Medieval manuscripts blog

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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.

An illustration from a genealogical roll, showing a knight 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.

A marginal illustration from the Gorleston Psalter, showing a knight in combat with a snail.
Knight v Snail II:  Battle in the Margins (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 193v.  Read more on the gorgeous Gorleston marginalia, in our previous posts.)

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.

A marginal illustration from a 14th-century manuscript, showing a mounted knight jousting against a snail.
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!

A marginal illustration from the Queen Mary Psalter, showing snails atacking a knight in combat with a dragon.
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.

A marginal illustration from the Smithfield Decretals, showing a knight in combat with a snail.
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)

A marginal illustration from the Gorleston Psalter, showing a snail beside a kneeling knight.
Knight v Snail VI:  The Gastropod Conqueror (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 162v)

An opening from a Book of Hours, showing marginal illustrations of a snail and a disarmed knight.
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)

A marginal illustration from the Gorleston Psalter, showing a snail in combat with an armed monkey.
Knight v Snail VIII:  Switcheroo!  It's a Monkey This Time (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 210v)

A border detail from the Harley Froissart, showing a rabbit, monkeys, and a snail jousting.
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?,


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This is a wonderful detail to know more about -- and to see these great details. The snails depicted in this article seem to be land snails.

I'd love to see some sea snails coming up from the depths!

I recently became fascinated by Victorian depictions of sea creatures, which inspired a really gorgeous new novel, The Glass Ocean.

I really love seeing the snails getting up to so much beautiful mischief!


The first thing that struck me was recollection of the old nursery rhyme, 'four-and-twenty tailors went to fight a snail' and I wondered if there was any connection. Now with the Lazarus thing I'm seeing a possibility of a tenuous connection as one of the explanations of the 24 tailors rhyme is that it was originally 9 and of course 9 tailors [tellers] make a man, the strokes tolled for a dead man on the bells...

In the Vie du Prince Noir, written in the later 14th century, the author includes snail-imitation among the frivolous forms of entertainment he condemns (Chandos Herald, La Vie du Prince Noir, ed. Diana B. Tyson [Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1975]):

Car combien qe homme n'en face compte
Et qe homme tiendroit plus grant acompte
D'un jangelour ou d'un faux menteur,
D'un jogelour ou d'un bourdeur
Qui voudroit faire une grimache
Ou contreferoit le lymache
Dount homme purroit faire un risée
Qe homme ne ferroit sanz demoerée
D'un autre qui saveroit bien dire! (ll. 15-24)

For how much store men set
And how much more heed they take
Of a jangler or a false liar,
Of a jongleur or a jester
Who would willingly make a face
Or imitate a snail,
At which men can laugh,
As they'll do without delay
Than of someone who knows how to speak well!

Does this apparently hilarious snail-imitating relate to the combats in the ms. marginalia?

Is the most likely explanation not that there is no explanation, that it was a quirky thing that just spread? Or perhaps they were just doing it to annoy you 500 years later knowing you would never work it out?

A powerful knight pitted against a slow little snail. I believe the magical explanation is: a sense of humour.

Admittedly I do not have a background in the manuscripts of this period. Perhaps singling out this specific pairing of knight and snail in the marginalia of the time makes sense to the scholars in the know. However, for my part, when I looked at some of the referenced blogs / writings, it seemed to me that there were quite a wide variety of snail activities, including snails and hares at war, as well as snail shells housing other organisms. I rather think that singling out this one aspect of snail depiction may not be the best way to go about identifying its allure and/or purpose to scholars of the time. One may need to look at the whole and not the part.

An over-armoured knight is a snail.

Oh yes… I am a scholar in folklore studies and I am presently carrying on a research about the traditional rhymes on the snail. During this research, I came across the subject of the medieval warriors fighting with snails represented here, many times. My explainations is rather long: to read it, please go to the site of my research:

enter it (click on "START"), and download the database with all the folk rhymes collected in our research (it's a PDF document). This is because you will find my long remarks about the medieval "fights with a snail" in the notes commenting the documents from No. 509 to No. 514 in that database.
I hope it will not be too much complicated!

The snail represents female sexuality?

It seems obvious!? The snail — the archetypal slow creature, paradoxically endowed with implacable destructive power — would naturally represent the agonizing impossibility of accomplishing all that we hope to, because of the limits of time, and the knight teaches us that we must nevertheless battle against The Snail despite the inevitability of defeat.

