Medieval book writing has always been of interest to researchers and laymen, because not only texts, but also the design of various manuscripts often carries a lot of unique information. However, there were also such illustrations in them, the origin and meaning of which are far from fully understood even today. We are talking about pictures that were drawn on the margins of books, and often scenes of battles between knights and... snails were depicted there.
Historians have found dozens of medieval manuscripts unusual in design, where pictures were placed in the margins that had nothing to do with the meaning of the text. In France, these examples are the most, and drawings outside the main content were called marginalia. They also had another, much more conspicuous name - “droleri”, which is translated from French as “eccentricity”. They were distinguished by high detail and saturation of shades with a relatively small size.
But the most striking among the medieval outcasts were those that depicted the battles of knights with "monsters" in the form of huge unicorns or snails. And if the logic of the appearance of the first in the form of a terrible enemy can still be somehow explained, then historians have been struggling with the riddle of the demonization of snails for decades. According to Novate.ru, the first such battle scenes appeared in books around the end of the 13th century.
Interesting fact: such illustrations could decorate not only manuscripts. Also known is the image of the battle scene of a knight with an ax and a snail with a dog's head, which is placed on the facade of the Saint-Jean Cathedral of Lyon.
The image of snails in such pictures was different. For example, they often drew the head of a dog, cat or deer. In size, they could often exceed the dimensions of the knights who fight with them, and sometimes vice versa - they were depicted as quite small. Sometimes women, and even other animals, such as dragons, dogs, monkeys and even hares, turned out to be opponents of snails on the margins.
However, the biggest mystery of such images, of course, is the choice of an opponent for a valiant knight. Researchers have put forward a lot of versions that are trying to explain why a seemingly harmless mollusk in the shell seemed such a terrible monster. Indeed, in a number of marginalia and paintings with a similar plot, the knight even appeared as a defeated “terrible monster” and asking for mercy from a huge snail.
One of the most common hypotheses regarding this positioning of snails is the assumption of a mystical halo that these creatures were endowed with in the Middle Ages. So, according to Novate.ru, if initially the snail was associated with prudence and precaution, then later it acquired the symbolism of cowardice. The timid snail at that time even became a character in literary works, for example, The Romance of the Fox. Therefore, researchers suggest that the image of a snail as a terrible monster was a kind of allegory on the armor of the knights themselves, who, having chained themselves from head to toe in armor, without it to the enemy on the battlefield, went out. Thus, the illustration of the battles of a knight and a giant snail was an expression of a mocking attitude towards the cowardice of medieval warriors in armor.
Another unusual suggestion suggests that in the form of snails in some of these images could representatives of the people of the Lombards, or Lombards, who were famous throughout the European community for their cowardice. At that time, history already knew several examples when the Lombard warriors simply fled the battlefield, for example, during the battle with the army of Charlemagne.
In addition, mainly these people in the vastness of France hunted usury, which was considered a very shameful occupation. And with any manifestation of danger, the Lombards hid at home, like those snails in shells. A vivid example of ridiculing the cowardice of these people was a popular medieval poem with a telling title “On Lombard and snail”, which could become one of the sources of appearance of marginalia with the plot of the battle of a knight and snails.
A less popular version of the appearance of the snail in the images as a sworn enemy was their notoriety among the people as noble pests to agriculture. In the Middle Ages, there were even often trials of snails, as well as caterpillars, beetles and rats. However, this assumption is not able to explain why it is the knights, and not the peasants, who fight the giant snails in the images, because many researchers consider it unlikely.
Another option, why the drawings on the margins had such a look, was the assertion that snails were associated with representatives of the aristocratic class. To many people, they seemed to be such mollusks, who only do all their lives that they slowly crawl up the career ladder, currying favor with their superiors for this. Therefore, it is believed that with the help of such images the way of life of aristocrats was ridiculed.
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The fight against the snail on the margins is also compared to the endless struggle of the knights against the sin of lust. Indeed, due to the fact that the mollusk has both male and female genital organs, it was personified in ancient times with physical lust. Quite close to the above is also the version that the snail in the illustrations could personify the cuckold husband. There is also a more philosophical approach to explaining the depiction of them as monsters - they were associated with the inevitably current time that the knights tried to fight.
There was a place in a long series of justifications for the phenomenon of "snail" marginals and a purely practical one. So, it is known that in the Middle Ages the book was a real treasure, and they took care of it like the apple of an eye. But snails were known pests of manuscripts. That is why the most superstitious people of that era could depict scenes of battles with them on the margins of the pages as a kind of amulet for the book.
Do you want to know more about the popular, but inaccurate information about the armor of medieval warriors? Then read: 7 school misconceptions and frank myths about knightly armor