By studying different forms of knowledge about stave churches that circulated in a wide variety of texts in the 18th and 19th centuries, Sine Halkjelsvik Bjordal has written a cultural history of the medieval wooden churches.
In her newly defended dissertation, former CAS Fellow Sine Halkjelsvik Bjordal has studied the cultural history of stave churches.
Her broad textual historical focus and search for different forms of knowledge through the investigation of a large and diverse body of material have revealed that the stave churches have a far more complex and diverse cultural history than what has previously been claimed.
‘The story about how the stave churches became what they are today – national symbols worthy of preservation – contains a lot of small steps and building blocks that have not been visible in the more general histories about modernisation and nation building,’ Halkjelsvik Bjordal said.
Halkjelsvik Bjordal successfully defended her dissertation on March 5. Back in 2018 she was a Fellow in the CAS project In Sync: How Synchronisation and Mediation Produce Collective Times, Then and Now.
We spoke with the cultural historian about her Ph.D. project and her time at CAS.
- Read more about Sine Halkjelsvik Bjordal’s dissertation (in Norwegian)
- Read Also: Meet the Project: 'In Sync: How Synchronisation and Mediation Produce Collective Times, Then and Now' - CAS
Congratulations on successfully defending your dissertation! You studied the cultural history of stave churches. Can you tell us about your project?
In my project, I studied the many different forms of knowledge about stave churches that were produced and circulated in Norway, and partly also Europe, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Earlier cultural histories about these medieval wooden churches often concentrate on how, in the 1830s, they were ‘discovered’ as cultural heritage and as valuable national monuments worthy of preservation. In these histories the Norwegian painter J.C. Dahl and the National Trust of Norway (founded 1844) – together with national romanticism – play crucial roles. These were important actors in my project as well, but my goal was to investigate the various understandings of stave churches in the 19th century from a broader history of knowledge perspective, focusing on a large number of various actors and texts – both published texts and archival material.
In your dissertation, you show that the cultural history of stave churches is far more complex and diverse than what has previously been claimed. Can you elaborate?
My broad textual historical focus, and my search for different forms of knowledge about the stave churches, revealed a history of these buildings, understood as particular and remarkable buildings, going further back than J.C. Dahl’s ‘discovery’ of them. The many texts I studied also made it possible to follow some more international threads in the material. I show, for instance, how the stave churches in the middle of the 19th century are conceived very differently in German, French and English art historical publications. The stave churches are understood as ‘Mongolic-Gothic,’ ‘Chinese pagodas,’ ‘Germanic,’ ‘pagan,’ ‘Celtic,’ ‘Norman,’ and ‘Byzantine.’ They are even described as having similarities with ‘some strange creation of the South Sea islanders,’ as James Fergusson writes in his book The Illustrated Handbook of Architecture from 1855.
In addition, I show how the different forms of knowledge about the churches build upon one another, coexist, challenge one another, and get transformed. The story about how the stave churches became what they are today – national symbols worthy of preservation – contains a lot of small steps and building blocks that have not been visible in the more general histories about modernisation and nation building. In my dissertation, I wanted to focus not on overarching epistemological ruptures or breaks in the history of knowledge, but rather on the very small steps that lead to such ruptures. I also wanted to show that a rupture does not necessarily mean that what was before disappears.
How did you become so interested in the cultural history of stave churches?
My Ph.D. was originally part of a larger project led by professor of architectural history Mari Hvattum at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. This project was titled The Printed and the Built. Architecture and Public Debate in Modern Europe, and the main goal of this project was to investigate the relationship between the built environment and print culture in 19th and early 20th century Europe. Initially, I wanted to focus on the National Trust of Norway and their textual practices in relation to ancient architecture, but at some point I got access to the organisation’s archival materials, which contain an enormous amount of different forms of drawings of stave churches. It was such intriguing material – and I could not really make any sense of it. That is why I started to search for stave churches in all sorts of materials, and that got the snowball rolling.
How did your time as a Fellow in a CAS project contribute to the work with your dissertation?
Well, I have to admit that the year at CAS didn’t actually contribute to the work with my dissertation. However, it is a misconception that a dissertation is the main product of a Ph.D. project. Doing a Ph.D. is not really about writing a thesis; it is all about learning how to be a researcher – learning how to present and discuss ideas and theories, how to think and cooperate with others, how to be a good colleague, contributing to an academic community – that is, how to co-create knowledge. This I learnt at CAS.
How was it to join a CAS research project as a Ph.D. candidate?
It was great, but it was also a bit stressful. It is easy, and normal, I suppose, to feel insecure as a Ph.D. student when having to perform in a group with highly successful senior scholars. Luckily, they were also very nice senior scholars, and the people working in the CAS administration were very supportive. But it was stressful, that is for sure. I remember a lot of nervousness. That said, it was also an extremely fun year – in so many ways. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to spend a whole year in such an inspiring and educational environment.
Do you have any advice to young scholars who join one of CAS’ regular research projects?
Not really, except from the obvious advice that you should not be afraid to speak up. Even if you are a junior scholar your perspective, thoughts and ideas matter. My advice, therefore, is rather for future project leaders: Include Ph.D. students in your core research group. Not only is it a fantastic opportunity for the Ph.D. students, but I am thoroughly convinced that it would also be productive, valuable – and fun – for the project group as a whole.
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