Why Knights Fought Snails in Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts

The snail may leave a trail of slime behind him, but a little slime will do a man no harm... whilst if you dance with dragons, you must expect to burn.

- George R. R. Martin, The Mystery Knight

As any Game of Thrones fan knows, being a knight has its downsides. It isn’t all power, glory, advantageous marriages and gifts ranging from castles to bags of gold.

Sometimes you have to fight a truly formidable opponent.

We’re not talking about bunnies here, though there’s plenty of documentation to suggest medieval rabbits were tough customers.

As Vox Almanac’s Phil Edwards explains, above, the many snails littering the margins of 13th-century manuscripts were also fearsome foes.



Boars, lions, and bears we can understand, but … snails? Why?

Theories abound.

Detail from Brunetto Latini's Li Livres dou Tresor

Edwards favors the one in medievalist Lilian M. C. Randall’s 1962 essay "The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare."

Randall, who found some 70 instances of man-on-snail combat in 29 manuscripts dating from the late 1200s to early 1300s, believed that the tiny mollusks were stand ins for the Germanic Lombards who invaded Italy in the 8th century.

After Charlemagne trounced the Lombards in 772, declaring himself King of Lombardy, the vanquished turned to usury and pawnbroking, earning the enmity of the rest of the populace, even those who required their services.

Their profession conferred power of a sort, the kind that tends to get one labelled cowardly, greedy, malicious … and easy to put down.

Which rather begs the question why the knights going toe-to- …uh, facing off against them in the margins of these illuminated manuscripts look so damn intimidated.

(Conversely why was Rex Harrison’s Dr. Dolittle so unafraid of the Giant Pink Sea Snail?)

Detail from from MS. Royal 10 IV E (aka the Smithfield Decretals)

Let us remember that the doodles in medieval marginalia are editorial cartoons wrapped in enigmas, much as today’s memes would seem, 800 years from now. Whatever point—or joke—the scribe was making, it’s been obscured by the mists of time.

And these things have a way of evolving. The snail vs. knight motif disappeared in the 14th-century, only to resurface toward the end of the 15th, when any existing significance would very likely have been tailored to fit the times.

Detail from The Macclesfield Psalter

Other theories that scholars, art historians, bloggers, and armchair medievalists have floated with regard to the symbolism of these rough and ready snails haunting the margins:

The Resurrection

The high clergy, shrinking from problems of the church

The slowness of time

The insulation of the ruling class

The aristocracy’s oppression of the poor

A critique of social climbers

Female sexuality (isn’t everything?)

Virtuous humility, as opposed to knightly pride

The snail’s reign of terror in the garden (not so symbolic, perhaps…)

A practical-minded Reddit commenter offers the following commentary:

I like to imagine a monk drawing out his fantastical daydreams, the snail being his nemesis, leaving unsightly trails across the page and him building up in his head this great victory wherein he vanquishes them forever, never again to be plagued by the beastly buggers while creating his masterpieces.

Readers, any other ideas?

Detail from The Gorleston Psalter

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City May 13 for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday

A Mesmerizing Trip Across the Brooklyn Bridge: Watch Footage from 1899

It’s hardly original advice but bears repeating anyway: no one visiting New York should leave, if they can help it, before they cross the Brooklyn Bridge—preferably on foot, if possible, and at a reverential pace that lets them soak up all the Neo-gothic structure’s storied history. Walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn, then back again, or the other away around, since that’s what the bridge was built for—the commutes of a nineteenth century bridge-but-not-yet-tunnel crowd (the first NYC subway tunnel didn’t open until 1908).

In 1899, filmmakers from American Mutoscope and Biograph elected for a mode of travel for a New York century, putting a camera at “the front end of a third rail car running at high speed,” notes a 1902 American Mutoscope catalogue. They accelerated the tour to the pace of a modern machine, chosing the Manhattan to Brooklyn route. “The entire trip consumes three minutes of time, during which abundant opportunity is given to observe all the structural wonders of the bridge, and far distant river panorama below.” (See one-third of the trip just below.)

Filmmaker Bill Morrison looped excerpts of those three New York minutes and extended them to nine in his short, stereoscopic journey “Outerborough,” at the top, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art in 2005 and scored with original music by Todd Reynolds. Taking the 1899 footage as its source material, the film turns a rapid transit tour into a moving mandala, a fractal repetition at frighteningly faster and faster speeds, of the bridge’s most mechanical vistas—the views of its looming, vaulted arches and of the steel cage surrounding the tracks.

