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Knight v Snail – Medieval manuscripts weblog

Knight v Snail – Medieval manuscripts weblog

2023-06-08 01:56:04

Just lately a gaggle of us went into our manuscripts retailer to take a look at some medieval genealogical rolls.  We have been inspecting Royal MS 14 B V, an English roll from the final a part of the thirteenth century that accommodates numerous marginalia, when certainly one of our post-medieval colleagues seen a portray of a knight partaking in fight 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 thirteenth century, Royal MS 14 B V, membrane 3)

This struck him as odd, which struck the medievalists within the group as odd; certainly everybody has seen this type of factor earlier than, proper?  As anybody who’s aware of thirteenth and 14th century illuminated manuscripts can attest, photos of armed knights combating snails are widespread, particularly in marginalia.  However the ubiquity of those depictions doesn’t make them any much less unusual, and we had an extended dialogue about what such photos would possibly imply.

A marginal illustration from the Gorleston Psalter, showing a knight in combat with a snail.
Knight v Snail II:  Battle within 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 was a lot scholarly debate in regards to the significance of those depictions of snail fight.  As early as 1850, the magnificently-named bibliophile the Comte de Bastard theorised {that a} specific marginal picture of a snail was meant to symbolize the Resurrection, since he found it in two manuscripts near miniatures of the Elevating of Lazarus.  In her well-known survey of the topic, Lilian Randall proposed that the snail was an emblem of the Lombards, a gaggle vilified within the early center ages for treasonous behaviour, the sin of usury, and ‘non-chivalrous comportment usually.’  This interpretation accounts for why the snail is so incessantly seen antagonising a knight in armour, however doesn’t clarify why the knight is usually depicted on the dropping finish of this battle, or why this specific picture grew to become so common within the margins of non-historical texts comparable to 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: Excessive Jousting (from Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor, France (Picardy), c. 1315-1325, Yates Thompson MS 19, f. 65r)

Different students have variously described the ‘knight v snail’ motif as a illustration of the struggles of the poor towards an oppressive aristocracy, a simple assertion of the snail’s troublesome popularity as a backyard pest, a commentary on social climbers, and even as a saucy image of feminine sexuality.  It’s doable that these photos might have meant all this stuff and extra at one time or one other; you will need to keep in mind, as Michael Camille, who devoted quite a few pages to this topic, as soon as wrote: ‘marginal imagery lacks the iconographic stability of a non secular narrative or icon’.   This motif was a part of a wealthy visible custom that we are able to perceive solely imperfectly as we speak – not that this may cease us from making an attempt!

A marginal illustration from the Queen Mary Psalter, showing snails atacking a knight in combat with a dragon.
Knight v Snail IV:  The Snails Assault (from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 148r)

Some extra of our favorite British Library photos are beneath, and please tell us what you suppose. You possibly can go away a remark beneath, or we are able to all the time 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 (most likely 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 Fairly Complete Defeat (from a fragmentary Ebook 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 is 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:  Only for Enjoyable:  A Rabbit, Monkeys, and a Snail Jousting (from the Harley Froissart, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470-1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v)


See Also

Additional Studying

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

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

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


Go to our Medieval England and France web site to find how to make a medieval manuscript, to learn beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to study medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.

– Sarah J Biggs

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