In Englandmarker, there is one much debated church of Saxon origin, and the debate is whether this is a stave church or if it predates stave churches. This is the Greensted Churchmarker in Essex. General consensus is to categorize it as Saxon [A]. There is also another church in England which bears similarities to stave churches, this is the medieval stone church of St. Mary in Kilpeck in Herefordshiremarker. This church features a number of dragon heads.

In Germanymarker, there is one stone church with a motif depicting a dragon similar to the ones often seen on Norwegian stave churches, and on a remaining artifact from Denmark and also from Gotland. Whether this decoration can be attributed to cultural similarities or whether it indicates similar construction methods in Germany has sparked much controversy.

There is some folklore suggesting that the stave churches were built upon old indigenous Norse religious ground. Only at one single location there seems to be possible to trace a connection, and that is at Mære church in Norway. At one corner of the churchyard there are found remnants of another house, and this house could be connected to Norse paganism. In other cases there is evidence of much older churches built on the same ground, often the stones are still left in the holes created by the posts of an older post church, and under Urnes stave church there have even been discovered remains of two such earlier post churches. The old portal from one of these churches is believed to be the one built into the northern wall of the current church. Newer research indicates thus that Christianity was introduced into Norway much earlier than was previously assumed.

Architecture and decoration

Portal detail from Tønjum stave church
Even though the wooden churches had structural differences, they give a recognizable general impression. Formal differences may hide common features of their planning; while apparently similar buildings may turn out to have their structural elements organized completely differently. Despite this, certain basic principles must have been common to all types of building.

Basic geometrical figures, numbers that were easy to work with, one or just a few length units and simple ratios, and perhaps proportions as well were among the theoretical aids all builders inherited. The specialist was the man who knew a particular type of building so well that he could systematize its elements in a slightly different way from what was the case in the buildings known hitherto, thus carrying developments a stage further.

Dating of churches

The dating of such buildings may be done in different ways, by historical records, inscriptions, by stylistic means on construction details or ornaments, dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating. Often historical records or inscriptions will point to a year when the church is known to have existed. Archaeological excavations can yield finds which can provide relative dating for the structure, whereas absolute dating methods such as radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology can provide a more exact date. One drawback of dendrochronology is that it tends to overlook the possibility that the wood could have been reused from an older structure, or may have been felled and left for many years before use.

A very important problem with dating of the churches is that the solid ground sills are those construction elements that is most likely to have the outer parts of the log still preserved. Still they are most susceptible to humidity and as people back then reused building parts the churches can have been rebuilt several times. If so, a dendrochronological dating can be based upon a log from a later reconstruction.

The old stave churches


Stave church at Hedared, Sweden


  • Greensted churchmarker, — 845 or 1053 (a church of Saxon origin, sharing a lot of construction details with stave churches)

Later stave churches and replicas

Stave churches are a very popular phenomenon and several are built or rebuilt around the world. The two most copied are Borgund and Hedared, with some variations, and sometimes with adoptions to add elements from known stave churches from the area. In other places they are of a more free form, and built for display.

The full list of later stave churches and replicas






Archaeological sites and dismantled churches

Many stave churches are now long gone.

The full list of archaeological sites and dismantled stave churches




See also


  1. Directorate for Cultural Heritage, Stave Churches
  2. Anker, Peter, Stavkirkene, Deres egenart og historie, Oslo 1997, ISBN 82-02-15978-4
  3. Mereth Lindgren, Louise Lydberg, Birgitta Sandstrøm and Anna Greta Waklberg, Svensk Konsthistoria, Kristianstad 2002, ISBN 91-87896-52-4
  4. Bugge, Gunnar og Mezzanotte, Bernardino, Stavkirker, Oslo 1993, ISBN 82-504-2072-1
  5. Bugge, Gunnar, Stavkirkene i Norge, Oslo 1981, ISBN 82-09-01890-6
  6. Hoftun, Oddgeir, Stavkirkene - og det norske middelaldersamfunnet, Copenhagen 2002, ISBN 87-21-01977-0.
  7. Hoftun, Oddgeir, Stabkirchen - und die mittelalterliche Gesellschaft Norwegens / Text: Oddgeir Hoftun; Fotos: Gérard Franceschi; Konzeption: Asger Jorn; [übersetzt aus dem Dänischen von Irmelin Mai Hoffer und Reinald Nohal unter Mitarbeit von Sarah Majken Hoffer], Köln 2003: König; ISBN 3-88375-526-5.
  8. Hoftun, Oddgeir, Kristningsprosessens og herskermaktens ikonografi i nordisk middelalder, Oslo 2008, ISBN 978-82-560-1619-8.
  9. Hohler, Erla Bergendahl, Norwegian Stave Church Sculpture, volume 1-2 Oslo 1999,ISBN 82-00-12748-6
  10. Hauglid, Roar, Norske Stavkirker, Oslo 1973, multipart work
  11. Lagerlöf, Erland and Svahnström, Gunnar, Gotlands Kyrkor, Kristianstad 1991 ISBN 91-29-61598-4
  12. Elstad, Hallgeir, Dei norske stavkyrkjene - ei innføring, Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo, curriculum 2002
Note that the author Roar Hauglid has an enormous production and this (7) is just one of several with similar titles. Other books from the author include: Norwegische Stabkirchen, Oslo 1970, ISBN 82-09-00938-9 and Norwegian stave churches, Oslo 1970


¹ A semi-official list of Norwegian stave churches which comply to specific criteria
This list is a rough guide to say which one is in a shape to be used as a reference for research purposes

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