What Is a Parapet? What Is a Battlement?

01
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The Parapet

Parapets on the Burgher House, 1797, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Parapets on the Burgher House, 1797, Stellenbosch, South Africa. Photo by Paul Thompson/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

A parapet is a low wall projecting from the edge of a platform, terrace, or roof. Parapets may rise above the cornice of a building or form the upper portion of a defensive wall on a castle. Parapets have a long architectural history and go by different names—some are pictured here.

General Definitions of Parapet:

The extension of a masonry wall above the roof line.—John Milnes Baker, AIA

A low wall, sometimes battlemented, placed to protect any spot where there is a sudden drop, for example, at the edge of a bridge, quay, or house-top.—Penguin Dictionary

Examples of Parapets:

In the US, Mission style homes have rounded parapets used as decorative features. Parapets are a common characteristic of this style architecture. Here are some specific buildings with different types of parapets:

  • The Alamo—In 1849 the US Army added a parapet to the 1718 Alamo Mission in San Antonio, Texas in order to hide the crumbling roof. This parapet may be the most famous in America.
  • Casa Calvet—Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí has elaborate sculptural parapets on his ornate buildings (view photo from Flickr Member "Cebete").
  • Alhambra Palace—The parapet along the roof of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain was used as a defensive battlement in the 16th century.
  • Old-New Synagogue—A series of stepped parapets decorates the gable of this medieval synagogue in Prague.
  • Lyndhurst—Parapets can also be seen on the roof of the grand Gothic Revival home in Tarrytown, New York.
  • Architectural Details in Celebration, Florida—Parapets have become a historic and cultural part of American architecture. When the Disney company developed a planned community near Orlando, the architects playfully displayed some of the architectural traditions of America—sometimes with amusing results.

Where Does the Word Parapet Come From?

A parapet is sometimes called a parapetto (Italian), parapeto (Spanish), breastwork, or brustwehr (German). All of these words have similar meanings—to guard or defend (parare) the chest or breast (petto from the Latin pectus—think of the pectoral region of your body when you're at the gym).

Other German words include brückengeländer and brüstung, because "brust" means "chest."

The original design and use of the parapet was as a battlement in a fortified structure.

Sources: American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 175; "Parapet," The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture, Third Edition, by John Fleming, Hugh Honour, and Nikolaus Pevsner, Penguin, 1980, p. 237

02
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The Battlement or Crenellation

The 15th century Topkapi Palace crenelations, walls overlooking Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul, Turkey
Built in the 15th century, the Topkapi Palace's crenellated parapet can be seen from the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Florian Kopp/Getty Images

On a castle, fort, or other military fortification, a battlement is the top part of the wall that looks like teeth and it's where soldiers were protected during "battle" upon the castle. Also called crenellation, a battlement is really a parapet with open spaces for the castle-protectors to shoot cannons or other weaponry.

The word crenellation means something with squared notches, or crenels. If something is "crenelled," it has notches, from the Latin word crena meaning "notch." If a wall is "crenelated," it's bound to be a battlement with notches.

A battlement parapet is also known as a castellation or embattlement.

Parts of a Battlement:

  • merlon: The raised portions of a battlement.
  • embrasure or crenels: The openings or notches

Masonry buildings in the Gothic Revival style may have architectural decoration which resembles battlements.

House moldings that resemble the battlement pattern are often called crenelated molding or embattled molding (view illustration).

General Definition of Battlement or Embattlement:

1. A fortified parapet with alternate solid parts and openings, termed respectively "merlons" and "embrasures" or "crenels" (hence crenelation). Generally for defense, but employed also as a decorative motif. 2. A roof or platform serving as battle post.—Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw- Hill, 1975, p. 45

03
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The Corbiestep

Huggins' Folly c. 1800, now Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire
Huggins' Folly c. 1800, now Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire. Photo by Huntstock / Photolibrary / Getty Images (cropped)

A corbiestep is a stepped parapet along the gable part of a roof—a common architectural detail throughout the US. A gable with this type of parapet is often called a step gable. In Scotland, a "corbie" is a large bird, like a crow. The parapet is known by at least three other names:

  • corbiestep
  • crowstep
  • catstep

Definitions of Corbiestep:

The stepped edge of a gable masking a pitched roof, found in northern European masonry, 14th to 17th cent., and in derivatives.—Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw- Hill, 1975, p. 129

Steps on the coping of a gable, used in Flanders, Holland, North Germany and East Anglia and also in C16 and C17 [16th and 17th centuries] Scotland.—"Corbie Steps (or Crow Steps)," The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture, Third Edition, by John Fleming, Hugh Honour, and Nikolaus Pevsner, Penguin, 1980, pp. 81-82

04
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1884 Town Offices Building

A Crow-Stepped Gable Parapet on the Facade of the 1884 Town Offices in Stockbridge, Massachusetts
A Crow-Stepped Gable Parapet on the Facade of the 1884 Town Offices in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Photo © Jackie Craven

Corbiesteps can make a simple masonry home look more stately or a public building appear larger and more regal. Compared with the side-step-gable of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire, the architecture of this public building in Stockbridge, Massachusetts has an enhanced facade with front-gable corbiesteps.

 

 

05
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Behind the Corbiestep Facade

Behind the Corbiestep Gable of the 1884 Town Offices in Stockbridge, Massachusetts
Behind the Corbiestep Gable of the 1884 Town Offices in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Phtoo © Jackie Craven

A parapet can make any building appear larger than it actually is to today's eye. This was not the original intent of the architectural detail, however. For a 12th century castle, the wall was protection to stand behind.

 

06
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12th century Castle Landau

View from Fortification of the 12th century Castle Landau in Klingenmuenster, Germany
View from Fortification of the 12th century Castle Landau in Klingenmuenster, Germany. Photo by EyesWideOpen / Getty Images News / Getty Images

This popular castle in Klingenmuenster, Germany allows tourists to experience a view from the battlement.

07
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Bab al-Wastani, c. 1221

Bab al Wastani c. 1221, Baghdad, Iraq
Bab al Wastani c. 1221, Baghdad, Iraq. Photo by Vivienne Sharp Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Parapets and battlements are found around the world, in any area that has experienced power struggles for land and authority. The ancient city of Baghdad in Iraq was developed as a circular, fortified city. Invasions during the middle ages were deflected by large walls like the one seen here.

08
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Fortified Houses

Old Fortified House in Italy
Old Fortified House in Italy. Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures Ltd. / Corbis News / Getty Images

Today's decorative parapets derive from the very functional battlements of walled cities, castles, and fortified country homes 1and plantation estates.