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Sunday 17 March 2024

Medieval Monsters


A few years ago I discovered (by reading about it in a book, I'm sorry to say, rather than actually noticing it with my own eyes) that several of the village churches around where I live have strange demonic or cryptozoological-looking creatures crawling over their upper reaches. Colloquially you could refer to these as "gargoyles", although strictly speaking that word only refers to fancifully decorated waterspouts. The proper term for the non-functional ornaments I'm referring to is "grotesques" (which can be used as a noun as well as an adjective).

The main purpose of this post is to show off some of the photographs I took after my attention was drawn to these bizarre medieval carvings (a good excuse to give my 75 - 300 mm zoom lens an airing). Before that, however, it's interesting to speculate as to their purpose, since no one seems to know just why they were produced in the first place. Explanations I've seen include heraldic symbols relating to the local gentry, and depictions of local folklore - which here in Somerset would mostly mean dragons (as discussed in a previous post). But while some of the carved figures may well conform to one or other of those theories, they don't explain all of them - particularly the more demonic-looking ones.

By "demonic" I don't necessarily mean overtly so, in the sense of having horns and pointed ears or whatever, but just generally malevolent-looking - like the ape-headed, cloven-hoofed figure shown at the top of this post. This, and many of the other examples I've seen, are basically "chimeras" - fanciful combinations of two or more unrelated species. These were common in the mythology of ancient Greece and Egypt, but by the Middle Ages they'd become firmly associated with Hell (Dante's depiction of it, which I talked about last week, includes several chimera-like demons).

The decorations in and around medieval churches were, almost invariably, a form of communication with the congregation, who could understand imagery even if they were unable to read. So my own personal theory is that these demonic - or otherwise "ungodly" - creatures were depicted on the exterior of the church simply to emphasize that they weren't inside it. In other words, if you came into church you were safe from such monsters, but if you stayed outside you were at their mercy.

All the pictures in this post were taken on the same day in August 2019, at three different churches - Langport, Long Sutton and Huish Episcopi - the carvings on which date from circa 1450, 1490 and 1500 respectively. The ape-demon shown above, for example, is clinging to the tower of Long Sutton church - as you can see more clearly in the following wider-angle view, which also includes a vaguely pig-like face looking straight at you:

Here's another figure from Long Sutton, which reminds me a bit of a Chinese lion-dog statue:

Now two examples from Huish Episcopi. I've no idea what the first one is meant to be, partly because it's so badly weathered, but I'd say it's definitely in the demonic category. As for the much better preserved second one, it clearly depicts a chimera with a human face and four-legged body:

 Turning to Langport church, this one is absolutely covered in inter-species hybrids! Here are a couple of striking ones:

 ... and a few more:

 Langport also has a human head, but it doesn't look at all happy - possibly a soul tormented in Hell? Though it's difficult to make out from this angle, it's actually depicted wearing a crown, suggesting that maybe it's some recently deceased (and presumably unpopular) king. I mentioned last week that Dante used his description of Hell as a vehicle for political satire - perhaps that's what's going on here too! (incidentally, what looks like a bad case of chromatic aberration around the upper part of the head is actually a lead cover that's been added to protect it from the elements).


Kid said...

Regarding your idea that people would feel safe inside a church or cathedral or whatever because the 'gargoyles' were outside, wouldn't people naturally fear having to pass them in order to get inside? Especially if they felt that they were at 'their mercy' as they passed under them. Perhaps it's taking the symbolism too far?

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid - I'm sure you're right that my theory doesn't hold up to close scrutiny. But when I said "inside the church" I didn't mean literally inside the church building, I just meant embracing the Christian religion. Reading it back, I don't think I worded it as well as I might have done. I was really tryingto say that the message they wanted to get across to the populace was "this world is full of evil ideas and temptations that are out to harm and corrupt you, and the only sure way to protect yourself from their influence is to be a devout member of the Christian church". But as with most of my theories, I'm only saying that because I think it's a clever idea, not because I think there's any truth to it.

