Back in August of 2013, my husband and I went on a holiday/research trip (for “The Cardinal“) through parts of Norway, and we came across an amazing site: Eidsborg Stave Church and the Vest-Telemark Museum. We went to Eidsborg with the intention of seeing the outside of the Stavskyrkje (stave church) there on our way to the Heddal Stave Church; instead, we spent swift hours there! It started off with a private guided tour from a local guy (“local” meaning his family has lived in the area since the 1300s), who was both understandably proud of the local history and knowledgeable, as well as enthusiastic.
The museum itself is modern, beautiful, excellently staffed and convenient, with free wireless connection, a cafe and a gift shop, but most importantly, an extensive exhibit of the history of Vest-Telemark. The rural life from the late 1700s to 1900s is colourfully laid out, with printed information sheets at each station in Norwegian, English and German. There’s a strong sense of pride in local culture, and you can breathe in the history of the place. Literally. The buildings on the property, some of which you can enter, live and breathe the lives of those who lived there; the musty smells of old leather, damp earth, mildew in the wooden and thatched walls and roofs, the smell of pine wood, the turfy aroma of the blackened pitch-coated walls of the Stave church itself, and the sight of dusty sunlight streaking in through wallboards into the barn, the smithy, a cottage, storehouse, stable, or the mill. There was even a sauna, built around 1895 (saunas weren’t used back then as they are now; they were places to dry grains for storage or to steam out fleas and lice from fur rugs and coats).
The church is typical stave construction: The staves are corner pillars used to support the edifice, and the interior of the roof uses the same skeletal structure as the Viking longboats – if it works (and those ships worked better than anything on water for centuries), why change it? The inside of the church is rich in history: Carvings from the 1200s, intricately painted walls from the 1600s, a statue of the patron saint of travellers (St. Nicholas of Bari) watching from the corner (as an antique replica – the original is in an Oslo museum), and the dusty light of sunlight peering through small holes near the upper beams. The latter mainly served to provide a bit of light as well as fresh air: Candles could only be afforded for the clergy, so it would have been extremely dark without those holes; sermons went on for hours back in olden days and there were no seats until the middle ages. Everyone in the parish was required to come, punishment or humiliation being the course of the day if they failed to appear for service, and in the tiny space allowed inside the original church, it would have been standing room only, packed in like sardines. If someone fainted from lack of fresh air, it probably wouldn’t have been noticed until everyone filed out. Today there are pews, and it is used weekly as the parish church through the summer and autumn; it is closed for service during the colder months as heating it would cause decay of the paintings and interior woodwork.
Wooden-shingle clad from the ground up, it gives the building the appearance of dragon’s scales, and having been coated with thick pitch for centuries, it looks quite as if it has been charred; it smells wonderfully peaty, like a strong dark whiskey, and on a sunny day you can smell the aroma a good distance away. The gallery along three sides of the church reveals many interesting details, from the wooden spikes used to nail the shingles to the roof to the outer curve of the stave pillars jutting out into the gallery. It’s living, breathing history, and a pleasure to have been there.