One of the engineering wonders of the world, the Brooklyn Bridge opened 136 years ago this month, on May 24th, 1883. The first person to walk across it was the woman who oversaw its construction for 11 of the 14 years it took to build the bridge. After designer John Roebling died of tetanus, his son Washington took over, only to succumb to the bends during the sinking of the caissons and spend the rest of his life bedridden. Emily, his wife, “took on the challenge,” notes the blog 6sqft, consulting with her husband while actively supervising the project.

She “studied mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, strengths of materials and the intricacies of cable construction.” On its opening day, Emily walked the bridge’s 1,595 feet, from Manhattan to Brooklyn, “her long skirt billowing in the wind as she showed [the crowd] details of the construction,” writes David McCullough in The Great Bridge. Six days later, an accident caused a panic and a stampede that killed twelve people. Some months later, P.T. Barnum’s Jumbo led a parade of 21 elephants over the bridge in a stunt to prove its safety.

Barnum’s theatrics were surprisingly honest—the bridge may have needed selling to skeptical commuters, but it needed no hype. It outlived most of its contemporaries, despite the fact that it was built before engineers understood the aerodynamic properties of bridges. The Roeblings designed and built the bridge to be six times stronger than it needed to be, but no one could have foreseen just how durable the structure would prove.

It elicited a fascination that never waned for its palpable strength and beauty, yet fewer of its admirers chose to document the journey that has taken millions of Brooklynites over the river to lower Manhattan, by foot, bike, car, and yes, by train. Leave it to that futurist for the common man, Thomas Edison, to film the trip. See his 1899 footage of Brooklyn to Manhattan by train just above.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Shifting Power of the World’s Largest Cities Visualized Over 4,000 Years (2050 BC-2050 AD)

"When Rome fell…." The expression seems designed to conjure the Tarot card Tower that illustrates it, a sudden attack, a reckoning. “Fell,” in the case of most ancient empires, means declined, changed, and transformed over centuries. As all great cities do, Rome suffered many violent shocks during its fall, as it transitioned from a pagan to a Christian empire. The sacking of Rome in 410 left Romans reeling, trying to make meaning from upheaval. They found it in the pagan religion of their ancestors.

To which the defender of the one true faith—by his lights—Augustine of Hippo, answered with a rather odd defense of the new order. Rather than write a theological treatise or a fire-and-brimstone sermon, though it is these things as well, he wrote a book about cities: the City of God, pitted against the Earthly City (which is, you guessed it, aligned with the Devil). The medieval idea of cities as vehicles for the grudge matches of princes must have derived from this strange text, as well as from the emergent feudal order that turned dismembered empires into uneasy patchworks of cities. Rome didn't fall, it decentralized, diversified, and propagated.



Augustine saw the city not only as a metaphor but also as the height of human power: doomed to fall in the final analysis, yet built to pose a formidable challenge to divine rule. But what is a city? Is it merely a stronghold for corruption and commerce or something more righteous? Is it an expression of class power, the worker bees who run it or just cogs in a machine, a la Metropolis? Is it an “assemblage,” defined by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari as “a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogenous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns”?

In our post-post-modern moment, we find all of these ideas—the hierarchical and the horizontal—operating. Popular books like Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules—For Now seem to spring from an impulse common to apologists and secularists alike—the will to linear certainty. There is a sense in which 21st century thought has turned back to theology, stripped of the trappings of belief, to make sense of the rise and decline of the West. This faith demands not blind allegiance, but data, more and more and more data—to answer the burning question of 2001’s Planet of the Apes: “How’d these apes get like this?”

Then there’s the internet—a space for sharing gifs, a functional assemblage, and maybe someday, a city. Global circumstances seem to warrant reflection. Like the Romans, we want a story about how it came to pass, and we want to make and share animated infographic gifs about it. The gif at the top of the post is such a gif. Drawing on the sweeping, several-thousand-year historical argument of Morris’s book, and data from the UN Population Division, its creator whisks us through a visual narrative of supremacy-by-city over the course of roughly four-thousand years.

