Castle Corner: How were impressive medieval structures built?

Treadwheel cranes, kerb lifter, scaffolding, and various tools depicted in the scene of the building

Treadwheel cranes, kerb lifter, scaffolding, and various tools depicted in the scene of the building of the Tower of Babel (Rudolf von Ems, Weltchronik, Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Cod. Rh. 15, fol. 6v). - Credit: Archant

Those gazing up at Norwich’s imposing Norman castle keep can only imagine how such a dramatic statement of power might have been created back in the early 12th century.

Soon, however, if they step inside, they will be able to discover for themselves, explains Dr Agata Gomolka, Project Assistant Curator, Norwich Castle: Royal Palace Reborn.

When the renovation of the keep is complete, the new British Museum medieval gallery will feature a ‘Those who Work’ section, displaying objects that demonstrate the craftsmanship, ingenuity, and imagination of the time.

Picture: Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Picture: Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery - Credit: Archant

Q: Why is the construction of Norwich Castle so fascinating?

It invites so many questions, including: “Who were the people who built the castle and how did they do it?” It is fascinating to think about what incredibly sophisticated, large structures were built at a time with no reinforced steel or power tools. Learning about the building methods helps us realise the levels of technical and practical knowledge of medieval builders, and their ingenuity and resourcefulness. It reminds us there was more to the period than fighting and praying. Rather than being an age of ignorance and superstition, it was one of learning, creativity and technological advancement. Technologies of today draw directly on solutions formulated more than a millennium ago.

Q: What makes it relevant today?

The great tower crane over the keep has become a major addition to the Norwich skyline. It is fascinating to compare it with images of cranes possibly used by the original builders. I would love to organise a conversation between our own architects and builders with those of the 12th century. I suspect they would have a lot to learn from each other: an exchange of ideas and views between equals!

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Q: Who were the great minds behind medieval building projects?

The identities of the original architects and engineers remain almost lost to us. What we can say is that castle-building was a valued and valuable skill in the early 1100s. These were towers built to impress! This great stone keep was a statement of power and control, an expression of the king’s might and majesty. The king would want the best architects and the best engineers. And this king, Henry I, had money to spend! He would have recruited only the best builders – perhaps including masons from Norwich.

Q: How was heavy material lifted?

Medieval manuscripts and sculpture depict tools such as axes, saws, and chisels, and structures including scaffolding, ladders and lifting cranes. The heaviest loads were lifted by a treadmill crane, powered by people walking inside a giant wheel (like a hamster wheel). Lighter stones and loads were hoisted up by a crank-powered windlass crane. Hooks or ropes were used to attach the loads, but for stones, there were other useful types of fastening. One, possibly used for the Caen limestone of Norwich Castle, was a kerb lifter. It used gravity as a powering force: the weight of the load secured the grip so its arms would not open until the load was set down. Simple and effective – and still used today!

Q: What will visitors to the new gallery be able to see?

There will be so much to enjoy, including a fully-reconstructed well mechanism with a crank-powered windlass and a fascinating iron hook from the late middle ages. This was probably designed as a kitchen or workshop utensil and once worked very much like a kerb lifter. While it would have been probably used in a household, its mechanism is similar to tools that would have been used by builders.

Q: How can we learn more?

Look out for updates on the building works on our website and social media. Images and films will allow everyone to peek behind the scenes. When the keep finally opens its doors, visitors will be able to explore its structure and spaces and learn how it was constructed. They will also be able to see the medieval gallery with over 1,000 objects, with displays of the ‘Those who Work’ section ranging from jugs and pencils, through coins and purses, to painter’s palettes and toys – something to appeal to everyone!

Castle Corner: related articles in our 6-part series:

Who was the greatest Knight?

Top 5 famous medieval fighters

Following the recent government announcement, Norwich Castle and our other museum sites have closed and will remain closed until further notice. However, construction work on the Royal Palace Reborn project can continue during lockdown, in line with government guidance.

Keep in touch with the project via our social media feeds and explore fascinating stories on Norwich Castle’s YouTube channel.

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