What’s So Funny about Knights and Snails? (Mmm… Marginalia #46)

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.

**Non-medievalists might also think that “Speculum” is just me taking the joke further. But, no, sadly, we medievalists work our asses off to publish in a journal named after a device used in gynecological checkups.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • woolymonkey

    But snails are a fearsome foe! Anyone who's tried to grow their own food in damp old Europe without chemical slug pellets knows that.
    The knight is fighting a battle his muddy peasant inferiors wage 24/7. OK, so it's funnier if you still live in the feudal system.

  • Harry

    Do snails eat vellum? In which case the knights could be defending the manuscript itself.

  • Eyebrows McGee

    I think snails are inherently funny, all spirally and slimey and having those weird little antennae thingies

  • Seamyst

    I think it could be because snails are slow-moving creatures, which means that the idea of them as a threat (especially to an armed knight) is laughable.

  • Plover

    Seamyst: But knights are also slow-moving creatures, what with the armor and all. I think it's funny because the armor makes a knight well-defended but plodding and clumsy, just like a snail. It's only natural that they would have a mighty battle. The knight is fighting so hard not because he's afraid the snail is gonna get him, but because they're so well-matched in defense and both so unable to maneuver to any advantage that it's almost guaranteed to be a standoff.

    Well, I think it's funny.

  • Nathaniel

    You should play this for your video game week:
    http://www.gamersgate.com/DDB-CKDV/crusader-kings-complete-bundle

    Here's a tutorial, since the interface makes no sense at first:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7vXXKXQSSU

    It's a medieval dynasty simulator (marry your people to other families and make sure you always have an heir) and is from a Swedish company that produces ridiculously detailed games (Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Victoria, Hearts of Iron) in the same engine up to 1962 or thereabouts. In fact, you can start from Crusader Kings and keep on loading your save file in the subsequent games and thus play from 1066-1962. I mean, read the blurb for the game: "Unique historical setting – reenact the crusades, defend against the mongol onslaught, and form feudal nation-states in Europe. A simulation of a feudal society, as never before seen in a game, involving laws, commisions, nobles, priests, burghers and peasants as well as religious influences."

    I think it would provide an object lesson in why most people would prefer a game of Joust.

  • pastpresenters

    Oh, but surely it's because a snail is simply a snake with a spiral on its back. What more pagan a foe could you possibly ask for?!

  • Steve Muhlberger

    I like Randall's explanation. And her title..

  • K

    http://pre-gebelin.blogspot.com/2009/04/witless-warrior.html

    "Instead, like the disparate examples of flies discussed above, each image is a unique depiction relying on alternative associations, radically different compositions, and varied surrounding context to make different points. The snail, although sometimes used in such idiosyncratic manner, also tended toward a conventional meaning. The harmless and fearful snail was associated with cowardice in the same way that the fearsome and courageous lion was associated with fortitude.
    [1410 manuscript]

    There have been many interpretations of the ubiquitous knight and snail motif since…. Lilian Randall argued that in 29 different manuscripts made between 1290 and 1320 the knighting the snail was associated with a particular ethnic group in medieval society—the cowardly Lombards, who not only bore the stigma of being turncoats but who, along with the Jews, were Europe's bankers. The snail has been resurrected again in the broader context of folklore studies as a shifting sign for various groups in society. In some places it is an object of terror for knights, in others it is attacked by peasants, tailors and other 'low' groups. The snail emerging from its shell was associated with the social climber; its shape and size linked it to the genitals of women and hermaphrodites."

    A rather fascinating subject, the knight and the snail, and I see myself spending far too much time looking into this, which is never a bad thing!

  • William Starbreaker

    I'd think the Knight and snail would be best buds, what with the snail being made of God's nails and all.

  • Sigivald

    Plover: Oh, but a knight isn't all that slow, even off horseback.

    Outside of late-period jousting armor and that of the era right before firearms advances made it too heavy to wear and still stop a bullet, armored combatants could be quite fast and agile.

    Neither of these guys are in full plate; the bottom one appears to be entirely unarmored.

    I'm with Seamyst as an initial impression, though I'm sure the analyses K quotes have truth to them.

  • Oldman

    These things were still a problem in 1957.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050722/

  • Sara

    Is it possible that the slime trail left by a snail would react disastrously with medieval inks applied to uncoated fibrous papers? I have lashed out fiercely at instructors and co-students who attempt to contaminate my press sheets by sketching suggested revisions atop them.

  • A Castle of Romance

    It's a Knight… and snail… seriously what's more funny than that?

  • Ben

    Isn't the snail sexual? Thought I'd heard that somewhere (probably Camille). So then maybe it's a humorous/pious image of the virile warrior attempting to battle his urges. Sex and chivalry are all mixed up, of course – look at Rose manuscripts and ivories with Romance scenes on them.

  • Ellira

    It's obvious. They're not knights … they're gardeners.

  • henchminion

    I think the top image is another historical martial arts joke. The poor knight was out in public just minding his own business (but carrying his sheathed sword in his right hand just in case, like any self-respecting nobleman). Suddenly, he was ambushed by a snail. Now he doesn't have time to assume a nice en garde, so he's all flustered and drawing left-handed. His plan is to use a technique described in Fiore dei Liberi's Flos Duellatorum and buy himself some time by poking the snail in the eye with his scabbard chape. When a snail attacks, you've got to be fast.

