Historians Have Been Trying to Solve the Following Enigma for Decades: What Are Medieval Warrior Snails?

  • Dozens of 13th- and 15th-century works were decorated with images of large mollusks and knights.

  • Some experts say they're a social or a resurrection metaphor. Others see them as satirical elements that make fun of the enemy.

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For years, researchers have been trying to unravel the mystery behind the giant warrior snails depicted in illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. Despite hours of academic debate, historical essays, and theories, there has been no definitive explanation. What exactly are these strange mollusks with a threatening demeanor portrayed in dozens of 13th-, 14th-, and 15th-century manuscripts fighting with knights?

Although there are several hypotheses, none of them provide a clear answer.

Warrior snails. An oxymoron, I know. However, they were a recurring motif in manuscripts during the 13th to 15th centuries. Snails were depicted facing knights while equipped with shields, swords, and armor. These images varied, with some snails appearing as giants while others were small. They were sometimes floating and perched on elevated surfaces, or even crawling on the ground. Despite the variations in their appearance, the snails were almost always depicted pointing their antennas at their opponents.

The knights were also depicted in various ways. Some appeared to be in full battle mode with the snails, threatening them with swords, axes, and sticks. They also faced off against them while holding maces and riding their horses. Others were shown kneeling before their gastropod opponents in a submissive attitude, almost in supplication. The iconography of these manuscripts was extremely rich. There are known images of ladies begging their knights not to confront the snails. There is even at least one case where a woman seems to face the mollusk with a spear and a shield.

History 1

Are there really that many of them? Quite a lot, actually, at least enough to captivate experts for decades. Over the years, researchers have formulated many theories to explain what they represent. In fact, it’s known that these images were already attracting the attention of bibliophiles in 1850. More recently, in 1962, scholar Lilian M.C. Randall published wrote The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare study, published by the journal Speculum. In it, she talked about these representations and explained their possible meanings. Randall counted 70 examples of the snails in 29 different works, most of them drawn between 1290 and 1310.

The images of warriors crawling with shells, antennas, and a slimy tail have continued to fascinate experts from institutions like the Smithsonian or the British Library. In 2013, the British Library published an article dedicated to these illustrations of knights confronting the gastropods, including a dozen reproductions showing knights and snails in scenes that could’ve been the work of the best surrealist artists. In one of them, taken from the Gorleston Psalter, we see that, instead of a soldier, the snail is fighting a monkey carrying a shield and a sable.

Tracing the origins. It’s not only interesting to see what they show but also when and where these illustrations were first created. “As anyone who is familiar with 13th and 14th century illuminated manuscripts can attest, images of armed knights fighting snails are common, especially in marginalia. But the ubiquity of these depictions doesn’t make them any less strange,” researchers at the British Library state.

Experts believe that the first instances of such designs were found in illuminated manuscripts in northern France around 1290. Over the years, they spread to other Flemish and English works. Although this motif lost its popularity later on, it resurfaced briefly in manuscripts produced as early as the late 15th century.

Examples of these peculiar illustrations can be found in various works, including a late 13th-century genealogical list of the kings of England; the fascinating Gorleston Psalter; Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor; the Queen Mary Psalter, a 14th-century work named after Mary I of England; the Smithfields Decretals; and the Macclesfield Psalter; among many others.

The big mystery. Medievalists have documented dozens of examples, but there’s one thing that remains uncertain: What do these snails even mean? Not a single answer has achieved consensus in the academic community.

“There has been much scholarly debate about the significance of these depictions of snail combat,” the British Library states. One reason why this is still a mystery could be that the snails are present in all sorts of texts such as psalteries, books of hours, the famous Book of Treasures, and even on carved panels from the early 14th century found in the Lyon Cathedral. Moreover, the images often seem to have no connection with their context at all.

From satire to social commentary. The image of a knight facing snails in medieval art has several interpretations. Some suggest that it was intended to be a humorous and satirical portrayal, providing readers with a light-hearted fun from the serious nature of the works. Others believe that the knight’s encounter with the snails represents cowardice, or even serves as a metaphor for resurrection, female sexuality, or the fight between the rich and the wealthy.

“The snail-knight fight is an example of the world turned upside down, a broader phenomenon that produced a lot of different medieval images,” Marian Bleeke, a professor of medieval art at the University of Chicago, told the BBC. “The basic idea is the overturning of existing or expected hierarchies. It is supposed to be surprising and even funny–I think we get that implicitly today."

Making fun of the Lombards? One popular theory, first suggested by Randall in the 1960s, is that the snail could be a symbol of the Lombards. A British Library study describes them as “a group vilified in the early Middle Ages for treasonous behavior, the sin of usury, and ‘non-chivalrous comportment in general.’”

Several other experts have supported this interpretation. They argue that the Lombards were represented as a group dedicated to usury and had a bad reputation in medieval France, where many of the images of the warrior gastropods were created. However, this theory is not without controversy. Some experts are skeptical and question whether the theory can explain why snail drawings became so popular in Europe.

A never-ending metaphor. Another possibility is that the warrior snails didn’t have just one meaning and that they were used as symbols with multiple interpretations depending on their context. As such, rather than being a straightforward symbol, the mollusk’s meaning would be inseparable from the environment in which it appears.

“I just don’t think that’s how images work. I would want to look at how the snail was represented, what it looked liked, and where it was located, in order to think about the meaning being made in a specific instance,” Bleeke said.

Researchers at the British Library seem to agree: “It is possible that these images could have meant all these things and more at one time or another; it is important to remember, as Michael Camille, who devoted a number of pages to this subject, once wrote: ‘marginal imagery lacks the iconographic stability of a religious narrative or icon.’”

Image | British Library

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