Hidden History: knights versus snails. Why?

Mon Mar 25, 2019


Knight v Snail V:  Revenge of the 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)

If you’ve ever browsed collections (or memes) of medieval artwork, you’ve likely come away with the conclusion that all art from this period between the fall of Rome (circa 500 A.D.) and the Renaissance (circa 1400 A.D.) is downright weird. Whether it is the laughably abysmal depictions of animal and human anatomy or the absurd scenarios oftentimes presented without context, medieval artwork is a far cry away from the photorealistic masterpieces that the next period of European history would bring.

However, even among the myriad of bizarre pieces that this period has spawned, there is one trend that continues to perplex even the most dedicated of historical scholars: the multiple depictions of armored knights engaged in combat with snails. These depictions are not a one-off occurrence: dozens of these scenes can be found across the centuries by numerous artists throughout the continent and period. This begs the simple question of “why? Why did so many medieval artists portray knights engaged in combat with giant snails?"

On a 2015 Reddit AskHistorians thread, certified medieval and earliest modern Europe scholar sunagainstgold gave the simple, terse answer of “we don’t know. Seriously. There are as many explanation as there are scholars.” For my readers who are familiar with AskHistorians threads, this is especially surprising as the typical answer in this subreddit goes on for several paragraphs, complete with citations. That the best answer the experts on this subreddit could come up with was “we don’t know” speaks volumes of the baffling nature of this trend.

A 2013 article on the British Library website sheds some light on some of the more prevailing theories behind this strange art trend. Interpretations of these combative snails vary wildly, from them being representations of resurrection to being representations of prominent medieval groups. For example, one interpretation postulated by historian Lilian Randall claims that these snails may be a symbol of the Lombards, a group vilified throughout the period for their treasonous behavior. While this explanation explains why the snails combat armored knights, it still does not explain the common trend of the knight being portrayed as losing the battle.

Other explanations on the British Library article see the conflict as a symbol for the poor fighting against their oppressive aristocratic rulers, a more straightforward statement of disdain for the snail’s troublesome garden pest nature, an equally disdainful commentary on social climbers, or even a symbol of female sexuality.

Or, perhaps, these snails represented all of these! One of the more interesting (and probably frustrating) aspects of all historical study is that we sometimes come across events and trends that we simply lack the context to ever truly explain. Perhaps this strange fixation on snails was just the medieval equivalent of our modern-day memes. Imagine trying to explain the most absurdist, yet relatable meme you’ve ever seen to a historian centuries from now that lacks the social context of our time. They’d be confused, too.



Appears in
2019 - Spring - Issue 8