The Jousting Life

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Historical Images: Snail Jousting

Although this website focuses on the sport of contemporary competitive jousting, jousting is an historical sport, and it can be both educational and entertaining to look at historical images of jousting. However, some of these images can be a bit strange. Apparently, there are quite a few manuscript illuminations that feature knights battling snails in some way or another, including jousting against them.

Knight jousts snail, Frontispiece to Le livre des enseignments des visces et des vertus France, N.(Picardy)(From the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts)

"What we have here is your basic snail/knight standoff. You get these all the time in the margins of gothic manuscripts. And I do mean all the time. They’re everywhere! Sometimes the knight is mounted, sometimes not. Sometimes the snail is monstrous, sometimes tiny. Sometimes the snail is all the way across the page, sometimes right under the knight’s foot. Usually, the knight is drawn so that he looks worried, stunned, or shocked by his tiny foe." – Carl Pyrdum in "What’s So Funny about Knights and Snails? (Mmm… Marginalia #46)"

Knight jousting with snail, Brunetto Latino's Li Livres dou Tresor, St Petersburg Manuscript, fol. 30v(From the 'PROMPTORIUM PARVULORUM')

It's caused some speculation on the part of historians.

"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....
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..." – Sarah J Biggs in "Knight v Snail"

Knight charging a snail and a bird, Brunetto Latini's Le Livre du Trésor Origin: France, N. (Picardy) (From the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts)

We'll probably never understand why those who illuminated manuscripts drew so many scenes of knights in battle with snails, but the images, as well as the speculation about them, are certainly interesting.

Grotesque knight fights snails, Queen Mary's Psalter, Origin: England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?) (From the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts)


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