Sheer size, in this visual account, determines the winners—a simplistic criteria, but the model here is simplified for effect. It dramatizes arguments made and data gathered elsewhere. To get the full effect, you’d probably do well to read Morris’s book and, while you’re reaching for your wallet, the original article, behind a paywall at The Australian, for which this gif was made. Its title? “Why Rome is the World’s Best City.” The gif’s designer admits in a Reddit post, “We are dealing with historic demographic data here which are always debated among scholars…. I acknowledge that other scholars would add or delete certain cities that pop up in my map.”

For more on the idea of the city as assemblage, see European Graduate School professor Manuel DeLanda’s lecture “A Materialist History of Cities” and his book Assemblage Theory. Augustine insisted we view the city through the eye of faith—his faith. In the 21st century, DeLanda's intellectual gestures, like Morris's, are as grand, but he suggests throwing out Western schematics in a return to earlier religious practices. To understand  a city, he suggests, we might need “tools to manipulate these intensities… in the form of a growing variety of psychoactive chemicals that can be deployed to go beyond the actual world, and produce at least a descriptive phenomenology of the virtual.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Rise and Fall of Western Empires Visualized Through the Artful Metaphor of Cell Division

We can hardly understand how the modern world arrived at its current shape without understanding the history of colonial empire. But how best to understand the history of colonial empire? In animation above, visualization designers Pedro M. Cruz and Penousal Machado portray it through a biological lens, rendering the four most powerful empires in the Western world of the 18th and 19th centuries as cells. The years pass, and at first these four cells grow in size, but we all know the story must end with their division into dozens and dozens of the countries we see on the world map today — a geopolitical process for which mitosis provides an effective visual analogy.

Cruz and Machado happen to hail from Portugal, a nation that commanded one of those four empires and, in Aeon's words, "controlled vast territories across the globe through a combination of seapower, economic control and brute force." We may now regard Portugal as a small and pleasant European country, but it once held territory all around the world, from Mozambique to Macau to the somewhat larger land known as Brazil.



And the other three empires, French, Spanish, and British, grow even larger in their respective heydays. That's especially true of the British Empire, whose dominance in cell form becomes starkly obvious by the time the animation reaches the 1840s, even though the United States of America has at that point long since drifted beyond its walls and floated away.

Wouldn't the U.S. now be the biggest cell of all? Not under the strict definition of empire used a few centuries ago, when one country taking over and directly ruling over a remote land was considered standard operating procedure (and even, in some quarters, a glorious and necessary mission). But attempts have also been made to more clearly understand international relations in the late 20th and early 21st centuries by redefining the very term "empire" to include the kind of influence the U.S. exerts all around the world. It makes a kind of sense to do that, but as Cruz and Machado's animation may remind us, we also still live very much in the cultural, linguistic, political, and economic world — or rather, petri dish — that those four mighty empires created.

via Aeon

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How to Make a Medieval Manuscript: An Introduction in 7 Videos

All of us came of age in the era of mass-market books, bundles of text on paper printed quickly, cheaply, and in large quantities. Nothing about that would have been conceivable to the many varieties of artisan involved in the creation of just one manuscript in the Middle Ages. Even here in the 21st century we marvel at the beauty of medieval manuscripts, but we should also marvel at the sheer amount of specialized labor that went into making them.

We might best appreciate that labor by seeing it performed up close before our eyes, and a new video series allows us to do just that. "The British Library has released a set of seven videos to look at the process of creating medieval manuscripts," says Medievalists.net.



"Patricia Lovett, a professional calligrapher and illuminator, hosts these 2-3 minute videos, which follow the process from the tools used to the techniques employed in designing an illuminated page."

Lovett covers every step in the making of a medieval book: "how to make quill pens from bird feathers"; "the complex process behind making ink for writing in manuscripts" (which involves wasps); "how animal skins were selected and prepared for use in medieval manuscripts"; "the tools for ruling and line marking in medieval books"; "the variety of pigments that were in use in the Middle Ages" to apply vivid color to the pages; "how medieval artists painted the beautiful illustrations in their books"; and "the work behind painting and embellishing manuscripts and reproducing a lavishly illuminated page."

"The word ‘manuscript’ derives from the Latin for written (scriptus) by hand (manu)," writes Lovett and British Library illuminated manuscript curator Kathleen Doyle, and who among us will forget that, after we've witnessed the careful manual labor on display in these videos? For further insight into the medieval manuscript-making process, have a look at the Getty Museum's series of videos on the subject featured last year here on Open Culture.

