This week, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of my time visiting medieval churches and cathedrals looking for any examples of disability aids hidden within their ‘margins’. Scouring the edges of stained glass windows, roof bosses, stone carvings and misericords I was actually surprised to turn up a few examples. So, whilst I gather my thoughts on examples of disability in northern English churches and cathedrals, I thought I’d post a slightly older article of mine (2013), looking at one of my favourite examples of marginalia – the knight fleeing the snail.
In the medieval period, the margins of illuminated manuscripts were a great place for expressing popular opinion. Usually the images were created after the text had been written, giving the artist a certain sense of freedom and allowing them the room for both creativity and subversion within their work. As a result, marginal art provides a valuable insight into the attitudes and humour of medieval laymen, whose illiteracy might otherwise have prevented them from expressing themselves through the written word. However, there is one particular motif within medieval marginalia which has attracted a lot of attention from historians – the image of a knight fighting a snail. While this concept has provoked many different opinions and theories, it remains something of an enigma for medievalists and art historians alike.
The image of a knight fighting a snail is believed to have first appeared in the margins of French manuscripts during the thirteenth century. However, as the century progressed, it soon started to show up in both English and Flemish marginalia too.
Before long, the knight and snail were featuring in all kinds of work, from tales of popular romance, to breviaries, psalters, decretals, books of hours, and even within cathedral architecture. As historians such as Lillian Randall have pointed out, the motif is especially interesting as, almost wherever it is depicted, it appears very similar in form. In most cases, the knight is armed with a sword or a lance; is situated astride a horse or battling on foot; and is, of course, faced with a snail as an opponent. The snail, whom you would probably expect to be gentle and unassuming, takes an unlikely stance of aggression, standing upright on its shell and lowering its eye-stalks like horns (or perhaps like a parody of the knight’s lance), leaving the knight with the decision to either stand and fight or to flee his tiny foe. But, for all its drama, what did the image mean?
The most common assumption is that the motif was a metaphor for cowardice, with the knight often choosing to flee (rather than face) what the viewer understood to be a harmless opponent. At this time, cowardice was believed to be a sin against God – consequently enabling the image to act as a criticism of a knight who felt fear when faced with such an innocuous enemy. However, this is not the only interpretation of the image and, over time, historians have presented a number of fanciful theories.
One of the earliest ideas was put forward by Jean de Dunois (c. 1402-1468). After finding the motif of a snail opposite a picture of the raising of Lazarus in a fourteenth century book of hours, he proposed that it was a metaphor for the resurrection of Christ due to the way in which it emerged from its shell. However, this saintly association was later discredited by Champfleury, a French realist, who felt that the snail had a more sinister connotation. Taking a much more pragmatic approach, he argued that the snail was not holy at all.
Instead, it was vilified in marginal art as a common agricultural pest, known for the destruction of French vineyards. He claimed that this is the reason why the knight should be shown in combat with it, as many agricultural workers faced a similar battle on a day to day basis. Others, such as Otto Keller, have gone on to suggest that the snail was a sign of mistrust – as it never dared to leave its house behind (for fear of thieves and other misdeeds) and was constantly forced to carry it upon its back. Maeterlinck, a Flemish historian, similarly linked the snail’s shell to a home, feeling that it represented the well-defended fortresses of the medieval aristocracy. According to his argument, the image was a satirical attack, criticising those who remained safe within their sturdy castles (just as a snail might hide in its shell), and highlighting the animosity felt by the peasants who were excluded from this safety.
A number of more recent theories have been proposed by Lillian Randall and Roger Pinon. Art historian Randall suggests that the motif represented the Lombards – a group in medieval society who were disliked for their reputation as bankers and turncoats. She argues that the association of the snail with the Lombards existed in oral tradition long before it was transmitted via art.
The snail, slithering on its belly, was seen to be repulsive and spineless – mirroring the common people’s perception of this mistrusted group. Roger Pinon, on the other hand, argues that the snail represented female genitalia, which was mirrored in the shape of the snail’s shell. This idea links back to the theme of mockery, as a medieval knight who fled in fear from a woman or sexual encounter, would likely have made himself a laughing stock. Camille, on the other hand, believes this to be too sexual a connotation, particularly when considering the recurring use of the image upon both royal and religious charters.
All in all, it seems that the knight and the snail motif cannot be pigeon holed into meaning just one thing. Used in different countries and in different manuscripts, it is very possible that its meaning altered in different situations. Although we may not understand the intended meaning of each individual case (be it humour, criticism of cowardice, an attack on suspected societal groups, or a subtle hint at the peasantry’s disapproval of the aristocratic lifestyle), it is certain to see from the extensive use of this visual trope, that it resonated with medieval society.
 Champfleury, Histoire de la Caricature Modern (Paris: E. Dentu, 1885)
 Lilian M. C. Randall, ‘The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare’, Speculum, 37:3 (1962), pp. 358-367
 Roger Pinon, From Illumination to Folksong ; the Armed Snail, a Motif of Topsy-Turvy Land, in Folklore Studies in the Twentieth Century, ed. by Venetia J. Newall (Woodbridge, Sufflk: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980) p. 76-113.
 Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion Books, 1992)