Early snail pictures

Those of you who think that historical snail pictures are ‘cool’ (or maybe just funny), even if they are not of Neotropical species, might be interested in this post. It was provoked by a link that David Robinson sent me (thanks again!). This covers a quite different scientific discipline, i.e. medieval manuscript research.

In a number of medieval manuscripts, illuminations have been found of a (stylized) land snail opposing a knight (see e.g., Pyrdum 2009, Biggs 2013). Randall (1962) has noted that the motif of a man combatting a snail originated in northern France around 1300, and later spread to Flemish and English manuscripts. However, this motif has also been noted in folklore studies of traditional rhymes from several other countries and regions (see Grosskopf 2013, especially notes on entries 15, 512 in his database).

All snails are not recognisable at species level, but there is little doubt that they are land snails. The most precise illumination is found in the Macclesfield Psalter, a manuscript from ca. 1330 which was made in East Anglia, U.K. While it will always remain a guess, one is tempted to suppose that e.g. Cornu aspersum served as model.

For the moment, alternative hypotheses and suggestions on the origin and meaning of this motif of ‘knight versus snail’ remain in debate. An interesting contribution is given by an anonymous Norwegian medievalist (blogging as ‘Steffen’), whose conclusion is that the snail stands for humility (Anonymous 2013a, b). Anyhow, the framework seems to be a religious context.

When I wrote to Giovanni Grosskopf about his research, he answered: “In my view, two interpretations are possible for those pictures, according to each case. Following the first interpretation, they picture in a parodic and mocking way the clash between the Christians (the warrior) and the Pagans (the Snail, representing a strong and still well-known set of beliefs linked to the prehistoric rhymes and rituals about the snails, still surviving). Following another different interpretation, those pictures are teasing scornfully those who were still believing in the prehistoric rituals about snails (often described as ‘Lombards’ or ‘Tailors’, who wear armours and bear weapons because they are afraid of the ‘magic’ power of the animal), that is those who were still believing in the ‘magic’ strong (ritual) power of these small animals, and were still telling rhymes and traditions about its ritual importance“.

Different points of view on this remarkable topic, of which I doubt we will ascertain its origin. Anyway, this topic attracted my attention because of a study-in-progress on land snails in 16th/17th century still-life paintings. A side-track, but an interesting one. Maybe continued…

Anonymous, 2013a. The humility of snails, part 1. The problem with gastropods. Available at http://bit.ly/HfK0F5.
Anonymous, 2013b. The humility of snails, part 2. The snail and the knight. Available at http://bit.ly/HfMxPv.

Biggs, S.J., 2013. Knight v. snail. Available at http://bit.ly/1anPrw0.
Grosskopf, G., 2013. The horns and the spiral. Distribution, structure, functions and origin of a Eurasian children’s rhyme about the snails. Available at http://bit.ly/1fZoT8C.
Pyrdum, C., 2009. What’s so funny about knights and snails? Available at http://bit.ly/1eP6rMT.
Randall, L.M.C., 1962. The snail in Gothic marginal warfare. — Speculum, 37: 358–367.


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