Gargoyle Etymology & History

Gargoyle Etymology & History

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"Gargoyle", the dictionary definition: a spout usually in the form of a grotesquely carved face or figure, projecting from a roof gutter. From the Old French "gargouille" and the Late Latin "gurgulio", both meaning throat. (from Chambers Concise dictionary)

"Gargoyles (in the strict sense) are carvings on the outside of buildings designed to direct water from the roof away from the base of the walls… …Some gargoyles are undecorated but many are zoomorphic or anthropomorphic – often very imaginative and/or grotesque. This has led to the term ‘gargoyle’ being applied more widely to any grotesque carving in medieval buildings." (from Bob Trubshaw, posting in BritArch archives, 23Feb1999)

Over the last few years, gargoyles have become cartoon characters, a cult "animal" in Neo-Gothic circles, particularly popular in internet fantasy literature where they appear more naughty than truly evil, and even as a way of defining ones Gothic self ("I’m a gargoyle". "Oh really, I’m a vampire, but we could still go out together"). None of these have much to do with plumbing, but the meaning of words do change over the years, and "gargoyle" now seems to mean to many people to be any ugly or grotesque creature particularly if it lives on buildings or rocks.


Possible Origins and Reasons for gargoyles

When asking "why are there gargoyles and what are they for", in my experience most people seem to mean the Medieval ones. So, this is what a distingushed Frenchman Emile Male and most critics after him said:

No symbolism can explain the monstrous fauna of the cathedrals…
If ever works are exempt of meaning surely these are…
All attempts at explanation must be foredoomed to failure.

E. Male, _L’art religieux du XIIIe siecle en France_ 8e edition p. 121, 124

So, studiously ignoring those words of wisdom, here are some possible explanations I’ve come across:

  • rainwater plumbing (this is certain but does not explain why so many are carved creatures, nor the various forms)
  • warding off evil – a "kiss my ass" keep away deterrent to demons
  • warding off evil – a "don’t bother, we’re here already doing demonic stuff" deterrent to demons
  • a reminder to parishioners of the perils of evil – bad guys are marginalised to the outside of the church (but why so high up and hard to see?)
  • as pagan symbols to encourage believers in pre-Christian ways to come to church (make them feel welcomed or at home, as it were)
  • decoration (but why so ugly? why so hard to see)
  • a juxtaposition or balance of ugliness against the beauty inside the building (a very medieval concept which we find hard to understand these days)
  • insurance policy against building collapse, related to warding off evil (this one’s obscure and I think it says more out modern interpretation of the medieval mind than architectural principles)

For some of the more interesting ones (mooning or nose picking or caricatures), they may possibly be:

  • symbolic object lessons on the perils of unconventionality
  • carved out of mischief
  • as retribution for not paying the stone carver
  • fun (who knows what the medieval sense of humour was? 
  • caricatures of people maybe local clergy, which may be mischief or fun or possibly honour.



Architectural History

Gargoyles in the strict plumbing sense of the word (see Etymology) have been around since the time of the Ancient Greeks or before. They became very popular on architecture in Medieval times, with a resurgence in the Victorian era, and to some extent more recently. Other periods have none or few carved ones. Saxon churches (a little before Medieval times) that I’ve seen usually have troughs but whether these are original or later additions is hard to say. Large buildings of the Elizabethan period (a little after Medieval times) did use channels or troughs but I’ve never seen or heard of carved ones.

Their first usage in the last thousand years or more seems to have been in the early 1200’s as channels or tubes to shed rainwater from buildings, to keep the rainwater off the buildings themselves and away from the foundations. Strong evidence for this purely plumbing interpretation is that initially most were made of wood, some made of the more expensive stone, and were generally undecorated.

As time progressed, more stone ones appeared as did lining some with lead and decoration in the form of carvings of people or animals or grotesque representations of these (grotesque in the sense of being extravagantly formed, bizarre, ludicrous, absurd, fantastic and also in the sense of being ugly and frightening). Often these carvings are so imaginative as to bear little or no resemblance to any conventional creature and are the products of fertile imaginations and skilled hands.

They are common on the more expensive buildings from medieval times, particularly cathedrals and churches, and particularly France, and particularly the Gothic style. A few plain ones survive on non-religious buildings like the odd castle but rarely compared with relligious buildings. Presumably, as today, the average wage did not run as far as paying for ornate stone guttering for your own humble dwelling.

It seems that this increasingly ornate carving extended to non-functional architectural features resembling them, so that "gargoyles" appear on the sides of towers and walls, and to stretch the term even further, inside the buildings (though these are more correctly called "grotesques" and "chimeras", of which gargoyles are only one kind).


