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Medieval Snail Jousting: A French Idea

The peculiar phenomenon of knights jousting against snails in the margins of medieval manuscripts has intrigued scholars and provides fascinating insights into the medieval mindset.

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From the late 13th century to the 15th century, these whimsical doodles appeared in various illuminated manuscripts across Europe. They captured the imagination of medieval scribes and readers alike.

Snail Fighting

The emergence of these knight jousting snail images can be traced back to North French illuminated manuscripts around 1290. Subsequently, similar depictions appeared in Flemish and English manuscripts, although with slightly less consistency.

No one is 100% sure why the snails are depicted as fighting. But they are!

What makes these doodles particularly intriguing is their often unrelated nature to the surrounding textual content. Knights confronting snails became a recurring theme, with the snails portrayed with extended horns resembling arrows.

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In the French folktale Le Roman de Renart, the weapons wielded by the knights in their snail battles varied. They ranged from sticks, maces, flails, axes, swords, to forks. Interestingly, the assailants are typically depicted as male knights fighting or jousting. However there is a notable exception where a woman opposes a snail armed with a spear and shield.

Snail Combat

As these snail combat doodles gained popularity, they became an accepted part of medieval imagery. They even transcended the boundaries of manuscript margins, appearing in other artistic forms. For example, decorative panels carved around 1310 on the main entrance of Lyon Cathedral in France depict a knight confronting a snail, while another man threatens a dog-headed giant snail with an axe.

Snail fight
This brave knight is seen fighting a snail. Its like something from Monty Python. (Photo: British Library)

Despite their widespread presence, the exact meaning behind these battles between knights and snails remains elusive. One theory suggests that these doodles served as a form of medieval satire, injecting humor into otherwise serious and dry texts.

The juxtaposition of chivalrous knights engaged in combat with lowly snails could have been a playful critique of social hierarchies or a light-hearted commentary on the futility of human endeavours.

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Alternatively, some scholars propose that these images may have had deeper symbolic or allegorical meanings. Snails were associated with slowness and laziness, contrasting with the ideals of knighthood and valour.

fighting snail
This takes more explaining. The knight appears to have the legs of dragon. (Photo: British Library)

The battles against snails could symbolise the ongoing struggle between virtue and vice, the triumph of the noble over the base.

Snail Doodles

While the true intentions of these knight versus snail doodles may remain speculative, their presence in medieval manuscripts highlights the multifaceted nature of medieval culture.

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They offer a glimpse into the medieval sense of humour, the creative freedom of scribes, and the nuances of societal perceptions. These peculiar doodles, often overlooked in favour of the manuscript’s main content, have captured the curiosity of modern scholars and continue to intrigue and entertain those who encounter them.


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