Jun 17, 2016

Snails and Symbolism | RAW Special Edition

How Can A Snail Be Linked To An Unsolved Mystery?

Over the time that I have been collecting interesting web articles I've come across several posts about the prevalence of snails fighting knights in the margins of illustrated medieval manuscripts.   What's that all about?  I hear you ask...  Well the simple answer is 'We don't know, it's a mystery'

Leaveth mine own cabbages beyou foul beast from hell.

Apparently it's very common to see images of armed knights fighting snails, especially in hand drawn margins.  Just because these doodles can be found everywhere it doesn't mean that the experts have any idea what they mean.  Most of these images show the snails generally on the winning side and the knights who are facing them bewildered or scared. Those who comment on these images believe that it's some sort of private joke that has been lost over time.

Clearly, medieval readers thought there was something funny, or at least interesting, about the scene, since they drew it so often, but none of them bothered to write down what that was anywhere that we’ve found. 1

Not much study has been done into these doodles but one name that keeps coming up is the academic Lillian Randall. She examined this topic back in the 1960's and she suggests that this is 'some sort of parody of a highly-armored chivalric foe. We’re supposed to laugh at the idea of a knight being afraid of attacking such a “heavily armored” opponent.' 1

There are a few reasons put forth as what the insidious doodles means.  I've outlined a few below along with a list of some of the articles about this. While being a little odd to our modern minds, I thought this may be something that could provoke you to think about symbolism and how you could use it in your own writing.

 What do you think the symbolism could be? Let me know in the comments or on my Google+ page.

Sit back with your favourite beverage and enjoy reading.  Maybe a beaker of honeyed mead or mulled wine would go with these articles.

Satire On So-called Chivalrous Behaviour - Cowardice.

According to Randall the over all theme here is satire.

Since human knights are often seen trembling before—or, indeed, losing to—the harmless, slow-moving snails, it makes sense that the image is a way to emphasize cowardice. 2
Another author on the subject Elizabeth Moore Hunt says
…the natural baseness of the animal makes it unworthy prey for splendid jousting gear and thus a humorous parody of the knight in arms. 2
From the book, Illuminating the Borders of Northern French and Flemish Manuscripts, 1270-1310

Brave warriors attacking what looks to be an inferior foe who instead stands to face them rather than flee. A social commentary on the true nature of the knights?

Accepting defeat against a superior foe?

Battle Against Entropy

A comment on the Britishlibrary blog titled Knight v Snail proposed that it was the scribe envisioning himself as a warrior in the battle against entropy.  I quite liked this theory.

The people who copied manuscripts were almost exclusively lifelong devotees of monastic life.  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. 3
User: Vveshka
Practicing your aim on a small target could prove beneficial in the lists.

Biblical Symbolism.

Several commentators thought the doodles may symbolise Biblical motifs.  James Brown 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  1Samuel 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.4
User: James Brown

Digital Medievalist, Lisa Spangenberg floated another idea. She says that:
The armored snail fighting the armored knight is a reminder of the inevitability of death,” a sentiment captured in Psalm 58 of the bible: “Like a snail that melteth away into slime, they shall be taken away; like a dead-born child, they shall not see the sun.”5

Socio-Political Symbolism and Cultural Change

Elizabeth Moore Hunt also suggests another possible meaning:
(The) threatening snail is ‘social-climbing.’ The growth of the urban bourgeois and patrician classes resulted in struggles between the count and the towns; meanwhile the nobility was experiencing social anxieties in the face of increased monarchial power.2

In a similar vein 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.2

So those cute little snails could be xenophobic stand-ins for an oppressed Germanic group—pushed to the literal margins of the page.2   ( I love that quote.)
But even Randall isn’t exactly sure. She concludes her essay on a note of scholarly doubt, settling somewhere between the Lombard theory and general knightly satire.2

One theory that wasn't discussed was what if those snails are literal?  What sort of Fantasy story could you spin out of that?

Articles to Check out

  1. What's So Funny About Knights And Snails?
  2. The Marginalized Art Of Snail Fighting In Medieval Europe
  3. BritishLibrary DigitisedManuscripts: Knight Vs Snail
  4. The Humility Of Snails Part-1
  5. SmithsonianMag: Why Were Medieval Knights Always Fighting Snails?
The only way to defeat the Snail of Caerbannog is to use the Holy Hand Grenade. 

Interested in mysterious medieval manuscripts? Why not check out my article The Most Mysterious Book in World

Want to read more on the snail subject? 

Want to read more on this subject? Try
Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art
by Michael Camille
Use this link to grab yourself a copy from Amazon.

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