Here’s a little medieval mystery for you. Why is the following image funny?
What we have here is your basic snail/knight standoff. 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.
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. The snail vs. knight motif was first [and probably last] seriously examined by Lillian Randall back in the 60′s; in “The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare”* 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!
I’ve never been entirely convinced by that explanation, but I’ve also never been able to come up with a better one. So I toss it out to you. What’s so funny about a knight attacking a snail?
The image above is from the Macclesfield Psalter. Here’s another from Morgan MS M453:
*Even though it sounds like something I’d make up, it’s real and it’s famous. See Speculum** 37.