On my recent trip through northern France, I was intrigued by all the gargoyles on the gothic churches and wondered why they were there. Then I came across this story which seems like a pretty reasonable explanation.
A saint, a convict, and a gargoyle go into a swamp…
This story takes place in the seventh century. It has been retold many times over the last 1400 years resulting in several adaptations. This is my version.
It all started in misty and mysterious ancient times. In Normandy, where the Seine River snakes through the land, a town, now known as Rouen, was having a crisis.
Trouble in the swamp
A fearsome monster had taken 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 of his mouth like most dragons, he belched out floods of water.
He was causing havoc along the river. He was sinking ships and eating the passengers, flooding fields and eating the people and animals that he drowned. Basically, he was eating anyone and anything that crossed his path.
Let’s make a deal
The city leaders had 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 had 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 just gobbled them right up without even noticing.
A new priest comes to town
The people of Rouen were gripped by fear and afraid to venture outside the city walls. Then, young Father Romain, the town’s new priest arrived. He was full of enthusiasm and faith, and felt sure he could deliver the town from their tormentor.
When the day came to feed the dragon his annual human sacrifice, brave Father Romain and a nervous prisoner headed towards the marsh where La Gargouille lived. The prisoner would be used as bait to lure out the monster, and if all went well and the priest captured him, the prisoner was promised a pardon.
Taming the beast
As the faithful priest and the fearful prisoner approached La Gargouille’s lair, the dragon lumbered out to meet them, licking his lips and thinking that he was getting two meals this year. 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. As he approached, the men could smell his foul breath and 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.
As the light hit the cross and reflected into the monster’s eyes, he was immediately subdued and knelt down at the priest’s feet. The convict, who was holding the holy man’s long scarf, gingerly tied it around the animal’s neck. Then the three unlikely companions started the march back into the city: the priest leading the dragon on a leash and a happy, but still nervous, criminal.
When they arrived at the city wall, people were amazed and terrified that the priest had brought the monster into their midst. But Father Romain assured them they were safe. They tied up La Gargouille, who offered no resistance, and Romain pronounced him guilty of his many crimes. As punishment, he was to be burned at the stake.
All was prepared and the dragon was set alight in front of the church. But when the fire had 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, and some 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 out 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 then all over the world. This is how La Gargouille, who had threatened to destroy the town of Rouen by water, came to protect church buildings all over France.
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 honour 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.
Every year, thirty-six days after Easter Sunday, just before the day of Ascension, the church leaders would get together, start to interview prisoners, and listen to testimony before choosing the convict to be pardoned. On Ascension morning, they would vote, then go to collect the lucky prisoner. There would be a procession through the town in which the pardoned criminal carried the relics of Saint Romain. He would apologise for his crime, promise to never do it again, and be given official papers confirming his pardon. This pardoning tradition was abolished during the French Revolution.
The plucky priest who dared to face La Gargouille later became Saint Romain. He is recognised 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 has the last laugh after all – especially when it’s raining and he gets to spit water down on the people below.
Note: 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.
More from Margo: www.curiousrambler.com