More on Norman churches…

The first blast of the beginning of term is now over, so I’ve finally found time to have a bit of a think about the results of my initial fieldwork in Western Normandy which I’ve blogged about previously.

Essentially, I’m interested in exploring the development of early Christianity in the Cotentin peninsula in West Normandy; this is a border region between Normandy and Brittany. The received wisdom (primarily based on fairly limited documentary evidence) suggests that in the pre-Viking period (ie pre-10th century) there were only a small number of ecclesiastical sites in the region incuding Portbail, Orval, Coutances, St Marcouf and Le Ham (near Valognes). These are assumed to have fallen into abeyance following Viking raiding, with church organisation only reviving in the 11th century. Although little has been written about the rise of the parochial system there is a general assumption that this only falls into place in the 11th/12th century, although this has never really been tested.

My current working hypothesis is that there are two problems with this existing story. First, I am suspicious of the fact that in the pre-Viking period there were only around six ecclesiastical centres. For example, in England, County Durham (an area of comparable size) has around fifteen known pre-9th century monastic/church sites. I believe that there is enough reported archaeological evidence (primarily in the form of Merovingian burials) from later church sites to argue that they had pre-Viking origins. Of course, I am making some key assumptions here, particularly that this reported evidence is indeed of pre-Viking date. One of my key tasks now is to go back to the original (mainly antiquarian) publication of the evidence for early activity on later church sites to assess its reliability – luckily thanks to the Society for Church Archaeology I have a small grant which will allow be to visit the British Library and the Bodleian Library to consult the relevant publications.

My second suspicion about the current narrative is that there was a large-scale disruption of Christianity in the region following Viking settlement. I have no problem with some sites being raided and temporarily falling out of use, but I’m not convinced there was a complete abandonment of the churches until the 11th century. Again, based on the presence of pre-Viking activity on later church sites I would argue that there is continuity straight through. Otherwise we’d have to argue that the memory of the location of church sites was preserved for at least a century and then when Christianity was re-established the churches were revived on the original locations rather than new sites.

I am also interested in the spread of parishes. I am happier that the 11th/12th century date posited is correct. However, I think there is a still a need to provide more hard evidence. One way of exploring this is through looking at the provision of churches in this period. This can be done using the limited documentary evidence and the architectural evidence. The charters issues by the Dukes of Normandy are of some help; a number of churches are mentioned in the grants they made, particularly to abbeys, in the 10th and 11th centuries; although it is noticeable that there are geographical variations in the evidence for these churches. For example, quite a few are recorded in the central Cotentin (Barneville-Carteret; Valognes; Briquebec areas), but far fewer in the north. How does this correspond with the evidence from the churches themselves. Well, again, there is a traditional narrative here. Most overviews of early Romanesque architecture in the region (broadly speaking 11th-12th century AD) limits themselves to a fairly limited number of sites; primarily those which contain large quantities of Romanesque sculpture or extensive areas of fabric (for example, Tollevast, Martinvast; Octeville; Brucheville). However, my gut feeling, based on previous visits to the area, was that, in fact, there were many more churches than that which preserved at least some early Romanesque fabric (based on the presence of various diagnostic features, such as the use of herring-bone masonry and monolithic stone windowheads. Thanks to a grant from the Society of Medieval Archaeology I was able to spend some time out in the region in September doing a rapid but systematic survey of churches in a number of sample areas across the Cotentin. I looked at around 140 churches and recognised a far higher level of existing fabric of this period than had previously been suspected (you can see lots of images here. It was interesting to note how poor the local understanding of church architecture could be; for example, at la Haye D’Ectot. , the information board firmly stated that the building was built in the 18th century, despite the clear presence of 12th century fabric in it! .

Although there is still much of the area to survey, it is clear that the documentary evidence significantly under-represents the provision of churches in the area in the 11th/12th century. There are a number of areas, such as that around the Sienne estuary, where there are entire blocks of parishes which have churches with 11th/12th century fabric, suggesting that the parish network was established by this point.

So, still lots of work to do pulling together all the documentary and antiquarian evidence together. I’d also like to explore the landscape context of the churches in a little more detail at some point: many of them are in hilltop locations and in some areas they are often located well away from the modern villages.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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  1. I'm just thinking out loud, but are you making a distinction between a \”church community\” and a \”church building\”? Because surely the one can fall into abeyance and leave the other still visible, even after moldering away for a century? (And even if the structure was too flimsy still to be visible, people would still know where grandpa was buried.) There were villages in the Netherlands that went 30 years or more without a pastor during the Dutch Revolt, between closing down as Catholic parishes and opening up as Dutch Reformed congregations, so some similar sort of collapse and reinvention of church organisation during the Viking period doesn't strike me as unlikely.


  2. I agree, this is a bit of a methodological challenge. It has been argued that a similar thing happens in parts of the Danelaw in the UK. Although the gap that some people suggest in Western Normandy is potentially over a century. THere are also other problems- for example, assuming that early burials equates to an early church. For example, in Wales, Christian cemeteries could occur at a site for a significant length of time before it was ever given a church.I'm also interested in how far the possible physical location might help to explore this. For example, is there any evidence for the different long-term development of churches that are situated away from the medieval village, and those which are located in the heart of the settlement, or between those with circular churchyards which form the focus of the settlement layout and those which have seemingly been tagged on to the edge of a settlement. So much to do…


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