Follow the Abel Track

1. Almuestaua

When going to church was a duty and an obligation, the vicar took care of most civil as well as spiritual affairs of the people of the parish. This was instituted and given a physical form in Almuestaua, the quarters of the public.

Originally, Almuestaua was a part of the vicarage, but in 1840 the institution was transferred to a building called Kornmagasinet next to the church. Kornmagasinet, the public granary of the parish, was put up during the Napoleonic Wars 1807-14. The British blockade cut supplies to Norway, resulting in a famine. Kornmagasinet was a way of maintaining and distributing the essentials. Each autumn it was filled with grain and potatoes, and when spring came, those in need would be provided with food and seed to survive. In 1840 Kornmagasinet had its name changed to Almuestua.

The Norwegian "kommune" - municipality - was established by law in 1837. Almuestaua soon became the regular meeting place of the elected bodies. Demands for assembly rooms for political and religious meetings, as well as for a school and teacher's quarters, for a library and a bank, led to the need to construct a new and more suitable building. This was built in 1895. Kornmagasinet is preserved as a room on the ground floor.
Almuestaua is now housing the local library and congregational meetings.

This bust is made  by the artist Brynjulf Bergslien and erected by professor Øystein Ore in 1958. The stone is made of Knut Odden to mark the 200 years jubilee of Nils Henrik Abels burth. It was also ment as a ground stone for the Abel center in Gjerstad. The road from Gjerstad jernbanestasjon to Almunestaua is named Nils Henrik Abels veg.

The old church site
Normally, churches are situated within the churchyard, and so were the first two churches of Gjerstad. The site of the old churches and churchyard may reflect continuation from the pre-Christian cemetery and public meeting place of Kamperhaug. It is easy to imagine that the whole ridge towards Gjerstad school is ancient holy ground.

Søndeled church, some 20 km down the valley where the river enters the fjord, is the oldest church in the district. Originally it was the parish church of Vissedal, now the municipalities of Gjerstad and Risør. As a consequence of massive reduction in population after the plagues of the 14th century, the vicarage was moved from Søndeled to Gjerstad, the largest and most prominent farm in the area and probably a Crown estate. Most likely there was a cemetery and a chapel here at the time, and certainly there was a small church of about 60-70 square meters from 1400 onwards. It seems to have been a timber construction, as no evidence is known to indicate a stave church.

An increase in the population slowly made the old church obsolete, and in 1737 it was demolished. The new church was put up immediately, but it took 20 years to finish it.  Meanwhile, the population had passed 1000, and was growing fast. In 1827, there were 1704 inhabitants in the parish, and the law required the church to be enlarged or rebuilt. As the old site was too weak to carry the weight of an enlarged building, it was decided to move the new church to its current location. The present church was consecrated in 1848, the population was then about 2500.

The vicar graves

Under the old church there was a burial vault, and the priests were buried there. But when it was demolished in the 1840s, the coffins in the vault were buried there.
The vicar John Aas did what had become fashionable at the time, when he made an enclosed grave area, mainly for his own family. The fencing and memorial plates were cast on the local ironworks, Egelands Jernverk.

Several of the vicar's graves lie outside of the enclosure. The graves of Niels Henrik Abel´s grandparents, Hans Mathias and Elisabeth Knut Abel, are under the memorial plates. Søren Georg and Anne Marie Abel, Niels Henrik´s parents, were put in simple graves. The monumental stone over Søren Georg Abel was raised in his memory in 1902. His wifes named was first placed on the stone in 2010.

John Aas himself was buried inside the enclosure under the monumental stone bearing his name. The last vicar to be buried here was Lorenz Ditlev Krog in 1872.

2. The Abel path
You are now entering the old village road leading up to Gjerstad vicarage. The road starts at a small beach at the end of the Gjerstad lake, and is the continuation of the waterway coming up from Søndeled and Risør.

The hill up to the vicarage of Gjerstad is called the Bastau hill. Bastaue was a hot bathing house, mainly used for drying food.

On your right hand is Johannalund. In this grove the vicar's wife Johanna Scavenius used to sit and wait for the rowboat with her husband, the vicar Henrich Larsen Scavenius, to appear on the lake after he had delivered his sermon in the Søndeled church.

Up the Bastau hill you are entering a journey into the past. You will see memories from many centuries, some of them marked with signs. Looking around you will discover a lot more, because here at Gjerstad, history is everywhere.

You are a heartily welcome guest, but remember that these houses constitute the home of the vicar, the tenant farmer and their families. Gjerstad is a fully run farm. Please help us to maintain the path.

3. Gjerstad

The village, common in most of the world, is unknown in Norway. Individual farms, at most constituting hamlets, is how Norway has been built. Since the middle ages a vicarage was a farm. The name of the vicarage farm gave name to the parish, and later on to the municipality.  Gjerstad the farm gave name to Gjerstad the parish and to the municipality, Gjerstad kommune.

This Gjerstad is one of about 30 Gjerstad places in Norway and Sweden. They are often situated at crossroads, and can be seen as military strategic points. The name may come from old norse geiri, which means spear, probably given early in the 9th century.

After the plagues in the 15th century (The Black Death 1349), the population of Norway was reduced to about 1/4 of its former size. Within what is now Gjerstad kommune, the survivors may have numbered about 200. The effect of the society was devastating. Nobility was nearly extinct, the church was the only one to keep some sort of civil order.
In this situation, the vicar moved from Søndeled, where the medieval vicarage was (and the medieval church still is), to Gjerstad, then an estate under the Crown ruling the medieval domain (syssel) of Vissedal.

