Gargoyles haunt the medieval buildings of Europe, gazing down from the ledges of churches, cathedrals, houses, and town halls. These projections, carved of stone in the forms of people and animals, mark rooflines and buttresses, and enhance the pictorial quality of a building's silhouette. When the sky is clear, gargoyles merely frown from the towers. On rainy days, individuals who stand beneath the carved figures may get a little wet.
Gargoyles are waterspouts, preventing rain from running along masonry walls and eroding the mortar. The rainwater exits through the open mouth of the gargoyle and is thrown clear of the wall. However, water falling from gargoyles on the clerestory level of a church might land on the aisle roofs. When Gothic flying buttresses were used, aqueducts could be cut into the buttresses to divert the water over the aisle walls.
The concept of an ornamental extension where water flows away from a building was known ages ago. The architectural function of the gargoyle may originally have been served by wood or ceramic waterspouts, and with the introduction of stone, the possibility of carving these protrusions into attractive forms became more appealing. The Ancient Egyptians used animal-shaped stone waterspouts, as did the Greeks, who favored the lion head (pictured). .
Gargoyles date from the beginning of the twelfth century. It is not until the Gothic era (the thirteenth century and after) that they become the preferred method of drainage. Nevertheless, not all medieval waterspouts were carved as gargoyles. Ever during the times when gargoyles were extremely popular, simple troughs were used, especially in areas of a building not exposed to view.
The following tale offers an explanation, more charming than convincing, for the creation of the gargoyle: A dragon by the name La Gargouille lived in a cave near the Seine River in France. It caused much havoc to the town Rouen.