Why are there Gargoyles on French Gothic Churches you might ask. Well, it seems that there’s one explanation you may need to take with a pinch of salt.
This story takes place in the seventh century. It’s been retold many times over the last 1400 years resulting in several adaptations. It all started in Normandy, where the Seine River snakes through a town now known as Rouen…
How Gargoyles came to be
It is said that a fearsome monster took up residence in the marshes along the banks of the river. While he looked like your normal, garden-variety serpent/dragon, he was a bit different. Instead of breathing fire out his mouth like most dragons, he belched out floods of water.
He caused havoc along the river, sinking ships and eating the passengers. He flooded fields and ate all the unfortunate people and animals that crossed his path. The city leaders brokered a deal with the monster to keep those within the city walls safe. The monster, who was called La Gargouille, demanded one human from the town each year. This supplemented his diet of cattle, sheep, sailors, and those who dared to cross his territory. He put in a request for tender young virgins as his annual treat, but the town folk just couldn’t bring themselves to do that. They decided to give him prisoners who had been condemned to death. It didn’t really change the prisoners’ fate, and the monster gobbled them up without even noticing.
The French dragon who became an architectural masterpiece
The people of Rouen were gripped by fear and afraid to venture outside the city walls. A young priest arrived called Father Romain; he was full of enthusiasm and faith, and felt sure he could deliver the town from its tormentor.
When the day came to feed the dragon his annual human sacrifice, brave Father Romain headed toward the marsh where La Gargouille lived. With him was a nervous prisoner who would be used as bait to lure out the monster. If all went well and the monster dealt with, the prisoner was to be pardoned.
As the faithful priest and the fearful prisoner approached La Gargouille’s lair, the dragon lumbered out to meet them. He was big and ugly with thick grey-green skin. He had wings like a bat, a long serpent-like body, and two webbed feet. His neck was long and scaly and his eyes glowed like luminescent moonstones. The men could smell his foul breath. Just as he was ready to lunge for the prisoner, Father Romain pulled out his secret weapon – a large solid gold cross that he had been holding behind his back. The light of the sun hit the cross and reflected into the monster’s eyes, he was immediately subdued and knelt down at the priest’s feet. The three unlikely companions marched into the city, the priest leading the dragon on a leash made from the priest’s scarf.
When they arrived, the people were amazed tied up La Gargouille, who offered no resistance. Romain pronounced him guilty of his many crimes. As punishment, he was to be burned at the stake in front of the church. But when the fire burned out, La Gargouille’s head and neck remained – they weren’t even scorched. The ashes from the monster’s body were thrown into the river, and his head and neck were mounted on the new church as a reminder of the power of God.
When it rained, water once again poured out the dragon’s mouth. An architect got the idea that this would be the perfect way to keep rainwater from running down the sides of the church and damaging the masonry. He carved similar dragon heads of stone and placed them all around the church. They were called gargoyles after La Gargouille, the river monster conquered by Father Romain. The gargoyle gutter system spread all over France and around the world.
And the prisoner who was almost the gargoyle’s dinner? He started a tradition too. Just as the priest promised, he was pardoned for his crime. To honor and remember the condemned prisoner who helped save the town, Rouen applied to the king for permission to free one condemned prisoner per year. It was granted and called the Privilege of Saint Romain and the process stayed in place until the French Revolution.
The plucky priest who dared to face La Gargouille later became Saint Romain (St Romanus). He is recognized in paintings and sculptures by his ever-present gargoyle on a leash.
While Saint Romain is a lesser-known saint and the pardoned prisoner is completely anonymous, everyone has heard of a gargoyle. So it seems that La Gargouille had the last laugh after all – especially when it’s raining and he gets to spit water down on the people below.
And by the way, technically, a gargoyle is the part of a gutter, normally in the form of a beast or sometimes of a man, that directs water away from the building. A similar carving that does not carry water is called a grotesque.
Margo Lestz blogs at curiousrambler.com and is the author of Curious Histories of Nice, France and French Holidays and Traditions and Curious Histories of Provence – available from: curiousrambler.com/margos-books