Regular readers will be familiar with my fascination with Medieval manuscripts. I recently came across on Vintage News a detail I wasn’t aware of: that Medieval knights were often pictured fighting giant snails.
Scrolls and manuscripts dating back to the 13th and 14th century often contain marginalia–broad margins and blank space that was filled with different notes and drawings (you can read more about them in my previous post, (Medieval-style Doodles, marginalia, and manicules). Funnily enough, gothic manuscripts abound with depictions of an epic snail versus knight standoff.
Sometimes the knight is mounted, sometimes not. Sometimes the snail is monstrous, sometimes tiny. Sometimes the snail is all the way across the page, sometimes right under the knight’s foot. Usually, the knight is drawn so that he looks worried, stunned, or shocked by his tiny foe.
So, Why Were Medieval Knights Pictured Fighting Giant Snails?
So, what was the deal here? Historians have been unable to come to a unified answer.
The first serious contemporary study of this odd phenomenon was written in the 1960s by Lillian Randall. In her book The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare, she presented one hypothesis to explain the reasoning behind these drawings: perhaps the joke is that snails, what with the shells they carry on their backs and can hide away in, are some sort of parody of a highly-armored chivalric foe. We’re supposed to laugh at the idea of a knight being afraid of attacking such a ‘heavily armored’ opponent. Silly knight, it’s just a snail!
Lillian Randall proposed a further explanation that could account for the fact that snails so often antagonized the knights. She proposed that the snail was a symbol of the Lombards, a group vilified in the early middle ages for treasonous behavior, the sin of usury, and ‘non-chivalrous comportment in general.’ However, she could not explain why the knight was always supposed to lose the battle.
However, not everyone would agree. As early as 1850, Comte de Bastard presented his idea that the depictions could serve as a metaphor of Resurrection. The reason behind this interpretation was that in two manuscripts the drawing was in the vicinity of the miniature depicting the raising of Lazarus.
A further explanation put forward by some scholars sees the pictures as a representation of class struggles. It could be that the snail represents the poor classes while the knight stands for aristocracy. The hopeful creators found a way to grant the victory to the poor, even when it is only on the piece of paper.
Furthermore, snails could be the embodiment of social climbers, slowly but surely winning their place among the higher ranks in society. Or they could be a metaphor for women. Lastly, maybe they are just a straightforward representation of snails as annoying garden pests that are hard to get rid of.
Enter the Internet
Where historians have failed, the Internet has stepped in with some explanations ranging from the fanciful to the hilarious. Here is a selection of my favorite ones from the Vintage News’ Facebook page:
- The snails represent time. The passage of inevitability is the foe every individual, no matter how strong, faces.
- The snail’s shell is one of the creatures which exhibit the phenomenon of Phi, thus representing nature and God. Those rebelling against them are doomed to fail.
- Earth was invaded by giant alien snails, and those pictures are the only surviving record of it.
- Snails represent sloth, one of the 7 deadly sins.
- No meaning at all. Just middle age doodling.
- It’s allegorical: the knights fought boredom daily: no Internet, no TV, it was the old, olden times.
- Because snails are even deadlier than killer rabbits.
- It’s evidence of the ancient and deep-rooted war against the Old Ones. How does one draw that which defies description? With the closest real-world comparisons. Slugs, snails, snakes, dragons, Kraken, animal-headed men, etc.
- And my favorite: the knights were slugging it out!
So, what’s your favorite explanation? Or, even better: do you have one of your own to offer?
That is interesting that there’s no record of what the snails signify. The “treasonous Lombards” seems plausible. Here in the Dragonwood, the snails are the guardians of the gnome tree, but we don’t have knights, so it’s probably not that. Fun post, Nicholas. 🙂
Thank you, D! But why did the Lombards win?
Fab post Nicholas! As you can probably imagine, I love medieval manuscripts too, and I’m looking forward to meeting some during my work as a medieval historian when I’ve finished my studies. This snail thing is bizarre though, I agree, and I love some of the theories. It just goes to show how different historians (and internet users!) can come up with interpretations ranging from the thought-provoking to the ridiculous. I love ‘slugging it out’. Very good. Who knows, the English manuscripts could have used snails to represent the French, as we were always fighting them and snails is a famous French dish! I’m sure it’ll prove a fascinating subject for study for years to come, but thank you for a funny and interesting post to entertain us in the meantime.
Thanks! I’m so glad you enjoyed it as much as I did. I wonder if all of those manuscripts are English; I suspect not. And now I wonder if the Germans also had it in for the French!
Snails represent the unknown and only half seen? They can retract from understanding, and take refuge leaving only a trail? Rather like knowledge?
I’ll add it to the list. Certainly makes more sense than some of the other suggestions!
Snails are deadlier than you think: https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/fasciola/biology.html
Ha, there you have it. A most rational explanation!
If they were French Knights, then they were undoubtedly hunting them for food! 🙂
Best wishes, Pete.
Lol–I’ll have to add that to the list of possible explanations 😀
Because snails are even deadlier than killer rabbits. Lol, if only snails and rabbits were their only foes!
Lol–don’t underestimate those dastardly wabbits!