During the 600 years that Gjerstad has been a vicarage, the buildings have most likely been situated in the same order around the yard as they are now. The main building was raised in 1895. It stands on the site where a succession of main buildings has been standing for more than 400 years. The house in which the Abel family lived from 1784 to 1820 was also situated here.
 What is today a garage was originally a granary, and the house to the left of the yard is presently the tenant's house. This is a fine piece of vernacular architecture. It has served a number of purposes since its erection around 1750, its original intent being servant's quarters and Almuestue - quarters for the public. The present barn was built in 1903; earlier barns and stables were located closer to the main house.
The garden is probably the oldest one in the parish. Generations of vicar's families have all put their marks on it.
The old public road crossed the yard, it went down to the lake and up the alley past the old church. No one could pass Gjerstad unnoticed.

4. The family of Niels Henrik Abel, the great mathematician, lived at Gjerstad vicarage from 1784 to 1820

In 1784 Hans Mathias Abel, Niels Henrik Abel’s grandfather, was appointed vicar of Gjerstad parish. His wife Elisabeth Knuth Abel and his son Søren Georg Abel accompanied him.

At the time, ecclesiastic training in the kingdom of Denmark and Norway had to be done at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. So, shortly after arriving in Gjerstad, Søren Georg Abel was sent to Denmark to be trained for priesthood. In 1794 he returned to Gjerstad to serve as curate under his father.

In 1800 Søren Georg Abel married Anne Marie Simonsen, the daughter of a wealthy Risør merchant. He had recently been appointed vicar of Finnøy, just north of Stavanger. The young couple served Finnøy parish for three years and had their first two children Hans and Niels Henrik there.

Hans Mathias Abel died in 1803. His son Søren Georg was appointed his successor, and returned to Gjerstad vicarage with his family. In the years to follow the Abel family raised four more children, three sons and a daughter.

In 1815 Søren Georg Abel was elected a member of the Norwegian Parliament in Christiania (Oslo). Niels Henrik, now aged 13, accompanied his father to Christiania to start his education. He remained in Christiania from then on, until he died when visiting Froland Ironworks on 6 April 1829. He was buried in Froland churchyard. Niels Henrik Abel was 27 years old and already established as one of the greatest among all mathematicians.

5. A view towards Gjerstad, the vicarage
In the 1840s and 50s Gjerstad saw many changes. New and improved roads were built, the old church was replaced by a new one, and the churchyard was extended. The stone wall below the churchyard and the alley between the churchyard and the vicarage are reminders of that period.
Using stone for building purposes had little tradition in Norway at the time. The stone wall in the churchyard introduced a period of stone building in the parish which lasted until about 1930, when concrete took over as a material for heavier constructions.

The alley was planted for two purposes. It was meant to decorate the road between the vicarage and the church, and at the same time provide fodder for the animals of the vicarage. The road itself is an ancient public road leading to the neighbouring parishes of Nissedal and Tørdal.
In 1865 the land, the fields and the animals of the farms were registered. The fields of Gjerstad vicarage covered more than 50 acres, and there were 3 horses, 26 cows and 60 sheep on the farm. This made the vicarage one of the largest farms of the parish. Combined with its central geographical position, the size underlined its medieval status as a Crown estate ruling the domain of Vissedal.

The fields of Gjerstad vicarage are old. About 25 years ago a small stone axe was found in the field along the alley near the tenant's house. Such axes have been found in several old fields in the area, and they are relics of the earliest period of agriculture. This axe may be evidence of farming long before Gjerstad was given its name in the 9th century.

6. Kamperhaug

The ridge between the churchyard and the school is now called idrettsplassen - the sports field. Its ancient name was Kamperhaug, which implies that this was a place for public gatherings in the Middle Ages. The word "kamp" indicates a circle of stones, giving the place a judicial and religious status.

Kamperhaug was a major pre-Christian cemetery with mounds and stone monuments.  The vicar Lars Larsen Eskildsen (1750-1783) needed more land, so he flattened the mounds and broke down the monuments to make a field for potatoes, which was then a new crop.

Pre-Christian burials still remain under the field at the end of the present graveyard.

7. Gjerstad Church

From the medieval population slump of around 200 survivors fifty years after the Black Death, the number of people in Gjerstad parish grew slowly to 1000 by the year 1760.  The census of 1801 counted 1306 persons, which in 1860 had multiplied to around 2600.

By law, population growth made the building of a new church necessary. In 1737 the medieval timber church of around 60-70 square metres was demolished, and replaced by a new church measuring about 350 square meters. Both churches were standing inside the churchyard.
The present church needed to be based on sturdier ground than the older churches. After a lengthy discussion, the foundations of the present church were laid in 1842, and in 1848 the church was consecrated.
Its architect was stadskonduktør Christian Henrik Grosch, an eminent architect who designed several churches and some of the most prominent buildings of 19th century Oslo, the old university buildings being among them.
Gjerstad church is modelled from the gothic cathedrals of Europe, and is regarded as the architect’s main ecclesiastical work.
After the consecration in 1848, it took several years to finish the building. Mr Grosch designed a simple altar with no decorations, and the church had no organ until 1870. In 1907 a gothic styled altar replaced the previous wooden cross, and a new organ was installed.
The original church had no heating, and winter services lasting up to two hours were an ordeal. In 1879 stoves were installed, presently it is heated by electricity.


The 1930s saw several changes in the interior. Four columns between the choir and the nave were removed, the ceiling lowered and the walls covered with wallboard. It made the church a lot more comfortable. The gothic altar was replaced by the present altar in 1942; it was made by the artist Arthur Gundersen. For the jubilee in 1948, the church was redecorated and given its present interior.
In 2004 the church was restored back to the original design of Mr. Grosch.

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