If you’ve ever flicked through an illustrated medieval manuscript, or seen pictures of some marginalia on the internet, chances are you’ve seen pictures of snails. Sometimes the snails are fighting each other, sometimes they are fighting knights, sometimes things are riding the snails, but in one form or another, snails keep cropping up in these manuscripts. So, were the writers and illustrators of these manuscripts huge lovers of the snail, frustrated gardeners, or did the snails represent something deeper?
In short, we don’t really know. Numerous theories have been raised about what the snails could represent and why they are so prevalent, so I shall take you through some of them (and as the pictures are so oddly charming, this will be a picture heavy post!).
Knight defending himself and his wife, who holds a distaff, against a giant snail (Festal Missal, Amiens, 1323).
Knight with a club fighting against a huge snail (Smithfield Decretals, southern France, c. 1300 – c. 1340).
1) The snails represent death/the Resurrection
One of the first people to pick up on the strange addition of snails to manuscripts was Comte de Bastard in 1850. He noticed that in two manuscripts there were marginal snails very close to miniatures of the Raising of Lazarus (for those not aware, this is a Biblical story where Jesus brings Lazarus of Bethany back to life four days after his burial). This led Comte to theorise that the snails must represent the Resurrection – the two images must be linked.
Another suggestion tied to death comes from medievalist Lisa Spangenberg, who highlights another Biblical connection – Psalm 58. This is discussing the punishment of the wicked, saying “let them be like a snail which melts away as it goes, Like a stillborn child of a woman, that they may not see the sun”. This leads to the suggestion that the valorous knights are fighting the “wicked” who will eventually meet their just punishment.
A Knight losing against a giant snail (Ormesby Psalter, England, c. 1300).
A knight praying for help or begging for mercy against a snail (Gorleston Psalter, England, 1310 – 1324)
2) The snails represent the Lombards
Historian Lilian Randall has suggested that the snails represent the Lombards, a Germanic people who ruled most of the Italian Peninsula from 568 to 774 AD. By the time that the snail marginalia start to become frequent (c. 13th century), the Lombards were an unpopular group in Europe, with the view that they monopolised jobs, lent money at unreasonable rates, and were overall a treasonous, sinning, un-chivalrous bunch. Placing them in marginalia serves as some xenophobic fun, and would account for why they are frequently shown fighting chivalrous knights – a sort of ‘good ideals vs bad ideals’. However, many have questioned this theory, as explained by the British Library: this “does not explain why the knight is often depicted on the losing end of this battle, or why this particular image became so popular in the margins of non-historical texts such as Psalters or Books of Hours”.
This time the snails are being ridden by naked jousters (Lectura super Institutionibus, France, 1480 – 1481).
3) The snails are satire
Rather than showing the brave knights fighting off an evil foe such as the Lombards, there is an idea that the snails vs knights motif is a humorous satire on the knightly class and the idea of chivalry. Often in the pictures, the knights are shown as losing or cowering in terror. Snails are obviously an unworthy foe for a brave knight, and Elizabeth Moore Hunt has suggested that “the natural baseness of the animal makes it unworthy prey for splendid jousting gear and thus a humorous parody of the knight in arms”. Essentially, knights claim to be big and brave, but they only take on weak foe that they know they can beat, showing their true cowardice.
A cowering jousting knight (Li Livres dou Tresor, France, c. 1264).
A naked man begging for mercy at a snail (Gorleston Psalter, England, 1310 – 1324).
4) The snails represent social climbers / poor vs rich
There are numerous ideas that the snails vs knights are a clear commentary on social class struggles. The knights represent the higher levels of society, whereas the snails are the poor masses. They have no weapons with which to fight those above them, and they are base creatures struggling to win against those who have a better lot in life. Arguments against this idea and the idea of satire include the fact that it was exactly these upper classes who were commissioning these pieces, and would they want to be reminded of the oppressed poor, or be made fun of, in their own treasured books?
This leads to the idea that the snails represent social climbers – a significant worry to established families of old nobility. Concerns on social climbers, men who had come from nothing and were promoted by the king, are evident in most reigns of medieval monarchs. When your power comes from your proximity to the king and your ability to influence him, those viewed as social upstarts who have been promoted from nowhere were a real danger to your personal power and influence. This could be why so many of the scenes show the knight losing the battle – it was representative of the nobility’s feeling of powerless.
Lilian Randall’s survey includes several pictures where snails are climbing steps or ladders – a seemingly obvious metaphor for base social climbers.
Snails on a ladder (Hours of Saint-Omer, France, c. 1320).
5) It’s just a bit of fun
Instead of representing something deep and meaningful, the illustrations are much like modern-day comics, and are just a bit of fun. Much in the same way that we look at the pictures today with humour and intrigue, perhaps it was designed to serve the same purpose eight centuries ago. There are many weird creatures and silly pictures found in marginalia that often have nothing to do with the content of the text it was decorating, and perhaps snails were just another of a bunch. It is humorous to see a brave knight cowering in terror at a harmless snail!
A person throwing rocks at a giant snail (Smithfield Decretals, southern France, c. 1300 – 1340).
We will never know why the image of the snail was so popular or so prevalent in these medieval manuscripts. Crossing borders by featuring in French, English, and Flemish manuscripts, and found anywhere from 12th to 15th century pieces, the snails were an enduring symbol of something. It is likely its meaning changed over time and that spanning several centuries and different countries it probably represented all of these things at one time or another, and probably had other meanings to boot. One thing that is for sure is that centuries later, these pictures are still entertaining audiences across the globe.
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