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.

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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Clearly this is an artistic rebellion against the coverup of the great snail invasion of the late 12th century AD. I am both ashamed of how this country's historians have blanked this defining moment in medieval warfare and immensely proud of our nations valiant knights in their great victory over the giant molluscs.

I can't escape from the similarity the snail vs knight imagery bears to the knight vs serpent.

'Snake' and 'snail' have the same proto-Indo European root; '*sneg' - meaning 'crawling or creeping thing' . "The word snail essentially is a diminutive form of Old English snaca "snake,"

The difference with the marginal imagery seems to be the perceivable weaker position of the knights, who in serpent legends are generally victorious.

The serpent has been said to represent a number of things - the heathen religion, female sexuality, the yin, the subterranean/unseen, earth energy, etc. Perhaps the symbol was originally a coded heathen statement testifying 'the serpent' had not completely overwhelmed?

A medieval meme?

Browsing through French literature on the symbolism of L'escargot.

French archeologists suggest that the Bad Snail symbolises cowardice. The French called Italians and Lombards 'snails' in Medieval times. The snail also symbolises apathy as Michele rightly states above. The 'Good' snail represents ressurrection, fertility and rebirth. In many old French graves from antic times ans early middle-ages, they found snails that were buried along the dead.

I must say I assumed they represent death - snails in coffins, snails that eat life, and that anyone fighting a snail is resisting death - but inevitably losing. The earlier ones also seem to be spitting (not just horns at the front there?) so I wonder if there is any mythology about the poisonous nature of slime ... Fascinating.

Snails are curious in that many species use a so-called "love dart" to stab each other when mating. It is thought that this increases the chances of fertilisation, despite the possible risks of getting stabbed in the wrong place.

In large snails, the darts are similarly large, so visible to the human eye, and have a clear shaft like a dart or sword.

Perhaps early scholars were also good naturalists and so had noticed these curious aspects of snail mating?

See for further information.

One more theory is that artists of that time used plant Datura stramonium:

The plant was used as a remedy, but when taken in larger quantities it acted as a powerful hallucinogen. There were many examples of misusage of this plant through history. It was even used for ritual sacrifices.

Images and examples of some poems made under influence of Datura stramonium are given in textbooks at Moscow State University.

Notice one of the nights is a rabbit (as in rabbit vs. turtle or vs snail). The snail represents time as spirals also do. Monks have a lot of time on their hands so it's important to them and you can't escape it

I believe the snail is a representation of an enemy nation or region.
Since England had problems with France and French regions, could it be a burlesque way to represent them?
Maybe they choose the snails because England troops got shocked when seeing French troops picking snails from the Lands and eating them.
Iirc eating snails is not a tradition in England at that time but was normal in France and other countries.
Maybe other countries fighting against France decided to ilustrate them in the same way.

This topic appeared recently in The Guardian and I became so intrigued by it that I posted a number of comments there. I am reproducing them here in the hope that they might contribute in some small way to speculation on this fascinating conundrum.

Assuming,, that there is consistency in the motif of the snail despite the diversity of the scenes in which it appears, there do appear to be common features:

1) the snail is a hostile force;
2) it is fought against;
3) it is often surrendered to;
4) it is never depicted as defeated, wounded or killed.

Admittedly after only a fairly cursory search around the web involving the inevitable wikipedia, it seems that as early as classical times, the snail could have been a symol of Cupid:

Professor Ronald Chase of McGill University in Montreal has suggested the ancient myth of Cupid's arrows might be based on early observations of the love dart behavior of the land snail species Helix aspersa.]

