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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Killer Rab­bits in Medieval Man­u­scripts: Why So Many Draw­ings in the Mar­gins Depict Bun­nies Going Bad

Medieval Cats Behav­ing Bad­ly: Kit­ties That Left Paw Prints … and Peed … on 15th Cen­tu­ry Man­u­scripts

The Aberdeen Bes­tiary, One of the Great Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts, Now Dig­i­tized in High Res­o­lu­tion & Made Avail­able Online

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

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Comments (13)
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  • nathan says:

    Thank you, Ayun!

    This arti­cle as added the exact amount of humil­i­ty to my Friday—just what I need­ed.

  • Craig says:

    Ms. Hal­l­i­day may be inter­est­ed to learn that “to beg the ques­tion” does not mean, in edu­cat­ed dis­course, “to invite or pro­voke a ques­tion.” Beg­ging the ques­tion, a loan trans­la­tion of the Latin “peti­tio prin­cipii,” is “the log­i­cal fal­la­cy of undue assump­tion of axioms.” A “prin­cip­i­um” is “a truth that can be known in itself, [and[ ‘[p]etitio prin­cipii’ is, there­fore, com­mit­ted when a propo­si­tion, which requires proof, is assumed with­out proof.” In the wide sense, the term means “the assump­tion in some form of the very propo­si­tion to be proved, as a premise from which to deduce it.”

  • michael says:

    stick it, craig.

  • Howard says:

    Stick it, Michael.

  • Guy Lanza says:

    Ayun —

    A very inter­est­ing read. Maybe water­borne dis­eases — e.g. Schis­to­so­mi­a­sis — trans­mit­ted by snails in water helps to explain the need to bat­tle snails?

  • CptFrito says:

    The Red­dit com­ment sounds plausible(or at least fun to imag­ine) a clois­tered up monk’s most dan­ger­ous neme­sis well could be the plagues in the monastery’s gar­den.

    Or “beat­ing up the snail” was a com­mon euphemism in their part­ner-less lives.

  • Rich Hummel says:

    Lit­tle known fact: snails are dicks.

  • Laurence Smith says:

    What about slugs?
    Has any­one seen a slug in medieval art?
    Pieter Bruegel has one in his draw­ing of the Sin Of Sloth 1557.

  • Marjorie says:

    Maybe because it is a sym­bol of lazi­ness ?

  • Lyzzz says:

    Sloth was a dead­ly sin and one that monks were par­tic­u­lar­ly aware of. So yes.

  • Makulah Saryon says:

    Hel­lo wel­comes to Mon­rovia Liberia snail potu­ray farm­ing group in voin­ja­ma city Lofa coun­ty Liberia. For more infor­ma­tion please con­tact me on What­sApp. +231555760345

  • IntrepidFraidyCat says:

    Well, I fell down a rab­bit hole while doing a search on the Bayeux Tapes­try and I land­ed in an AMAZING place! Knights fight­ing snails in the mar­gins of medieval man­u­scripts. I feel a lit­tle bit like Alice just now.

  • Kyrre Kausrud says:

    I sus­pect it is crude and sim­ple. It builds on 3 argu­ments:

    1) Monks were men not less pre­oc­cu­pied with sex, bore­dom and bad jokes than the rest of us.

    2) The word “cock” as an euphemism for penis seem to be attest­ed back to the 1200’s, but at least by the 1400’s.
    Refrence: https://www.etymonline.com/word/cock

    3) Latin for snail is “Cochlea”. As if that was not enough to trg­ger the asso­ci­a­tions of young men learn­ing latin cooped up in a monastery, a snail shell is a “cochlea tes­ta”. As a poten­tial bonus, the last syl­la­ble “lea” may be sim­i­lar enough to Old Eng­lish “lēah”, which means mead­ow, pas­ture­land or fer­tile for­est clear­ing, that it may have had the obvi­ous asso­ci­a­tions to a wom­an’s bush. (Indeed the words “fitte/fete” for “pas­ture­land” and “vul­va” are still the same in my relat­ed mater­nal lan­guage: Nor­we­gian.)

    Thus, for horny young monks speak­ing Medieval Eng­lish, pro­nounc­ing “Cochlea” may have been like hav­ing a bunch of teenagers say­ing “Dick­bush”. Add the phu­si­cal nature of snails as vague­ly sausage-shaped beings slith­er­ing in and out of nar­row shell open­ings and leav­ing a trail of mucus and, well, the results would be pre­dictable.

    The church had (and have) a lot of ideas around fight­ing sex­u­al urges, so if pressed, a young scribe could also take the high road and say that he was depict­ing the con­stant and fre­quent­ly unsuc­cess­ful and hum­bling dai­ly strug­gle against the sex­u­al nature of man. It may even some­times be true.

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