Art and architecture

Timber framing in Norman construction (10th-12thc.)

Wood played an important role during the ducal epoch. Unfortunately, there are hardly any structures left intact nowadays. The only evidence of Norman carpenters work of the 11th and 12th centuries is that of some rare church roofs. The timber corbels of Neufmarché church (Seine-Maritime) and the springers of the Romanesque ceiling in the abbey-church of Boscherville (Seine-Maritime) can be cited as amongst the most remarkable. On the other hand, there are numerous traces left in the earth by the foundations of wooden structures, notably in the civil and military domain. Apart from some information from written references, the majority of our knowledge comes from archaeological excavations.

Thanks to this research, we now have at our disposition, complete or partial plans of about thirty wooden buildings from the region. Most of these come from sites in Upper Normandy. As can be seen in the following list, only the most important have been retained, the contexts are very different:

- Urban dwellings : Rouen (Seine-Maritime), rue du Change, 10th c. house.
- Rural dwellings : Argentan (Orne), 11th-12th c. buildings - Bouafles (Eure), 12th c. buildings.
- Domanial estates : Notre-Dame-de Gravenchon (Seine-Maritime), 10th c. buildings.
- Aristocratic and noble dwellings : Fécamp (Seine-Maritime), 10th c. building ; Notre-Dame-de - Gravenchon (Seine-Maritime), residential complex from the beginning of the 11th c.
- Religious establishments : Saint-Martin de Boscherville (Seine-Maritime), 11th c. cloister, 11th c. canonical house.
- Castles : Mèrey (Eure), 11-12th c motte tower ;
Montfort-sur-Risle (Eure), 11th-12th c. buildings ; Mirville (Seine-Maritime), 11th c. buildings ; Notre-Dame-de Gravenchon (Seine-Maritime), 12th c. buildings.

 The cases studied are still too few to allow an analysis of architectural evolution in this field during the ducal epoch. Equally, we are far from being able to determine any eventual regional disparities. Nonetheless, the sample is enough to look at the different methods of construction used during this period.

From the 10th to the 12th century it was customary, using a technique which had not changed since protohistoire, to equip a building with a framework of posts stuck in the ground. The bottom of the principal supporting elements was generally buried into cylindrical holes. The dimensions of the blocking holes varied, their depth went from some ten or twenty centimetres to the more standard case of 1.50 metres found in large storied buildings (Notre-Dame-de Gravenchon). It was rare to see a construction simply resting on a framework of beams - the few examples known, are of slight lean-to structures - or on a stone plinth (a small stone wall). The second case can only be found in Boscherville, in the second phase of the cloister and in a lean-to construction against the collegiate church (c1050 - beginning of 12th c.).

Walls and partitions had many different forms. Several examples of "wall-palisades" using simple or rabbeted planks inserted vertically into small trenches can be remarked. These elements would have been left open to the elements or covered with cob (Mirville). From about 1000, one could see examples of timber sills, thick horizontal beams serving as foundations resting in 10-20 cm deep furrows. (Notre-Dame-de Gravenchon). This very old technique has been attested since the beginning of the ninth century (Rouen, Palais archiépiscopal).

Concerning the construction plan, the constructions can be divided into two large categories - quadrangular buildings and edifices with curved outlines known commonly as "en forme de bateau" (boat-shaped). Contrary to what one might think, taking into account the Scandanavian hypothesis, the second type is not necessarily the oldest. It is not represented in the 10th century era at Notre-Dame-de Gravenchon; at Mirville, it only appears in phase III of the seigneurial manor. It is likely, in certain cases, that the choice of curved walls was dictated by a preoccupation of wind protection. This is why the gable, dressed with cut off angles in the form of a beak, was situated facing the dominant winds. (Notre-Dame-de Gravenchon).

The interior volume was sometimes divided into two naves by a straight row of posts rising to the roof. The most frequent case was that of a building with one nave, the transversal connection was made with tie beams or springers. The roofs were sometimes four-sided, sloping on two sides and sometimes, notably in the case of a penthouse, one-sided. Their roofing was made with lightweight and perishable material leaving little archaeological trace: thatch, reed or shingle.

It has often been estimated that the longevity of a construction on a stake framework would not exceed, on average, a generation. In Boscherville, the first cloister using this technique was constructed towards the beginning of the 1050s. It was completely rebuilt on a stone plinth before the beginning of the 11th century. However, there are numerous examples of buildings, which stood rather longer: up to a century for several edifices at Notre-Dame-de Gravenchon. Repairs were frequent and their traces can be witnessed in archaeological excavations: placing of a prop on a tie-beam, installing a buttress against a corner post (Mirville hall), the addition of a dead shore under the roof or reinforcement under a high timber sill (Notre-Dame-de Gravenchon).

Concerning the respective roles of wood and stone: in the religious architectural field, leaving aside the question of roof framework, the use of wood was relatively marginal. The rare wooden churches mentioned in texts were only modest oratories. More often than not, they were soon replaced by stone constructions. Although the 11th century collegiate-church cloister at Saint-Georges De Boscherville was in wood, that of the 12th century Benedictine abbey had stone arcading. In the field of military construction, the replacement of wood by stone developed progressively. The evolution was clearly perceptible from the beginning of the 12th century. Notably in the large ducal fortresses, but it should be noted that a number of mottes were never encircled by stone towers. It is natural in the field of civil construction that the tradition of wood was more long lasting: there are not many points in common between a 15th century timbered manor and the wooden edifices of the ducal epoch that archaeological excavations reconstitute for us.

Jacques Le Maho
CRAHM-Université de Caen

Bibliography : J. Le Maho, " Le Moyen Age ", dans Aspects de la construction de bois en Normandie, Cahier des Annales de Normandie, 1985, p. 49-92 ; Id., "Remarques sur la construction de bois en Haute-Normandie aux XIe et XIIe siècles", dans L'architecture normande au Moyen Age (M. BAYLE direct.), t. 1, Caen, éd. Corlet, 1997, p. 243-268.


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