Many snails use the 'love dart' during courtship to fire into the other snail's body a hormone that causes the female parts of the snails' hermaphroditic genitalia to contract and thus increase sperm retention:

Could the snail therfore have been a symbol of the invincible power of love during the middle ages? Many of the images involve knights fighting snails and this would have been consonant with the joust as a place in which to gain the lady's favour. The snail - Love - can be resisted, fought against, but never defeated. 'Omnia vincit amor'

Theseus does observe in The Knight's Tale:

"The God of love, a benedicite!
How myghty and how greet a lord is he!
Ayeyns his myght ther gayneth none obstacles,
He may be cleped a god for his myracles,
For he kan maken at his owene gyse
Of everich herte as that hym list divyse.
Lo heere, this Arcite and this Palamoun
That quitly weren out of my prisoun,
And myghte han lyved in Thebes roially,
And witen I am hir mortal enemy,
And that hir deth lith in my myght also;
And yet hath love, maugree hir eyen two,
Ybroght hem hyder bothe for to dye.
Now looketh, is nat that an heigh folye?
Who may been a fole, but if he love?
Bihoold, for Goddes sake that sit above,
Se how they blede! Be they noght wel arrayed?
Thus hath hir lord, the God of Love, ypayed
Hir wages and hir fees for hir servyse!
And yet they wenen for to been ful wyse,
That serven love, for aught that may bifalle!

(1755 ff)

Further on Love (Snail) as a force that does combat with us (and always wins):

Et semeront des branches verdelettes
Sur mon tumbel, et fleurs et violettes.
Puis s'en iront comptant par mainte terre
Comment Amours m'ont fait cruele guerre,
por quoy sera mon bruit trop plus ouvert
Que de Vert Cont ou de Chevalier Vert

And they will strew verdant branches
Upon my tomb, and flowers and violets,
And then will go telling throughout the world
How [The Divinities of] Love made cruel war against me;
Wherefore my fame will be wider than
That of the Green Count or the Green Knight'

Jean Lemaire de Belges. Les Epitres de l'Amant Vert I. 261 ff - composed in 1505, first published 1511.

The late medieval Copenhagen Chansonnier manuscript - an album of part songs on the subject of Love, is so utterly replete with images of snails that it would appear undeniable that the Snail is a symbol of all-conquering Love. In particular, the following illuminations (some very stylised) might well be worthy of being considered to settle the case:

A fulll guide with online links to the Chansonnier can be found here:

To say nothing of the illumination for the first Chanson in the album, which of itself gives the game away - a snail-man holding a heart and wearing a hat surmounted or consisting of a double snail sharing the same shell

Check page 121 ff in Jose Manuel Pedrosa "Las dos sirenas y otros estudios de literatura tradicional",+lanchas+ca%C3%B1oneras&source=bl&ots=3QZpBSah1F&sig=IcahrTMLF0KgEePu3O8kjkgRI7E&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Y01sUvi0L6ip7AbfjYHADQ&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=De%20helice%20y%20de%20rueda%2C%20lanchas%20ca%C3%B1oneras&f=false

Note that Randal, according Pedrosa, already explains that the lombards/italians are in the losing side.

In Siena Italy there are different contradas and one has as its mascot the Snail.

The most famous instance of this motif occurs on a fragment of the early thirteenth-century choir screen from Chartres cathedral. I believe it also occurs in the so-called sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt.

Could they symbolize medieval artillery? I'm not sure if the dates of manuscripts line up exactly with those of the introduction of artillery, but it would explain why the knights appear to be fighting a losing battle against them.

Snails are famous jousters. They are hermaphroditic and they fight with their penises. The loser is impregnated by the winner. Since this involves fetilized eggs being implanted in the flesh of the loser, it pays to have the bigger penis and to win the joust. This occurred to me because of another bit of animal sex lore: the rabbit is a symbol of the passive male homosexual since ancient times. One of the drawings shows a rabbit and a snail jousting, piggy back. Very suggestive.

These little drawings are most likely NSFW jokes between gay monks or else parodies and satires on the knights and other authority figures. The suggestion is that the knights are not doing all of their jousting with lances.

See the book "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality" for more details on the rabbit myth and possibly something on hyenas, snails, weasels, etc.

It seems that most of the interpretations assume that the illustration is of a "literal" knight fighting some sort of a figurative enemy represented by the snail, but what if it's the other way around.

Illustrations I-VIII are all from the first quarter of the 14th century, corresponding the beginning of the Little Ice Age and the accompanying food shortages. Could the increasingly cold temperatures have forced more snails to seek refuge indoors and in seeking alternative food sources then become a nuisance eating the pages of manuscripts? The illustration would then represent the monks battle to protect their manuscripts from this infestation. (And similarly would make sense of tailors battling snails.) Also notice that in most of the illustrations the snails have the appearance of being "open mouthed".

