I found this fun post by Nicholas Rossis and thought I’d share it today. Medieval manuscripts are full of all sorts of mythic beasts, strange animals, and human-creature hybrids. They seem to have been a staple of the medieval imagination. Some of them were actually thought to be real, lurking in distant or unreachable places. Others were merely meant to be entertaining. A good number of them were symbolic and used for teaching lessons and morals. The giant snails? Well, I’m as stumped as everyone else it would seem. But it’s certainly fun to imagine the possibilities.
What Did Knights Have Against Snails? by Nicholas Rossis
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, 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.
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