02 September, 2009

Thatched barns and stave churches: the possibilities of Anglo-Saxon timber architecture

“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?”
--JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings; The Two Towers (Book III, Chapter 10).

Thus spoke Saruman the wizard, after King Theoden had seen through his lies and told him to take a running jump, neatly articulating some of the more snobbish views of early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’)* culture in general and architecture in particular. Does timber architecture deserve this image?

Small buildings

There are no surviving drawings of early English buildings, and the written descriptions in sources such as Beowulf are stronger on poetic mood than on architectural detail, so the main evidence comes from archaeology. Herein lies an immediate problem; wood is a perishable material and rarely survives well in the ground. Usually all that is left of a timber building for archaeology to find is the ground plan, identified by post-holes and/or foundation trenches. Occasionally waterlogging has preserved some of the timber foundations, or if the building was destroyed by fire some of the charred timbers may have survived (charcoal being less prone to decay than wood), but even these favourable conditions usually preserve only the lower levels of the building.

Experimental archaeology, in which buildings are reconstructed using estimates of the techniques and materials available in the past, is invaluable for testing hypotheses about construction design and methods. It has provided a wealth of information about early English timber construction, especially for comparatively small buildings, such as the sort of houses and outbuildings that might have been occupied by a freeman farming family. Examples can be seen at West Stow near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, and Saxon House, Lincolnshire (pictures available on the links).

Large high-status buildings

There is a tendency to assume that bigger buildings, such as the large high-status halls identified at sites such as Yeavering in Northumberland, were a sort of giant version of the smaller houses reconstructed at sites like West Stow. In the absence of evidence for their superstructure, this is indeed the simplest explanation. Brian Hope-Taylor’s suggested reconstruction of the great hall at Yeavering follows this model (various other reconstructions, together with lots of useful information, available on the same site – it’s well worth clicking round the links). But Occam’s Razor isn’t always correct.

Norwegian stave churches

The stave churches of Norway beautifully illustrate both the problem and the possibilities that can be achieved with timber architecture.

This is the ground plan of Borgund stave church in Norway (north-east of Bergen), built in or shortly after 1180 and not substantially modified since.

Borgund stave church ground plan. From Wikimedia, public domain image.

Doesn’t look very complicated, does it? It’s not very difficult to imagine a thatched barn of some sort on top of this, maybe a sort of central square hall with a few annexe-y bits added on round the sides.

Here is what it really looks like.

Borgund stave church. From Wikimedia under Creative Commons rules

For all that one is supposed to be able to see the universe in a grain of sand, I think most of us would have real difficulty deducing this sophisticated structure from its ground plan. More pictures on the official website.

This is not to argue that high-status Anglo-Saxon halls such as Yeavering resembled stave churches, although if I were going to imagine Heorot** I can think of worse places to start. Absence of evidence is just that. It’s more a reminder that timber architecture can be just as sophisticated and just as spectacular as masonry, and that we shouldn’t be blind to the possibilities.

Map links
West Stow
Borgund, Norway

*Although Tolkien’s Rohirrim clearly have features in common with the early English ('Anglo-Saxons'), not least their language and their names, they should not be taken as a direct counterpart. Tolkien famously disliked allegory.

**Heorot is the great king Hrothgar’s magnificent feasting hall in Beowulf, although I expect that if you found your way here you knew that already.


Anonymous said...

A hit, madam, a palpable hit.

Nicola Griffith said...

I agree completely.

I've no idea if you or your readers would be interested, but here's an except from one of my novels, published in 1998, about the appearance today and building a thousand years ago (okay, not quite that long, but close) of a stave church in Norway. (Yes, I did the research.) It's short, about 1,000 words.

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - in what sense?

Nicola - Many thanks for the link - what a lovely piece of writing.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Nicola, a lovely piece indeed.

