Medieval manuscripts blog

26 September 2013

Knight v Snail

Recently a group of us went into our manuscripts store to have a look at some medieval genealogical rolls.  We were examining Royal MS 14 B V, an English roll from the last part of the 13th century that contains quite a lot of marginalia, when one of our post-medieval colleagues noticed a painting of a knight engaging in combat with a snail.

Knight v Snail  (from a genealogical roll of the kings of England, England, 4th quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 14 B V, membrane 3)

This struck him as odd, which struck the medievalists in the group as odd; surely everyone has seen this sort of thing before, right?  As anyone who is familiar with 13th and 14th century illuminated manuscripts can attest, images of armed knights fighting snails are common, especially in marginalia.  But the ubiquity of these depictions doesn’t make them any less strange, and we had a long discussion about what such pictures might mean.

Knight v Snail II:  Battle in the Margins (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 193v.  For more on the gorgeous Gorleston marginalia, please see our posts here and here)

There has been much scholarly debate about the significance of these depictions of snail combat.  As early as 1850, the magnificently-named bibliophile the Comte de Bastard theorised that a particular marginal image of a snail was intended to represent the Resurrection, since he discovered it in two manuscripts close to miniatures of the Raising of Lazarus.  In her famous survey of the subject, Lilian Randall proposed that the snail was a symbol of the Lombards, a group vilified in the early middle ages for treasonous behaviour, the sin of usury, and ‘non-chivalrous comportment in general.’  This interpretation accounts for why the snail is so frequently seen antagonising a knight in armour, but does not explain why the knight is often depicted on the losing end of this battle, or why this particular image became so popular in the margins of non-historical texts such as Psalters or Books of Hours.

Yates Thompson MS 19 f. 65r C1319-01b
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)

Other scholars have variously described the ‘knight v snail’ motif as a representation of the struggles of the poor against an oppressive aristocracy, a straightforward statement of the snail’s troublesome reputation as a garden pest, a commentary on social climbers, or even as a saucy symbol of female sexuality.  It is possible that these images could have meant all these things and more at one time or another; it is important to remember, as Michael Camille, who devoted a number of pages to this subject, once wrote: ‘marginal imagery lacks the iconographic stability of a religious narrative or icon’.   This motif was part of a rich visual tradition that we can understand only imperfectly today – not that this will stop us from trying!

Knight v Snail IV:  The Snails Attack (from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 148r)

Some more of our favourite British Library images are below, and please let us know what you think. You can leave a comment below, or we can always be reached on Twitter at @BLMedieval.

Knight v Snail V:  Revenge of the Snail (from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), with marginal scenes added in England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r)

Knight v Snail VI:  The Gastropod Conqueror (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 162v)

Harley MS 6563 ff. 62v-63r
Knight v Snail VII: A Pretty Comprehensive Defeat (from a fragmentary Book of Hours, England (London), c. 1320-c. 1330, Harley MS 6563, ff. 62v-63r)

Knight v Snail VIII:  Switcheroo!  It's a Monkey This Time (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 210v)

Knight v Snail IX:  Just for Fun:  A Rabbit, Monkeys, and a Snail Jousting (from the Harley Froissart, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470-1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v)

Further Reading

Lilian Randall, ‘The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare’ Speculum 37, no. 6 (June 1962), pp. 358-367.

Michael Camille, Image on the Edge (Reaktion Books: London, 1992), pp. 31-36.

Carl Prydum, What’s So Funny about Knights and Snails?,

- Sarah J Biggs


Re Snails - have seen a few 13-14th century lavish illuminations where columbine and snails (depicted as large as the flower) surround image Virgin Mary. Have no idea WHY but am wondering if its raison d'etre is same as for knight..tho even that seems obscure.

Snails jousting and in other settings. In the Tres Riches Heures Christs miracle re loaves and fishes has a border that is made up of Columbine (iconography easy) and for every two columbines - one snail. The illustrations are large and distinct.
None of the above seems to explain this...unless it's an inside joke by Limbourg Bros (a lot of that in their illuminations!) that the crowd were just too lazy to bring their own grub.

The fight against the snail has a sexual meaning (see the next folio of ms Harley 6563, ff. 63-64v, where a man is kneeling, this time in front of an armed woman). It is also often used as a parody of the fight of David agains Goliath.
See Les marges à drôleries des manuscrits gothiques (1250-1350). Dir. Jean Wirth. Genève: Droz, 2008, p. 110-111.

