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Margi-snail-ia

Holy effing sheetz, it is only Tuesday.

Not that I’m like dying for life to fly by at this point… I just wish that the weekdays didn’t drag on for 15 years while the weekend lasts only 15 minutes (tops).

I can’t take much more of this 9 (6am) to 5 (7:30pm) business. It’s not in my constitution. My spirit is sick.

Lately, I’ve been been documenting this slow passage of weekday-time by drawing snails on my Wednesday bullet journal entries. Following a month of this personal trend, justhistoryposts happened to write a blog about medieval snail marginalia week before last, of all things! As he/she/it (I think she’s a she, I’m pretty sure, let’s go with that) did a great job of cogently breaking down this subject (linked above), I’m just going to give you a lazy Weekesian summary, paired with a sound (crazy), in-depth (shallow) analysis (opinion) of some of these illustrations.

So, basically, if you’re a medievalist, you’ve probably noticed that illuminated texts from 12-15th centuries are rife with snail imagery–specifically, snails battling knights. I’m a victorianist, not a medievalist, so I haven’t noticed this. Until now! And omg I luuuuuuuv them!

Knight v Snail 1
Knight With Emoji Shield Takes on Humble Snail (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 193v.)

Apparently, no one knows for sure what these illustrations mean, but that hasn’t stopped hundreds of years of speculation. Here are some of the theories…

In 1850, some bloke named Comte de Bastard (actual name) surmised that the snail was a symbol for the Resurrection in these texts. I don’t really get/buy this one, so I’m not going to spend any time trying to understand why Bastard drew this tenuous parallel.

Knight v Snail 3
Augggggggggghhhh Giant Snail (from the Smithfield Decretals, southern France (probably Toulouse), with marginal scenes added in England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r)

Next up, it has been theorised by some that the snails represent the Lombards. The Lombards were a Germanic people who ruled in Italy-esque from 568 to 774. The Lombards were not very popular. The Lombards were treasonous villains. The Lombards kind of became like a medieval in-joke scapegoat for people who suck. Which doesn’t really explain why they usually seem to be prevailing over the knights in snail-form.

Knight v Snail 4
Please spare me, O Lombardy! (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 162v)

Some peeps (scholars) liken the snail vs knight dynamic to the poor vs rich. I like this idea, but I wonder if it is misapplying our modern sense of social justice to the Middles Ages. Other peeps have suggested that the snails are social climbers, attempting to infiltrate the nobility with their lowly and slimy ways. This maybe seems a more likely fear to symbolise.

Knight v Snail 5
We’re coming for you! Whatever you are supposed to be, dragon man thingy knight! (from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 148r)

I also like the idea of snails being the enemy of the garden-grooming monks/artists of these illuminated texts. It makes sense that the monks would be keen to depict their greatest pest terrorising a knight.

Knight v Snail 2
Naked Man Pleading with Levitating Snail to Give Him Back His Tunic.

Which brings me to the last and most likely (opinion) conclusion: the snails, they be but a joke. Like, maybe one guy drew that funny little cartoon first and then the guy next to him was like, ‘That’s a neat idea!’ and drew another funny little doodle and on and on it went through the years until it finally just became, like, a thing? Because, I mean, it is a funny notion–a great knight cowering before a lowly snail.

What do y’all think? Any other theories?

Bonus snails:

Cat-snail
Cat-Snail! a role Jane was born to play.
Man-snail
Old-Man-Snail Ridden by Rabbit! Like the cat-snail, old-man-snail’s mobility seems questionable. Maybe that’s why the rabbit looks so worried…

This Weekes Word sounds like it relates to snails (mollusks) but…… it doesn’t!

Mulct: from the Latin mulcta, abbreviated to mulct in the 15th century and meaning a fine or penalty. Ex: The monk demanded a mulct from the mollusk who meandered across his memorandum.

xWG // @dazeandweekes // @weekes


Additional reading:

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/09/knight-v-snail.html

Title courtesy of Jeff at ugh@requirements.com

19 thoughts on “Margi-snail-ia Leave a comment

  1. I don’t think that rabbit one is a snail…it’s the world’s ugliest and worst-designed unicycle. My why-the-snail theory is that they were the only (live) animals who would hold still long enough for the monks to draw. Other than cats, who will (as you know) remain sleeping for hours on end (until you want to go to sleep, of course). Whoa! Revelation! Cats curl themselves into a snail-like shape when they sleep!! Which explains the Cat Snail.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How have I been completely ignorant of this until now?! Some of these mollusc-battling images had me in stitches – they really just keep getting weirder the further down you go, don’t they? I must try to track down some margin-snail-ia of my own immediately… You’ve got me wondering if there are any of these lurking in the pages of the Book of Kells, for starters! And although I initially supported the theory of “they’re eating all our veggies, let’s set the knights on them”, I kinda like the idea of this being a fun doodle that caught on and became an in-joke among the monks. They had to get their kicks somehow!

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    • I knowwww… I wish I could sit and flip through all these texts. There *must* be some snail action in the Book of Kells! I love the idea of the monks applying a secular/personal artistry in their adornment of these books (and it makes me feel like I really need to step up my doodle-game). I bet if you looked hard enough, you’d find some primitive renderings of the elusive medieval Beastie lingering in the margins…

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      • It’s entirely possible…I mean, given the way those guys portrayed cats and babies, perhaps art historians have as yet been unable to correctly identify the Beasties dancing around the margins of illuminated texts! 😆 You know, you should probably make sure you hold on to all your bullet journals for future generations to learn from, enjoy and make wild speculations about…

        Liked by 1 person

      • So true. They will especially have fun with the ‘turkey’ that I drew for Thanksgiving (‘were there still dinosaurs at this time?’) and the ‘camel’ I just drew for the December nativity motif (‘oh, another dinosaur!! What could it mean??’), and will doubtless wonder over the type-a freak who recorded making her bed every day with little purple squares!

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      • Ha! I’d better dispose of my stack of doodle paper responsibly then… Boyfriend recently found the page where I’d been practicing writing the “Cats” logo and he thought I was going crackers. What would future historians make of that? 😆 PS do you really get purple squares for bed-making? I’ve a serious backlog owed to me if that’s true…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hahaha that is hilarious! I bet he was like, ‘Ummmm…. are you okay? Are we gonna have to get you a kitty??’ And oh man, you’ve been missing out! You are owed a rainbow of squares for tasks ranging from bed-making to ‘surviving day at work’! Draw yourself a ‘habits tracking’ chart today! 🙂

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  3. Once more you’ve delighted me with stuff I knew nothing of before reading it here!

    The garden pest theory makes some sense. I was waiting to see if anyone else had the first symbolic thought that came my mind: the snails standing for sloth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad I was able to further spread the snail love! Sloth–as in the knights metaphorically battling that vice–is a definite possibility. Although, I guess snails can be considered pretty industrious in their gardening activities….

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