My first thought is that "snail" must have had a second meaning at the time, based on either a snail's characteristics (armored like a knight, btw) or perhaps some pun. What would future scholars think if they saw an illustration of a young man attempting to escape - or, alternately, embracing - a cougar? or perhaps some enigmatic illustration that included an aquatic mammal that builds dams? what is the significance of one character being made to look like a tortoise, and the other a hare? And when Bugs Bunny disappeared in one cartoon, why did a bottle of "Hair restorer" bring him back?

Of course, the world today is fairly well-documented and if that documentation survives they will be able to figure it out pretty quickly - but if this was so widespread and not documented I would guess that the knowledge was widespread at the time, and might be something off-color.

Whilst researching for my book Da Vinci's Last Commission I researched the Culdees in depth. I believe the illustrations are referring to them, as they were also known as the Snail men of Europe, for the knowledge they left in their wake, the other aspect which intrigues me and I think could be relevant is the correlation between the pattern of the snail's shell with Sacred Geometry and the Fibonacci Spiral. The Culdees are part of our unsung history who should be reinstated in their true position as God Worshippers, and strongly associated with the Judean Refugees who landed on UK shores in 34 AD. This is a matter of historical record.

Perhaps it literally has to do with hating the slowness of creating manuscripts, or the slowness of anything.
I doubt it, but it's an idea.

Somewhere in Shakespeare "snail" is used to mean "cuckold" because they have horns. (As You Like It?) Maybe fighting a snail = fighting being cuckolded.

Could it be the slowness of bureaucracy causing losses in conflicts due to soldiers not being deployed swiftly for defense or otherwise? A knight could be seen as losing against time wasted or filled with stalling before actually deploying them.

Four and twenty tailors went to kill a snail;
The bravest man among them durst not touch her tail!
She put out her little horns like a little Kyloe cow,
Run, tailors, run! Or she'll have you all e'en now!

I have always wondered what this nursery rhyme meant. Now I wonder whether it has anything to do with these illuminations!

In heraldry, the snail has a fixed meaning of perseverance and deliberation. YMMV.

I would say that the marginals ridiculize the profession of the knight. Like he is fighting against windmills.

"The snail was a symbol of sloth and of those who are content with things of the material world at the expense of striving for the spiritual"
The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art

Since the good scholars, experts in their craft, have no idea, any guess is good so long as it is based on what information is known. The people who copied manuscripts were almost exclusively lifelong devotees of monastic life. Their monasteries were largely self sufficient. They produced their own food, their own clothing, their own inks and paint, their own vellum. Any excess was used to trade for what they could not produce such as gold and gems to adorn their books. There was little interaction with regular members of the Church hierarchy or with the nobility so their knowledge and understanding of these two groups was limited and as full of holes as their grasp of how people lived and dressed in the Bible times they illustrated and the sort of plants and animals that filled the Earth beyond their borders. They absorbed tales from travelers but mostly learned from everyday experiences and from what they found in the books they copied. Armored knights, traveling about the Christian kingdoms, were romanticized and their exploits were related to the struggles all Christians faced against a hostile world. To me it seems that the knight battling snails could be a metaphorical indulgence of the scribe, free to indulge lonely fantasies while spending his hours in lonely devotion to holy work, picturing himself as a valorous warrior for God engaged in war against the slow moving tedium of daily life and preserving the work of ages against the ravages of mindless consumption and decay.

Re: Fiona MacLaren comment 29 Sept. "Judean Refugees who landed on UK shores in 34 AD. This is a matter of historical record."

Oh dear, the UK did not have shores in 34 A.D., it was born in 1603, followed by a parliamentary Union in 1707. These are matters of historical fact.

This discussion

offers the context for a reasonable linking of snails and knights.
The image of the humble snail as a Davidic warrior who (implicitly, here) battles the arrogant, proud Goliath must emphasize that Goliath is a knight in armor; his armor is described in ISamuel:7. Of course, the snail has its shell, but the shell is a natural phenomenon, like David's simple battle garb, while Goliath's armor is "assumed."
The shell could also be thought of as a static, symbolic representation of the kinetic power of David's whirling sling. Thus, the theme is Humility versus Pride.

It's worth noting that snails love to eat bark, paper, cardboard, etc. I would imagine that books stored in damp cellars and such were at real risk of damage from them, hence snails were probably not well-regarded by bookish monks.

I would propose that the snail represents the medieval sin of accidia (or acedia)--apathy, indifference, boredom, slothfulness--against which the Christian knight must do battle. Acedia is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Tyrian purple dye (a form of "royal purple") comes from the Mediterranean sea snail, and Tyre was one of the cities that figured in the crusades. So maybe the snail symbolized the knight's islamic foe. Although the sea snail looks different from the ones pictured in the manuscripts, it's understandable that the illustrators would use a more familiar form of the mollusk.

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