This would also make sense why a century plus later (illustration IX) we see the earlier iconography referenced but it's original meaning already lost with it just being used in a silly or farcical manner..

Knights in combat in medieval illumination are usually understood to indicate spiritual struggle. My first reaction to something like a mollusc would be that the shell is the word of scripture and the meat inside the shell is the spiritual truth or flesh of salvation that the listener (or reader) should hope to achieve through their spiritual struggle (i.e. the body of Christ, the Word made flesh.) But generally, too, when you get these depictions of nature or daily life in the later Middle Ages - remember we also have Scholasticism's interest in nature as the backdrop. So if we go to Aristotle's History of Animals we'll find that he classifies molluscs as 'bloodless' as opposed to red blooded animals. Aha. So this is also relevant to the idea of Word made flesh - the snail's defining feature is that it's all flesh.

Also, Tyrian purple, better known as imperial purple, was an elite manuscript pigment extracted from sea snails. There could be an aristocratic association. But if there's a Eucharistic pun to be had like there is here, then that's probably the better explanation.

Knights traditionally fought dragons, “the great dragon”, that is, “the primeval serpent, known as the devil or Satan, who had deceived the world” (Revelation 12:5,9). In the Garden of Eden the Lord cursed the serpent above all animals: “You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:14). The term “serpent”, from the Latin serpentem, “creeping thing”, was gradually replaced in Modern English by “snake”, Old English snaca from the Indo-European root *sneg-, “to crawl, creep; creeping thing”. The same Old English snaca, however, is also the root of “snail”, an animal that also crawls on its belly. Alert reader Mel R. too saw the philological connection as well as “the similarity the snail v knight imagery bears to the knight v serpent” but did not take the point further.

By contrast, a religious metaphor may fully explain these images, in the first place why they are to be found mostly, though not exclusively, in the margins of Psalters and Books of Hours. As for the reason why this particular image became so popular, this is arguably because it humorously but effectively brings across a few fundamental home truths of Christian spirituality: that the fight between good and evil is not yet over; that the Tempter especially attacks the virtuous and the brave; and that no human defense is possible against man’s eternal enemy: only God can deliver man from temptation. It is to God then, not to the Snail, that the Knight kneels in prayer as in Knight v Snail VII. Interestingly the text of these two folios are lines 4-11 of Psalm 7, one of the Penitential Psalms, beginning “O Lord my God, in thee have I put my trust: save me from all them that persecute me, and deliver me; lest he devour my soul, like a lion, and tear it in pieces: while there is none to help” (KJV). The roaring lion in the margin above the knight and the pitiful face opposite seem to confirm the point. Similarly, in Knight v Snail VI the praying Knight kneels in front of a sword suggestive of the Cross and set up between him and the Beast. The Cross is in fact the real weapon of the combat, its very sign enough to defeat the dragon or any other shape infernal powers would take.

This approach may contribute to account for other equally baffling details in the Knight v Snail genre of marginalia. For instance, there is something looking very much like a serpent twisted around the blade of the sword that the Knight points at the Snail in a Knight v Snail image of the Macclesfield Psalter (MS M214, online). This can be explained as portraying the analogy Jesus established between the episode of Moses in the desert lifting up a bronze serpent on a standard, so that “when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived” (Numbers 21:8), and His own death on the Cross, when He would be lifted up upon it, so that whoever looks up in faith at Him – that is, believes in Him - shall have eternal life (John 3:14-15).

Naturally it may well be that, as most scholars maintain, the Knight v Snail image did not have just one meaning, its symbolism depending on several factors (text, context, etc.). Thus, for instance, it is felt that it cannot be associated with genitalia ‘when found at the edges of a royal charter bearing the seal of Edward III of England’ (Camille 1992). It may even be that this image never was a symbol of anything in the first place, if one is to go by the Ur-image in question, reputedly a motif in the pattern-book (c. 1230) of Villard d’Honnecourt (MS 19093, Bibliothèque Nationale de France). A commentary to the portfolio examines the two drawings of a ‘Standing Soldier’ and of a ‘Snail’ in folio 2r separately, firmly declaring them to be unrelated (Barnes 2009). Apparently, if not the entire Snail in Villard’s portfolio then at least the Snail’s four horns (an inaccuracy not attributable to Villard) were drawn in the fifteenth century. This has been interpreted as a playful reference to the cowardice of a knight fleeing a hare (Bucher 1979), a theme originating with the Roman de Renart (c 1170), well documented in medieval reliefs of the thirteenth century. It is felt therefore that the snail motif could be a later addition to the story.

