SCA Research Grant 2009

Mapping Early Christianity in Western Normandy

Dr David Petts, Durham University

Notre Dame, Portbail

I am currently exploring the archaeological, architectural and documentary evidence for early Christianity in Western Normandy. My study area is the Cotentin Peninsula (roughly the north-western half of the Departement of Manche) and I am tracing the evidence for the early church from its origins in the late Roman period through to the 12th century, by which point the area was fully integrated into the Duchy of Normandy. I am particularly interested in the impact of Viking settlement in the region. This is traditionally seen as causing major disruption to the existing ecclesiastical organisation, and certainly the Bishop of Coutances was forced to flee to Rouen. However, I am keen to explore how far this caused a break in the church at a local level.

As one part of the project I have carried out a rapid survey of around 400 parish churches to identify both the extent of church (re)building in the 12th century and attempting to recognise evidence for possible pre-Romanesque churches. This work has been particularly successful and I am able to show both a widespread investment in churches at local level in the 12th century, but also evidence for the presence of a pre-Norman network of churches dating to the 10th and 11th century, with a number of structures still retaining pre-Romanesque fabric.

A grant from the Society of Church Archaeology enabled me to support this fieldwork with a re-examination of the antiquarian literature. This has proved particularly useful in identifying cases where 19th and early 20th century grave-digging has revealed evidence for pre-Viking burials on the site of later churches; this takes the form of both diagnostically datable metalwork and the recovery of dateable stone sarcophagi. Some similar discoveries from close to churches but outside the modern cemetery enclosure suggest that in some cases there has been a change in the size and shape of the graveyard. Research on the topographic and spatial organisation of these church sites is continuing.

A paper on this research was given at the Local Churches and Lordship in the European Middle Ages conference held at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London in November 2010, and will be published as part of the conference proceedings as a special issue of Church Archaeology. Further publications related to this work are in the pipeline.