This week, my friend A.P. steered me towards one of the most absurdly delightful things I’ve seen in a long time: illuminated medieval manuscripts featuring knights doing battle with snails. Yes, literal snails. Flying snails, no less.
There’s a brief discussion in the British Library blog post about what the knight vs snail motif might mean. (There’s also pedantry galore in the comments!) The snails might represent the Resurrection, the Lombards, or the struggle of the poor against the aristocracy. The snail might even be “a saucy symbol of female sexuality”! Or, it seems, anything you can imagine.
Not only must these knights battle giant levitating snails, they are sometimes conquered by them.
I’m not a medievalist and I’m not going to offer an alternative theory about what the snails represent. (Okay, I can’t resist one: might this not be the medieval equivalent of LOLCats/I Can Haz Cheezburger? A joke that becomes a meme? Scribing monks needed to blow off steam, too.)
Haven’t we all felt like these beleaguered knights, at some point? Life is hectic, you’ve got your head down concentrating on Very Serious Work, and suddenly you find yourself in full (uncomfortable, heavy, pinching) armour, doing battle with outsized gastropods. If you’re especially lucky, you’ve sprouted dragon’s wings and a splendid tail.
The knight vs snail motif also does something dear to my heart: it brings the past closer to us. It allows us to see thirteenth-century manuscript illuminators as real people by showing us their silly, distracted, human side. They, like us, are people who might doodle flying snails in the margins of important works.
Also, sometimes, monkeys.
The original blog post is here, with several more images. I really don’t think you’ll regret clicking.