20

Someone sent me this really weird picture of a medieval illustration.

It depicted a knight fighting a snail, and was basically a viral snarky commentary about how weird medieval ideas were.

I tried to figure out what it was about, and seemed to be able to find the original source (by Google image search) to be from.

Knight v Snail III: Extreme Jousting (from Brunetto Latini's Li Livres dou Tresor, France (Picardy), c. 1315-1325, Yates Thompson MS 19, f. 65r)

enter image description here

The page listing it actually had LOTS of images of knights fighting snails, but offered no meaningful explanation of what the point of such imagery was.

So, what was the point? Was the snail a representation of armor? Some weird French food hunting thing? :)

  • 3
    Related question here – justCal Mar 16 at 23:25
  • 2
    The snails lingered on till the 16th century. Look at the decorated initial letter in the 1560 Geneva bible: there's definitely a snail near the top left and probably its "mirror image" on the top right as well, though the reproduction of the right hand one isn't too good. archive.org/details/TheGenevaBible1560/page/n5 – alephzero Mar 17 at 0:58
21

This is an example of decorative marginalia, which is quite common on medieval manuscripts. Sometimes the marginalia relates to the context of the subject of that page of the manuscript, but often it appears to have been quite random.

One fairly well-known group that I'm personally particularly fond of is the so-called animals at war which includes images like this:

animals at war

  • Breviary of Renaud and Marguerite de Bar, British Library, Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 294r

Another famous example is the nun picking penises from a phallus tree in the Roman de la Rose manuscript owned by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris (MS. Fr. 25526, f. 106v). (Available to view as a digitised document on the Bibliothèque Nationale de France's BNF Gallica website)



The Snail Combat Motif

In general, the meanings that should be attributed to the images that appear in marginalia is unclear, and you will find volumes of speculation on the subject. However, for the specific group you are interested in, the paper The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare by Lilian Randall may be helpful.


This motif emerged in Northern France in the late 13th century, and spread from there to English and Flemish marginalia. Lilian Randall's paper suggests a range of possibilities for interpreting the designs.

These interpretations range from the idea of simply fighting the snail as a pest (considering the damage that snails could do to vineyards), to linking the snail with a nickname given to the Lombards (who were frequently disparaged in the early Middle Ages).

She even notes a possible connection a modern version of the Mother Goose rhyme:

"Four-and-twenty tailors went out to kill a snail".


It is clear that Lilian Randall's own preference is for the link with the Lombards. She states:

From the assembled evidence the three questions regarding the origin of the marginal illustration can now be answered as follows: the predilection for the literary snail combat theme can be explained by the manifest current anti-Lombard sentiment; the rapid diffusion of the motif reflects the international character of the Lombards' professional activities; and finally, the concentration of the motif in late thirteenth- and early fourteenth- century manuscripts mirrors the intense reaction to a current development which gradually lost its appeal along with its novelty.


However, it is important to note that she she also concedes that the images could have had multiple meanings in different times and places.

  • 3
    You had me at "The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare" – gowenfawr Mar 17 at 4:32
  • 3
    @JohnDee, no, Lombards = Lombards. – Mark Mar 17 at 5:33
  • 5
    Fast forward approx. 800 years. "What's the meaning of cats eating cheezburgers in the 21th century?" Is there a chance that the pictures are just silly jokes? – Chris Mar 17 at 8:55
  • 3
    @Chris Absolutely. That is one common interpretation of the drawing of the nun with the phallus tree (drawn by a male monk in a Scriptorium, obviously). It could also be a reference to a local scandal, a drug induced hallucination (perhaps due to mild ergot poisoning), or any number of other possibilities. As I said, in general, any meaning that should be attributed is unclear at best. I suspect that Lilian Randall's interpretation of the Snail Combat motif is correct in many instances. Others were probably simply copies made because the images amused the monks illuminating the manuscripts. – sempaiscuba Mar 17 at 14:26
  • 2
    @Chris Even contemporaries were puzzled by these images. In the 12th century, St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, "What profit is there in those ridiculous monsters, in that marvellous and deformed beauty, that beautiful deformity? To what purpose are those unclean apes, those fierce lions, those monstrous centaurs, those half-men…" (I just copied this from my answer to the question that justCal mentioned was related). – Lars Bosteen Mar 17 at 15:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.