  • Rev’d Chris Larimer

    I think the joke goes something like this:

    The knight thought that he would leave behind a trail of triumph over the gruesome beastie…but itsnot.

  • pilgrimchick

    Snails. Who would have thought? Perhaps the real answer lies in something that is actually lost to us at this point. I don't entirely buy the argument about the armor-snail-knight, although it does have merit. I think the flaw in the argument is that it is too much imposing a modern viewpoint on the past.

  • B-17

    I am not making this up: I had a potted plant I set outside for some time. I brought it back inside, and set it next to some books on my bookshelf. The closest book was my copy of the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf.
    Unbeknownst to me, while the plant was outside, a snail had crawled into it.
    The snail transferred itself (slowly, I assume) onto my copy of Beowulf.
    It actually ate a chunk of the paper out of the edges of the pages before I discovered it some time later, and chucked it unceremoniously back out of doors.

    So to this day, my copy of Beowulf is snail-scarred. (It was only a few millimeters' worth of damage, but still. It's a good book.)

    So it's possible that the knight is actually intended to protect the physical pages of the manuscript: in answer to a previous commenter's question, yes, snails eat all kinds of things.

    I would think, however, if that is the situation, that sometimes the snails would be replaced with, I dunno, insects that more commonly afflict libraries? Woodworms, silverfish, booklice (apparently they're a real thing?), cockroaches, that sort of thing.

    Anyway, I mostly just thought I'd comment because of the funny coincidence.

  • Nicolas Holzapfel

    It is kind of funny. You'd expect there to be a monstrous beast or at least a fearsome opponent knight so a snail does seem pretty ridiculous. Can't quite raise a smile from the funniness but maybe the humour threshold was lower for people raised in those dark pre cartoon network days.

  • Ron

    Maybe there were actually giant snails back then. Giant snails that could spit a deadly stream of acid a full twenty paces. The corrosive effects of their own internal acids dissolved their shells shortly after they died which explains why no remains have ever been found.

  • Fr. Chris Larimer

    Ron, They're gone because the Knights were in the last vestiges of an extensive mop-up campaign. That's why you don't see giant snails, unicorns, dragons, or compassionate conservatives.

  • Taranaich

    Anyone who questions whether snails can be imposing or outright terrifying should read Patrica Highsmith's "The Quest for Blank Claveringi." Snails are horrifying.

  • Youdontneed

    …why is the knight in the first pic resting his arm on his outstretched sword (and what's that twisting around it? a snake?)? And why is the second knight's arm all twisty-like?

  • Youdontneed

    Oh wait that's not his arm! That's his…. uh… 3-inch wide cape? Every time I look at either of these pictures, I find myself asking more questions.

  • Giovanni Grosskopf

    I’m myself investigating this subject with a deep research on “snail-related” nursery rhymes throughout the world. This research is now only in Italian, but I will translate it into English as soon as possible. It seems that these medieval concepts were a harsh parody of much more ancient (likely, prehistorical) beliefs, related to agricultural sacrificial rites. Please see:
    http.//www.GKweb.it/spiral

  • Notfrmmars

    The snail represents slow inevitable creeping death. Note the sword with a snake (medicus) wrapped about the sheath used to represent health care, eg. the barber of olde. Then again maybe it’s just a hoot, which it is.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003385246029 Steve McCarter

    I think they were making fun of the French.  Escargot… Escarwent.

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  • Michelle Hermark

    The thing is dangling from the arm of the second snail knight, it’s just part of his garment. And embellishment on the sleeve that is superfluous but fashionable.

    As far as why they would draw it, I think there’s some wordplay at work here. (I know that you say that it shows up everywhere, but is there a particular subject or language in use when these pop up?). Or, possibly, it has something to do with the way that illumination illustrators were trained?

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  • liz

    My take – the snail, which appears surprisingly often as a border item see Tres Riche Heures and many many other floral borders…I THINK represents those who are slothful about their religion – curl up into their shells and refuse to think deeply about their souls. Thus knights fighting and winning is a goal for the good – and when not, they’ve lost to the bad side. But why snails appear so very very often still puzzles me since they aren’t a positive representation except as a reminder to keep up the good fight etc etc

  • Pete

    Re snails and knights . I have no idea if this has any bearing on the subject . But children in Britain used to play the game , “conquers ” with snail shells . Today it is played with the Horse chestnut , (Aesculus hippocastanum ) .

  • Leqy

    Maybe it has no deeper meaning, but is just an expression of some kind of humor; like you suggested, a kind of joke.
    Or maybe the snail equals some kind of Christian symbolism, a symbol of some sort of evil, like sloth. In medieval and Christian art it is very common to see animals, like hares, which for some reason symbolize unbridled sexuality, as symbols for human nature or memento mori. That might be the reason.
    Or it can be that the knight and the snail are a depiction of a fable or a folks tale, the hoi po that we do not know about today

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