Why Were Medieval Knights Often Pictured Fighting Giant Snails?

Alexandra Dantzer
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Photo by British Library

In 2013 a group of medievalists from Britain went into a store to look up medieval genealogical scrolls. During their visit they came across a late-13th century manuscript from England titled Royal MS 14 B V.

Scrolls and manuscripts dating back to the 13th and 14th century often contain broad margins and blank space that was filled with different notes and drawings done by the readers.

The scroll they stumbled upon was heavily loaded with marginalia. Among it all was a drawing of a knight fighting a snail.

MS Royal 14 B V

The drawing struck the post-medieval historians as odd and funny, but experts of the period did not see anything strange about it. Funnily enough, gothic manuscripts abound with depictions of a snail vs knight standoff.

According to the Got Medieval: “You get these all the time in the margins of gothic manuscripts. And I do mean all the time. They’re everywhere! Sometimes the knight is mounted, sometimes not. Sometimes the snail is monstrous, sometimes tiny. Sometimes the snail is all the way across the page, sometimes right under the knight’s foot. Usually, the knight is drawn so that he looks worried, stunned, or shocked by his tiny foe.”

Photo: Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor, c 1315-1325 via British Library

Historians have been pondering over these phenomena for quite some time now, but it seems they have not yet managed to come to a unified answer. What is the medieval fascination with knights — brave and strong heroes — fighting such a helpless animal all about?.

The first serious contemporary study of this odd phenomenon was written in the 1960s by Lillian Randall. In her book The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare she presented one hypothesis to explain the reasoning behind these drawings.

The Queen Mary Psalter, c 1310-1320 Photo by  British Library

As Got Medieval summarizes “She suggests that perhaps the joke is that snails, what with the shells they carry on their backs and can hide away in, are 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. Silly knight, it’s just a snail!”

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However, not everyone is satisfied with this solution. In 1850 Comte de Bastard presented his idea that the depictions could serve as a metaphor of Resurrection.

The reason behind this interpretation was that in two manuscripts the drawing was in the vicinity of the miniature depicting the raising of Lazarus.

Photo by British Library

Lillian Randall proposed a further explanation that could account for the fact that snails so often antagonized the knights, but she could not explain why the knight was always supposed to lose the battle.

As reported by The British Library: “Lilian Randall proposed that the snail was a symbol of the Lombards, a group vilified in the early middle ages for treasonous behavior, the sin of usury, and ‘non-chivalrous comportment in general.’ ”

A further explanation put forward by some scholars sees the pictures as a representation of class struggles. It could be that the snail represents the poor classes while the knight stands for aristocracy. The hopeful creators found a way to grant the victory to the poor, even when it is only on the piece of paper.

Furthermore, snails could be the embodiment of social climbers, slowly but surely winning their place among the higher ranks in society. Or they could be a metaphor for women. Lastly, maybe they are just a straightforward representation of snails as annoying garden pests that are hard to get rid of.

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Be that as it may, it will be hard for us to understand the motifs behind these curious drawings. The problem is that as they are marginal they lack a stability of official and formalized narratives or symbols. This, however, leaves us with more room for imagination.