A copy of a cool article from the Medieval manuscripts blog, use of knights and snails in illuminated manuscripts.

Medieval manuscripts blog

26 September 2013

Knight v Snail

Recently a group of us went into our manuscripts store to have a look at some medieval genealogical rolls.  We were examining Royal MS 14 B V, an English roll from the last part of the 13th century which contains quite a lot of marginalia, when one of our post-medieval colleagues noticed a painting of a knight engaging in combat with a snail.

Knight v Snail  (from a genealogical roll of the kings of England, England, 4th quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 14 B V, membrane 3)

This struck him as odd, which struck the medievalists in the group as odd; surely everyone has seen this sort of thing before, right?  As anyone who is familiar with 13th and 14th century illuminated manuscripts can attest, images of armed knights fighting snails are common, especially in marginalia.  But the ubiquity of these depictions doesn’t make them any less strange, and we had a long discussion about what such pictures might mean.

*Knight v Snail II:  Battle in the Margins (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 193v.  For more on the gorgeous Gorleston marginalia, please see our posts here and here)

There has been much scholarly debate about the significance of these depictions of snail combat.  As early as 1850, the magnificently-named bibliophile the Comte de Bastard theorised that a particular marginal image of a snail was intended to represent the Resurrection, since he discovered it in two manuscripts close to miniatures of the Raising of Lazarus.  In her famous survey of the subject, Lilian Randall proposed that the snail was a symbol of the Lombards, a group vilified in the early middle ages for treasonous behaviour, the sin of usury, and ‘non-chivalrous comportment in general.’  This interpretation accounts for why the snail is so frequently seen antagonising a knight in armour, but does not explain why the knight is often depicted on the losing end of this battle, or why this particular image became so popular in the margins of non-historical texts such as Psalters or Books of Hours.

Yates Thompson MS 19 f. 65r C1319-01b
Knight v Snail III: Extreme Jousting (from Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor, France (Picardy), c. 1315-1325, Yates Thompson MS 19, f. 65r)

Other scholars have variously described the ‘knight v snail’ motif as a representation of the struggles of the poor against an oppressive aristocracy, a straightforward statement of the snail’s troublesome reputation as a garden pest, a commentary on social climbers, or even as a saucy symbol of female sexuality.  It is possible that these images could have meant all these things and more at one time or another; it is important to remember, as Michael Camille, who devoted a number of pages to this subject, once wrote: ‘marginal imagery lacks the iconographic stability of a religious narrative or icon’.   This motif was part of a rich visual tradition that we can understand only imperfectly today – not that this will stop us from trying!

Knight v Snail IV:  The Snails Attack (from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 148r)

Some more of our favourite British Library images are below, and please let us know what you think.  You can leave a comment below, or we can always be reached on Twitter at @BLMedieval.

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)

Knight v Snail VI:  The Gastropod Conqueror (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 162v)

Harley MS 6563 ff. 62v-63r
Knight v Snail VII: A Pretty Comprehensive Defeat (from a fragmentary Book of Hours, England (London), c. 1320-c. 1330, Harley MS 6563, ff. 62v-63r)

Knight v Snail VIII:  Switcheroo!  It’s a Monkey This Time**(from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 210v)

*Knight v Snail IX:  Just for Fun:  A Rabbit, Monkeys, and a Snail Jousting (from the Harley Froissart, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470-1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v)

Further Reading

Lilian Randall, ‘The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare’ Speculum 37, no. 6 (June 1962), pp. 358-367.

Michael Camille, Image on the Edge (Reaktion Books: London, 1992), pp. 31-36.

Carl Prydum, What’s So Funny about Knights and Snails?, http://www.gotmedieval.com/2009/07/whats-so-funny-about-knights-and-snails.html

Posted by Sarah J Biggs at 12:01 AM


This is a wonderful detail to know more about – and to see these great details. The snails depicted in this article seem to be land snails.

I’d love to see some sea snails coming up from the depths!

I recently became fascinated by Victorian depictions of sea creatures, which inspired a really gorgeous new novel, The Glass Ocean.

I really love seeing the snails getting up to so much beautiful mischief!


Posted by: Carla 26 September 2013 at 07:22 PM

The first thing that struck me was recollection of the old nursery rhyme, ‘four-and-twenty tailors went to fight a snail’ and I wondered if there was any connection. Now with the Lazarus thing I’m seeing a possibility of a tenuous connection as one of the explanations of the 24 tailors rhyme is that it was originally 9 and of course 9 tailors [tellers] make a man, the strokes tolled for a dead man on the bells…

Posted by: Sarah Waldock 26 September 2013 at 08:19 PM

In the Vie du Prince Noir, written in the later 14th century, the author includes snail-imitation among the frivolous forms of entertainment he condemns (Chandos Herald, La Vie du Prince Noir, ed. Diana B. Tyson [Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1975]):

Car combien qe homme n’en face compte
Et qe homme tiendroit plus grant acompte
D’un jangelour ou d’un faux menteur,
D’un jogelour ou d’un bourdeur
Qui voudroit faire une grimache
Ou contreferoit le lymache
Dount homme purroit faire un risée
Qe homme ne ferroit sanz demoerée
D’un autre qui saveroit bien dire! (ll. 15-24)

For how much store men set
And how much more heed they take
Of a jangler or a false liar,
Of a jongleur or a jester
Who would willingly make a face
Or imitate a snail,
At which men can laugh,
As they’ll do without delay
Than of someone who knows how to speak well!

Does this apparently hilarious snail-imitating relate to the combats in the ms. marginalia?

Posted by: Joyce Coleman 26 September 2013 at 10:46 PM

Is the most likely explanation not that there is no explanation, that it was a quirky thing that just spread? Or perhaps they were just doing it to annoy you 500 years later knowing you would never work it out?

Posted by: George Holmer 27 September 2013 at 11:06 AM

A powerful knight pitted against a slow little snail. I believe the magical explanation is: a sense of humour.

Posted by: D 28 September 2013 at 02:42 AM