The marginalia of illuminated manuscripts is weird. When monks weren't complaining about their jobs as they hand-copied line after line, they were inserting fart jokes into the margins. But one weirdly persistent image is of knights battling snails. Why?
The British Library's Medieval Manuscripts Blog discusses the various theories surrounding snail combat. The truth is, no one knows exactly why this image is so popular in medieval marginalia of the 13th and 14th centuries. It pops up in genealogical rolls, in Psalters, in the Book of Hours, and near images of the Resurrection of Lazarus. The snails generally appear to be on the winning side of the fight. Mysterious as they are, the images have inspired a great deal of speculation:
Other scholars have variously described the ‘knight v snail’ motif as a representation of the struggles of the poor against an oppressive aristocracy, a straightforward statement of the snail’s troublesome reputation as a garden pest, a commentary on social climbers, or even as a saucy symbol of female sexuality. 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’. This motif was part of a rich visual tradition that we can understand only imperfectly today – not that this will stop us from trying!
Nor does it stop us from simply enjoying the absurdity of the images. There are more over at the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.