Carla, I imagine Thorgil's hall in Kings and Rebels to be a pretty grand building with a steep roof that's very high in the middle - and the reason Thogil, Alastair and the serfs escape the innibränna by going through the roof, something the bad guys didn't expect. Half of them are on the wrong side of the building, the straw is speread too thin so the fire catches slowly, and Illugi doesn't want to risk a fight with either Thorgil or Alastair and flees. Though Thorgil is severely wounded and most of the serfs die - can't make it too easy, lol.

Nicola Griffith said...

Thanks, Carla. Thanks, Gabriele. Even writing a modern-day suspense novel, I couldn't help squeezing in some history :)

Meghan said...

It's frustrating when you're trying to research for a historical novel and there's very little detail about something as important as buildings. It looks like you've really tried your best to be objective and reach your own conclusions. This was a very informative and interesting post!

Carla said...

Nicola - Well, history is the underpinning of the present, so it seemed perfectly in keeping to me :-) Lovely piece. If you don't mind my asking, does Aud have any connection with Aud the Deep-Minded, other than the name?

Meghan - thanks, and I'm glad you found it interesting!

Nicola Griffith said...

Aud is Norwegian, so there's that...

When I started formulating the character, I'd just encountered the story of Aud the Deepminded and was struck by the name. Wow, I thought, imagine what kind of person she must have been to be remembered as Deepminded even now.

I plan to write about her, too, one day.

Carla said...

Gabriele - that's neat, to make the architecture part of a plot twist. How do Thorgil and Alistair reach to get out if the roof is high - do they break out lower down near the walls, or do they climb a beam like Kari in Njal's Saga, or what? (Don't answer if it would be a spoiler!)

Nicola - Yes, that's an epithet to be proud of, isn't it? She must have been a remarkable woman.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Carla, they climb up to the beams in the middle. There are some trestle tables in the hall which make it a bit easier. And no screaming women underfoot; they left (Saldís is no Bergthora). ;)

Annis said...

Fascinating article, Carla, and I love that Norwegian church at Borgund- It's quite reminiscent of a Japanese temple in style!

There has recently been a revival in another timber building technique dating from Saxon times; cruck-framing

Like many others I became interested after seeing permaculturalist Ben Laws' cruck-framed home being built as part of Channel 4's "Grand Designs" programme.

Laws’ Woodlands’ blog
gives further info and has additional posted links with photos following the progress of a cruck-framed building from start to finish.

From the Regia Anglorum website:
"The excavations of the seventh century settlements at Cowdery's Down and Charlton, both in Hampshire, uncovered evidence of 'cruck' building, a technique previously not thought to have been used until after the Norman Conquest. In this style of building the outer door frames extend into the roof and internal support for the roof timbers is provided by one or two pairs of curved timbers (crucks) set next to the door frames. This method allows for lower side walls, and thus saves on building materials. In light of these excavations, many other sites were reassessed, with the result that cruck building was identified at these too, showing that cruck building was not only known, but widespread by the seventh century."

I was intrigued to discover that enterprising later medieval peasants would make a quick profit on the side by knocking up a cruck frame using (illegal) wood from the local lord's forest, and then smartly on-selling before being nabbed, developing the original prefab house!

Carla said...

Gabriele - ingenious :-)

Annis - yes, that was my first thought! Something to do with the height relative to the footprint size, perhaps? Stave churches are remarkable buildings.

The Cowdery's Down hall must havebeen quite something if it resembled the suggested reconstructions, and if the stave churches are anything to go by it might have been more elaborate still. I wasn't surprised to see that the technique was known as far back as the seventh century; people of the past have a habit of turning out to be more ingenious and skilled than we tend to assume! Anglo-Saxon builders probably knew at least as much as we do about the practical use of wood, quite possibly more. Apparently the Old English word for "building" is "getimbre" - which shows how important a material wood was!

What's the source for the later medieval peasants and their sidleine in pre-fab houses? It doesn't surprise me in the slightest, peasants generally being a good deal cannier at putting one over on the boss than they are given credit for, but I hadn't heard that one!

Annis said...