As an artist, I would think that if one was painting foliage, snails and bugs, and birds, etc are a natural addition. If you are then also drawing ladies and knights, it's only a matter of time before the knights and the critters take notice of each other. This is compounded by the fact that everything is drawn at a variety of scales.
It's just a natural thing for an artist to do for fun :)

I note that the snail is seen as representing a range of things some with a sexual overtone, e.g. cuckolding and it would seem to indicate the challenge of the knight aspiring to chastity. Another characteristic in this respect would be the sense of sloth, as Magetts has noted and even cowardice - the snail withdrawing into its shell.

I think we can be agreed that the combat represents the knight overcoming a personal trait that would be seen as unknightly.

The Gorleston Psalter one may not represent a defeat at all, but the knight praying for strength in the forthcoming combat against sloth and/or cowardice.

While the medieval mind was attuned to all sorts of symbolism & typology, perhaps much marginalia was intended and received simply as amusing entertainment. In some ways they may be akin to the captionless little black & white cartoons that were used as space-fillers in 1950s-60s newspapers and magazines, with the cartoons generally having little relationship to the subject matter of the surrounding text.The adversaries of the snail usually seem to be armoured-a visual pun on the fact that the snail is also armoured and the whole made more ludicrous by the unequal nature of the combat (a bit like Python's Sir Robin almost battling the Giant Chicken of Bristol). I recall similarly-themed cartoons and T shirts in the 1970s where a tortoise was attempting to mate with an army helmet.

Snails are SLOW, like more than anything else, they are sluggish?
Couldn't all the losing battles waged against these snails also stand for knights battling their own patience?? Knights battling the biggest adversary of all, TIME. It looks to me that they are fighting the urge to rush in underprepared- which would of course cost them their lives. Seems like the Knights biggest enemy would have been themselves and the snails could represent how most succumbed to their eagerness!

Have you noticed that there is a pattern in the illustrations. In most cases a snail appears , a knight protects a maple branch . These illustrations are contemporary with the conflict between Philip IV , king of France and the Roman Pope Boniface VIII .
It may be possible that maple branch represents the pope , Rome or church , and the snail represents the king of France ?
On the other hand , and reinforcing the idea , there is a particular illustration, where the snail not only threatens maple branch , but also to the county of Flanders . Which also coincides with Felipe IV ( Battle of the Golden Spurs or Battle of Courtrai ) .
Is it possible? What do you think?

I was a graduate student in medieval art history and now a librarian. I was thrilled to hear a lecture by Michael Camille at Penn State years ago.

Anyway, snails. Snails are hermaphrodites and are able to fertilize themselves. We once "adopted" a pet snail from the woods and were surprised to find 50 tiny snails in their aquarium one day. Maybe this feature has something to do with the fascination they held for the medieval marginalia artist. This meant that they could reproduce without mating--either an immaculate conception or a depraved conception, depending upon your viewpoint.

Maybe the snail actually represents... well, a snail. The monks who painted these lived in monasteries and they often grew vegetables in their gardens, right? Snail usually eat vegetables... Maybe they just wanted to express their struggle against the vicious molluscs...

Perhaps the snails symbolize the sin of sloth/acedia.

è risaputo che le lumache sono nobili di sangue blu (emocianina) sarà per questo che esse combattono contro pavidi cavalieri :-)
it is known that snails are noble blue blood (hemocyanin) is why they are fighting against fearful knights ;-)

Medieval knights were fighting the sultan, wearing a turban resembling the shell of a snail.

Is it possible the snails represent the advent of cannon in warfare against which a knight has little defense , but which are slow and cumbersome until they're set in place?

Snails used to be a raw source for producing purple-violet fabric colors. Could be symbolizing some enemy baring these colors?

I think it's likely that the snail was a symbol of the use of armour in battle -- particularly the reduction of speed and agility. In computer games, if you armour a unit it will lose speed and agility but it will gain protection -- what better image to illustrate this trade-off than the slow snail that can disappear completely into its armour? A playful wink at the often-prideful image of the knight. As Tom Vinelott said previously in these comments, "an over-armoured knight is a snail".

So I think the scribes liked to put a snail into illustrations near to a knight, and in many instances the knight probably isn't supposed to be fighting the snail at all but is simply sharing his space with it -- though clearly sometime the scribes found it more entertaining to make this into an actual battle and eventually this became a tradition.

It would be interesting to see if the scenes with obvious battles are from more recent manuscripts than scenes where they simply share the space (this would suggest that it started as a simple symbolic connection and gradually evolved into a fashion for knight/snail battles).

The sexuality angle might have to do with the mystery of snail love darts.

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