As it is, the Knight v Snail images put online by the British Library do not seem to support the prevailing view arguing for the cowardice of the Knight. In fact, no Knight is portrayed fleeing in the face of the enemy: he either kneels to pray, as I suggest, or runs up to attack the Beast (Knight v Snail), or balances perilously giving it fight (Knight v Snail II), or charges at it fully armed and mounted (Knight v Snail III), or holds, however grimly, his ground against it (Knight v Snail V). But the armed Knight can also be seen advancing on lion’s feet and dragon’s wings against two small defenseless snails (Knight v Snail IV). This is clearly a combat à armes inégales, and since such images used to portray the superiority of good over evil (Wirth 2008), this would confirm that the one of Knight v Snail is a spiritual combat. As for monkeys and rabbits – or rather apes and hares – enacting similar Knight-v-Snail scenes, they seem to back up the above interpretation in that, when they meet the Snail, the ape ‘apes’ the Knight and bravely takes its stand (Knight v Snail VIII), while ‘timid hare’ as determinedly jousts against it (Knight v Snail IX). In fact, if the image of a knight fleeing a hare is fun (it did resurface with the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975), that of a knight surrendering to a crawling snaca is an altogether different proposition.

Maria Stella Florio

Oh, needy knights of Ni,
Bon chance to you, fair knights of Ni,
bright keepers of the sacred word of Ni itself.
Good hunting to you while riding by, needful knights of Ni,
if but deserving of less sufferance than is due
than this quest reserves for you, noble Knights of Ni.
Yet with it being neither less nor more of what you are,
with nothing you go for it, brave knights of Ni;
nor by doing so, lack it, or not fulfil in full
your needful destiny to do with it.
Ah, noble ones of the order of the knights of Ni,
rejoice, as it can be done, oh noble knights of Ni.
But hark, yet none know the dread heartaches
of being noble knights of Ni none better
than the noble knights of Ni themselves;
nor none better know now, or nor later on neither,
that those heartaches will lead them to it itself also;
so rejoice that needful things near at hand also
will come flowing from the knights of Ni themselves,
in their knightly quest for eternal over-exuberance.
Noble knights, this is your needful quest fulfilled,
oh noble knights of Ni, to become much more
than legend or old song in the hearts of men of old;
perhaps men not from the noble order of Ni themselves,
but equally insistent in their quest for enlightened intercourse.
Oh, noble knights of Ni, on questing on your knightly errantry
based on being from Ni itself, continue being so,
in being those noble knights from Ni itself,
sublime country in all its purity; yet it was nobly done,
noble knights of Ni, so hastily flashing by in shining armour,
even to attempt such a noble quest for it itself,
one so nobly based on the sacred word it itself represents.
Yes, nobly done, knights of Ni, nobly done.

An interesting article about snails and perspective:

My favourites among the theories are about fighting sin, sloth, corruption, darkness or death -- even disease. Psalm 58:8 says "As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun."

Several of the snails have small roundels on their shells. Do the roundels have any known meaning?

I came across this snail on a rabbit's arm pretending to be a hawk Most probably a monk's amusing fantasy

I don't think knights were especially admired by monks, or indeed by anyone of lower station than they were. Knights were only useful when there was a war to be fought, and when there wasn't, they literally run roughshod over the peasants and lower clergy during their endless hunts and sport, Let's remember that the best of knights were trained killers, while the worst were probably just arrogant bullies.with almost unlimited local power to do as they pleased.

To me, the knight v, snail image is the monks' way of ridiculing these pestiferous nobles, who, despite their steeds and armor, can't even defeat a lowly snail.

Could it be as simple as representing a peoples such as the French eating escargot.

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