The Case of the Missing Snail Porn (Mmm… Marginalia)

If you wish to study the Middle Ages, you must learn to steel yourself against loss, for everywhere you look you will be reminded of time’s relentlessly destructive hand. Cathedrals and castles crumble, manuscripts fade and molder, armor and swords rust away. More tragic still are the things that disappeared before we ever knew to look for them. Chaucer’s Book of the Lion is nowhere to be seen, and neither is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Book of Exiles, nor Chretien de Troyes’ Tristan and Isolde–and if these famous authors can be so easily lost, what hope is there for the not-so-famous?*

This week’s installment of everyone’s favorite obscurely named semi-recurring feature,** sadly, concerns itself with one of these all too frequent moments of loss. We can find the familiar tragedy unfolding in the margins of Morgan Library MS 358, a fifteenth-century French book of Hours. Its opening movement concerns a theme now well-known by Got Medieval readers: snail warfare. But this time, the combatant is no knight, but rather a naked lady emerging from a flower:


Sorry for the squint-inducing picture. For reasons I don’t understand, the Morgan Library has no good closeup of the snail online, but they do provide one of the nude combatant:


A few leaves later in the manuscript, the story continues. The snail, it seems, has fled his enemy, fled to the one place where he feels safe–between the legs of this naked guy:


Why do naked men love snails and naked women fear them? The manuscript was clearly poised to answer this question, once upon a time, but for some reason–possibly the death of the artist, possibly the death of his patron–the story is left frustratingly unfinished. A few pages later, we find the pencil sketch for the next chapter in this epic tale of erotic snail love:


I apologize once more for the squinty images, but your eyestrain here must be blamed on the manuscript and not the Morgan. Since the pictures were never completed, all we have is the much harder to make out underdrawing. Squint hard and ask yourself: Is that the woman from before, now riding a snail of her own? Has she, under the tutelage of the man from a few pages earlier, learned to embrace the special bond between naked man and snail? It’s hard to say. But the story was meant to continue, for just a little while later, we find the naked man and his snail have returned:


Where dost they ride? Why, to a woman emerging from a flower! Voila:


Has he found the magical land where the snail-hating women are born? Does he ride his snail on to vengeance against those who might brandish swords at his molusckin brother? Or did he discover his snail cheated on him with the lady earlier? The world, sadly–oh, the humanity!–will never know.

*What do you mean, Chaucer and Geoffrey were probably lying? Next thing, you’ll tell me that there was no certain very ancient book–or no Easter Wolfman!
**It’s a fact! Though the three M’s in “Mmm… Marginalia” are conventionally held to be an acronym for “Medieval Marginalia Monday,” in actuality the third M stands for “Maybe this Monday, maybe next Monday–who knows? I’m fickle that way.”

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  • ncm

    It ought to be pretty clear by now that snails represent socially inconvenient erections. Or something.

  • Harry Campbell

    "To whence"??

  • http://twitter.com/bklynharuspex nbmandel

    Harry, you don’t mention “where dost they”?  But what I really wanted to note was the crazy measling of gold dots on the unfinished pages: love that. 

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