In the article, we have examined the emergence of a public church organization in the diocese of Bergen in Norway 950–1250. We argue that three organizational levels of county churches, quarter churches and eighth churches were in place as early as the eleventh century.
Public local churches were established in collaboration with the thing. As early as the eleventh century, a third of the churches in western Norway were public. It makes a significant difference from the feudal societies on the continent and the British Isles. The proprietary church-system was dominant there until the Gregorian church reform spread from the second half of the 1000s. We find support to define six counties within the Bergen diocese. The church organization expanded in line with the secular division into counties, quarters and ship districts (associated with the eights). The oldest version of Bergen diocese, Selja diocese, was divided in the early twelfth century. New areas were added to the new units. The landscapes of Voss and Hardanger were added to the new diocese of Bergen 1160/70–1274 in the north, and Valdres and Hallingdal around 1170 to the diocese of Stavanger in the south. We find that the older large Selja diocese originally included the counties Sunnmøre, Romsdal and Nordmøre furthest north. These were later transferred to the diocese of Nidaros, probably around the time when the Norwegian church province was established in 1152/53. The remains of St. Sunniva, the patron saint of Western Norway, were moved from Selja to Bergen around 1170.
The high number of public churches, as we have shown in this article, suggests that there were other, more egalitarian social structures in Norway than elsewhere in Europe. Not least, the thing institution was an important driver for the development of the church organization, especially at the local level. Negotiations on the establishment of the Norwegian Church Province were at the forefront of developments in Europe. The negotiations went in the Church’s favour and weakened private church owners’ rights over their churches. This was perhaps possible because there was already a more than 150-year-old tradition for public churches in Norway.
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