Religious History

During the 1200’s when gargoyles first appeared (and at many other times), the Roman Catholic Church was actively involved in converting people of other faiths to the Catholic, often very keenly indeed (as the Christian but non-Catholic Cathars could testify). The argument for decorated gargoyles runs as follows. Since literacy was generally not an option for most people, images were very important. Since the religious images (if any) that non-Christians were accustomed to were of animals or mixtures of animals and humans (e.g. the horned god, the Green Man), then putting similar images on churches and cathedrals would encourage non-Catholics to join the religion and go to church, or at least make them feel more comfortable about it, or at least ease the transition.

This argument has reasonable grounds if you think about some of the other accommodations the Christian (not just Catholic) church has made, such as fixing the birth of Christ at around the winter solstice to fit in with existing pagan celebrations. Even the Romans made similar adaptations, e.g. in Britain the Celtic goddess Suli worshipped at modern day Bath bore a remarkable resemblance to the Roman goddess Minerva. Rather than replace Suli and upset the locals, both were incorporated into and revered in the Roman baths there. It’s amazing how flexible an established church can be if it needs to be – pagan images? no problem if it puts bums on seats.



Mythical and Spiritual Connections


Religion and superstition (not entirely incompatible) were both very important indeed to people of medieval times, much more so than to most "westerners" today. People looked to God or gods and other supernatural beings for answers to fundamental questions and for help and especially protection.

Suppositions & Logical steps:

What could be better protection for your place of worship than to put images of supernatural beings on it, although ones on your side naturally. Images of God or the Holy Spirit, perhaps, but these were frowned upon and anyway who knew what God really looked like?. Images of Christ might be better, but then Christ was also a man and he was already inside the house of God. Images of the old gods might work, but of course that would be heresy. It’s a small logical step to the use of gargoyles as protectors and the myths about their abilities.

The Gargoyle Myth and how gargoyles drive off evil:

I’ve put comments in brackets().

  • They can stand guard and ward off unwanted spirits and other creatures.
  • If they’re hideous and frightening they can scare off all sorts of things.
  • They come alive at night when everyone’s asleep (and you can’t see them to prove that they don’t) so they can protect you when you’re vulnerable.
  • Better still, the ones with wings can fly round the whole area and cover the village or town as well as the church. (And if someone does see something, who’s to say whether it was just a bat or one of the gargoyles on the wing?)
  • They return to their places when the sun comes up (and no-one can prove that they weren’t out and about, and no-one respectable who rises and sets with the sun is going to be mistaken by them for an enemy and be dealt with).

    If you want to see an example of the kind of gargoyle that fits the myth, look at the ones on Woburn church.

    A comment on the tame ones:

    This doesn’t really explain the rather tame looking ones. These could possibly be explained by the architectural trend towards more ornamentation and decoration. I think many of the slightly grotesque ones can be explained by the myth if you note that some concepts were simpler for most people in medieval times, for example, pulling your lips wide apart in a grimace using your hands and trying to look scary ("gurning") was a terrific joke. Presumably it was also more scary than now, given that any kind of deformity could be worryingly reminiscent of deformity from incurable diseases or unexplained acts of God or devil, both things to be feared. Some of them have just got to be jokes though.

    Other possibilities – a warning to the populace::

    An appealing idea for explaining medieval gargoyles, is as a reminder or warning to the populace of the evil all around outside and the safe sanctuary inside the church. Evil takes many forms, from women carrying the devil on their backs (very symbolic, very unenlightened and non-PC) to bug eyed human faces twisted into monstrocities, to demons, dangerous beasts, hideous human horrors, and hairy men who have descended terribly into the brutal and frightening level of the beast. Better the beauty and serenity inside, come on in and forget the trials of the world outside for a while and pray for your soul and your salvation from the horrors shown outside.

    Of course it could be as much a case of the gargoyles saying (metaphorically) "Hey you Jimmy! Yes you! Who do you think I mean? Watch yer step, laddie, we’ve got our eye on you. One step out of line and you’ve had it, you’re meat, with our teeth in it.""

    Other possibilities – insurance policy against building collapse:

    This bizarre proposed explanation is really protection against evil. Here’s a snippet from the soc.history.medieval newsgroup postings from 1997, quoting a book "Structures (or why things don’t fall down)", Author: J.E.Gordon.

    My copy is an old pelican edition in paperback published in 1978 & has no ISBN on what’s left of it. I thorougly recommend this book as a minimal maths exploration of architecture which is full of fascinating anecdotes.
    As for the gargoyles, apparently the builders believed that they scared away the demons who would otherwide push the walls down. If they built one without gargoyles it fell over. There you are! It actually is all to do with how the forces act within the structure, & keeping the direction of the thrust within the wall by loading the top.


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