Kid said...

"These demonic... creatures were depicted on the exterior of the church simply to emphasize that they weren't inside it. In other words, if you came into church you were safe from such monsters... etc." Maybe I'm being too literal, but the words 'come into church' (not 'the church') certainly read as 'outside the building dangerous' - 'inside the building safe'. However, top marks for your ingenious explanation. I still don't buy your theory though. It'll be interesting to see what CJ thinks when he turns up.

Andrew May said...

Sorry, Kid, but I've already apologized once for my sloppy wording! I knew exactly what I wanted to say, made a complete hash of it by writing something that wasn't what I meant, and you promptly pulled me up for it. Seems a bit like deja vu, taking into account a private email exchange we had a few days ago! The problem is, when I have a thought that strikes me as clever, I get all excited and type it out very quickly without bothering to read it back to see how other people (particularly those with sharper wits than me) might interpret it. I ought to stop doing that, but I'm much too old to change my ways now.

Andrew May said...

To be honest though, your interpretation of what I wrote (in more literal terms that I originally meant it) might actually be closer to the truth. I just looked up Grotesque (architecture) in Wikipedia and it says "Many scholars describe grotesques as being used to ward off evil and as reminders of the separation of the earth and the divine", and then later on "They largely portray mythical creatures which were considered to protect the buildings they reside on from evil". That suggests they're kind of "good demons" ready to fight off bad demons from entering the church.

Kid said...

You don't need to apologise for anything, AM, but in order to generate some comments from other readers, I sometimes play devil's advocate by being a mite pedantic, as I find that other people tend to better respond to that approach. And sometimes, in my eagerness to leave a comment in support of your efforts, I take the easy route and type whatever occurs to me that even vaguely refers to your posts because I can't think of anything else to say. I wasn't really intending to 'pull' you 'up'. A couple of pals with Aspergers suspect that I suffer from it too, so, if true, that might explain why I haven't yet mastered the art of diplomacy when it comes to expressing myself.

And to be pedantic again (I just can't help myself), it isn't really deja vu (though I note you said 'it seems a bit like', which is not the same as claiming it is), as deja vu is when you experience something for the very first time, but you feel as if you experienced it before. But I wouldn't have been able to show off my 'cleverness' in knowing the difference if I'd just let it go.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid, that's interesting to know. Now you mention it, I think I may have heard that explanation before without really understanding what it meant. But I've just looked it up on Wikipedia and I see what you mean, though I can't say I've ever experienced it (as opposed to the opposite - forgetting that I've already done or said something - which happens all the time). In common, I suspect, with many other people, I've always used "deja vu" to mean literally what it says, i.e. events repeating themselves. And I probably always will - as I said further up this thread, I'm getting too old to change my ways now!

Colin Jones said...

Maybe the creatures on the churches don't have any meaning at all and are simply the result of the builders having some fun and displaying their artistic flair? Churches and cathedrals already had gargoyles as water spouts so maybe it just seemed obvious to continue the monster theme and add some more.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - that idea had also crossed my mind, and I'm sure there's at least some truth to it, especially in the more whimsical cases such as the cartoony pig face in the second of my photos above. But they can't have strayed too far from what their "customers" (i.e. the rich landowners who footed the bill for parish churches in those days) would have wanted, or they'd be out of a job! Also, hand-carving hard stone (which it has to be to have lasted so long) and lugging it a hundred feet up a ladder probably isn't something stonemasons would have done purely for the fun of it. But then again, maybe they would, as there can't have been much alternative amusement in those days.

Colin Jones said...

Andrew, maybe the rich landowners were happy as long as the church was built and they didn't mind if the builders made a few small additions. We tend to think that people in those days were very serious and pious all the time so the grotesque figures must have had some religious purpose but maybe they didn't

Andrew May said...

That's a really good point, Colin. Possibly there's an analogy with the way hospital staff retain a sense of humour about death and disease, even though they take their work very seriously. For all we know, the attitude towards religion may have been very similar in 15th century Britain.