We've also featured the alchemy of the pigments used to color the pages of medieval manuscripts; the pages of a medieval monk's sketchbook that shows what went into the designs for these manuscripts' illumination; and a look into the making of The Book of Kells, the Irish cultural treasure that stands as one of the very finest surviving examples of the illuminated manuscript form. (And since you'll surely get curious about it sooner or later, we've also put up an explanation of why so many marginal drawings in medieval manuscripts include killer rabbits.)

Just as the books we read today — whether the aforementioned mass-market products or the relatively artisanal small-press creations or even the e-books — reveal important qualities about the world we live in, so medieval manuscripts have much to say about the beliefs, the technology, and societal structures of the times that produced them. But for those who actually developed the skills for and dedicated the time and effort to that production, these manuscripts also showed something else. As Lovett and Doyle quote the 12th-century scribe Eadwine as proclaiming about his Eadwine Psalter, "The beauty of this book displays my genius."

via Medievalists.net

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Last Duel Took Place in France in 1967, and It’s Caught on Film

Another man insults your honor, leaving you no choice but to challenge him to a highly formalized fight to the death: in the 21st century, the very idea strikes us as almost incomprehensibly of the past. And dueling is indeed dead, at least in all the lands that historically had the most enthusiasm for it, but it hasn't been dead for as long as we might assume. The last recorded duel performed not with pistols but swords (specifically épées, the largest type of swords used in fencing) took place in France in 1967 — the year of the Saturn V and the Boeing 737, the Detroit riots and the Six-Day War, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Summer of Love.

The duelists were Marseilles mayor Gaston Defferre and another politician names Rene Ribière. "After a clash in the National Assembly, Defferre yelled 'Taisez-vous, abruti!' at Ribiere and refused to apologize," writes professional stage-and-screen fight coordinator Jared Kirby. "Ribière challenged and Defferre accepted. The duel took place with épées in a private residence in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and it was officiated by Jean de Lipkowskiin."

Heightening the drama, Ribière was to be married the following day, though he could expect to live to see his own wedding, Defferre having vowed not to kill him but "wound him in such a way as to spoil his wedding night very considerably."

You can see the subsequent action of this relatively modern-day duel in the newsreel footage at the top of the post. Defferre did indeed land a couple of touches on Ribière, both in the arm. Ribière, the younger man by twelve years, seems to have taken the event even more seriously than Defferre: he insisted not only on using sharper épées than the ones Defferre originally offered, but on continuing the duel after Defferre first struck him. Lipkowskiin put an end to the combat after the second time, and both Defferre and Ribière went on to live full lives, the former into the 1980s and the latter into the 1990s. Just how considerable an effect Ribière's dueling injuries had on his wedding night, however, history has not recorded.

via Messy Nessy

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

53 Years of Nuclear Testing in 14 Minutes: A Time Lapse Film by Japanese Artist Isao Hashimoto

It’s strange what can make an impact. Sometimes a message needs to be loud and over-the-top to come across, like punk rock or the films of Oliver Stone. In other cases, cool and quiet works much better.

Take the new time lapse map created by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto. It is beautiful in a simple way and eerie as it documents the 2,053 nuclear explosions that took place between 1945 and 1998.

It looks like a war room map of the world, black landmasses surrounded by deep blue ocean. It starts out slow, in July of 1945, with a blue blip and an explosion sound in the American southwest—the Manhattan Project’s “Trinity” test near Los Alamos. Just one month later come the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.



From there the months click by—condensed down to seconds—on a digital clock. Each nation that has exploded a nuclear bomb gets a blip and a flashing dot when they detonate a weapon, with a running tally kept on the screen.

Eeriest of all is that each nation gets its own electronic sound pitch: low tones for the United States, higher for the Soviet Union—beeping to the metronome of the months ticking by.

What starts out slow picks up by 1960 or so, when all the cold neutral beeps and flashes become overwhelming.

If you’re like me, you had no idea just how many detonations the United States is responsible for (1,032—more than the rest of the countries put together). The sequence ends with the Pakistani nuclear tests of May 1998.

Hashimoto worked for many years as a foreign exchange dealer but is now an art curator. He says the piece expresses “the fear and folly of nuclear weapons.”

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2012.

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