Sorry, Carla, I don't remember now where I saw that bit about the sneakily profiteering peasants with their cruck frames, so can't give you the source (or proof). I read it quite some time ago, but it stuck in my mind as being quite funny and just the sort of thing that an enterprising bloke might try :)

Carla said...

Annis - No worries. It's such a terrific story I'm not surprised it stuck in your mind!

Annis said...

It seems that this clever idea wasn't confined to English medieval peasants! I had a quick hunt around earlier to see if I could find the article with the bit about the kitset cruck-fames (I couldn't), but did find this piece about equally enterprising Swiss peasants in a "Timesonline" article about pre-fab housing.

"In Appenzell, in what is now Switzerland, peasants used to deviously construct their own “houses” from free, local timber — then dismantle and sell them on quickly before building another one. So everybody’s house took 30 years to build but nobody got hanged — or even taxed — for the capital offence of making money, a tradition which persists in Switzerland but not in Gordon Brown’s economy."

Lorin said...

Great post!

Carla said...

Annis - thanks for the link! Pity the journalist didn't provide a reference :-) People have probably been doing the same sort of thing since the year dot - and I do agree with the rest of the article about the good sense of prefabricating buildings and the high quality of Scandinavian timber houses. Somewhere in one of Adam Hart-Davis's TV programmes "What the Romans Did For Us" he said the Romans used prefabricated timber forts that arrived on site as a sort of giant flat pack. Which has obvious advantages in potentially hostile territory, though I've never quite shaken off the mental image of a couple of centurions and the army engineer standing on a windswept beach at Dover and gradually realising they've been delivered two left sides and the wrong set of Allen keys.

Lorin - thank you.

Steven Till said...

Informative as always. I enjoyed reading all the comments too. I agree with Annis that the Norwegian church does have a Japanese flavor to it.

Annis said...

I'm still chuckling at the "Far Side" image of those perplexed Romans scratching their heads as they contemplate the pieces of their kitset fort which just won't fit together :)

Rick said...

I admit to picturing early English as basically resembling very well built barns - essentially Saruman's version. As you point out, this doesn't take into account the quality of decorative work, which was probably ample and impressive.

Oddly enough this relates to something I mentioned a couple of posts back, the lack of monumental ruins from the classical age of China. (And not just because of the East Asian flavor of the Borgund church.)

My impression is that the classical Chinese built their major public buildings mostly of wood, or maybe brick, and they didn't leave impressive ruins. For that matter, the modern Forbidden City is certainly imposing 'in life,' but probably wouldn't make great picture postcard ruins.

Which could be equally true of the early English.

Carla said...

Steven - thank you. I'm very fortunate in the commenters who come here and say interesting and intelligent things. Anyone who only reads the posts on this blog is missing half the fun!

Annis - I know. It's almost worth writing a novel set during the Claudian invasion just to have an excuse to write that scene :-)

Rick - Yes, the (possible) parallel with classical Chinese architecture is an interesting and potentially instructive one. I wonder if timber lends itself to particular forms, and if that's why the Borgund church has a slightly East Asian look to our eyes?

Eigon said...

About the pre fab cruck built cottages - some years ago (alright, 1988) I was working on a small archaeological dig at Bangor on Dee, in a timber framed building just by the racecourse there. The owner of the house, who was doing it up, was a professional renovator of timber framed buildings, and he told us that he'd often taken beams from one cottage and slotted them into another, because they were cut to a standard size and were interchangeable.

In this area, the Borders of Wales, there are various legends about castles appearing overnight - and that's not as daft as it sounds. With flat pack castles, and local labour digging the motte and ditch, it was possible to throw a basic castle up in two weeks - which was practically over night!

Carla said...

Eigon - many thanks for that, what an interesting snippet of information! I didn't know that medieval timber components were that interchangeable.

The overnight castle sounds like a direct descendant of the flat-packed Roman fort, doesn't it? A good idea never dies :-)

Anonymous said...

Carla, sorry to forget to come back on this, I just meant that your point about the unknown upperworks was very sound and perfectly illustrated by the stave-church.

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - Cheers, and many thanks.