Knights vs. Snails

There’s an image that recurs again and again in Medieval manuscripts, but no one knows why. It is a picture of a knight in combat with a snail. This is no ordinary snail. It’s usually giant-sized, with antennae out, while the knight has his weapon raised as if to finish it off.

Source: The British Library, where there is also a discussion of these images: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/09/knight-v-snail.html

Source: The British Library, where there is also a discussion of these images: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/09/knight-v-snail.html

The majority of the images online are illustrations from Britain and France, for example in this gallery on the Guardian website.

However, last week I was in the city of Manresa in Central Catalunya (NE Spain). When I was visiting the fourteenth-century cathedral, I discovered an image of the knight vs snail in stone on a wall opposite the altar. Here it is, showing the knight with a Roman gladiator-type helmet, stabbing the snail with a sword in his right hand and a sickle in his left:

Knight vs snail Manresa

And another angle, which shows more of the shell:

knight vs snail 2

Theories abound as to why this image was so popular. Personally, I suspect that it relates to a popular story or legend that has been lost. Perhaps one day someone will discover a fragment of manuscript that narrates the adventure of the knight and the giant snail. Alternatively, perhaps the contest featured in a popular ballad, which various troubadours sang but which nobody ever wrote down.

The cathedral of Manresa itself is a glorious building, one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in Spain. Its ribbed vault of flying buttresses stands on a hill above a river valley, where the power of the Medieval church can be felt for miles around.

The cathedral at Manresa

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30 responses to “Knights vs. Snails

      • There is something afoot here, without doubt. I am guessing that as there are no giant snails rampaging about the place that the knights eventually defeated them. That is a story I would really like to hear.

      • They have been purged!
        Some people argue that legends of dragons grew from dinosaur fossils that traders spotted along the spice route. I wonder if the same thing is true of the snails – you can see massive curved shells of ammonites just lying about the beach in Lyme Regis. Maybe they inspired legends of ghastly gastropods?

      • What they really needed was a big bag of salt to chuck at them, that would have sorted them out double-quick. I really hope someone uncovers a giant snail legend. Perhaps it was a popular myth until dragons showed up; then they were eclipsed by the glamour and excitement. Slaying snails was no longer enough to impress the fair maidens, I’ll bet.

  1. Great post. So interesting to see you’ve found the snail/knight visual trope rendered in another medium – whatever it’s possible meanings. For a thought on interpretation just think how some of the seemingly obvious emojis we use nowadays can have multiple readings!

    • I’m fascinated by knowledge that has been lost like this, and there are a ton of medieval documents that nobody’s ever looked at so I’m sure the answer’s lying there somewhere…

      • Yes, pawing over dusty tomes struggling with archaic scripts goes in and out of fashion in scholarly circles. As far as art history is concerned I think we are due a renewed interest in their study. There’s so much more than The Book of Kells and The Lindisfarne Gospels. My copy of Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination was published in 1977!

  2. No sé si tindrà alguna cosa a veure amb la llegenda de St Jordi i el drac… De tota manera el fet de que porti “banyes” alguna cosa podria tenir a veure amb la lluita entre el bé i el mal. A mi també sempre m’impressiona la Seu de Manresa. Caldrà fer-li una altra visita i observar-la amb més deteniment.

    Jaume

    2016-04-19 8:01 GMT+02:00 Alastair Savage :

    > Alastair Savage posted: “There’s an image that recurs again and again in > Medieval manuscripts, but no one knows why. It is a picture of a knight in > combat with a snail. This is no ordinary snail. It’s usually giant-sized, > with antennae out, while the knight has his weapon raised ” >

    • It was new to me this year too. I guess that if there are no written stories, that the conflict had got lost over time. It really is marginalia, in that many of these drawings were added into the margins of illustrated tomes, perhaps by bored monks!

  3. How curious, perhaps the snail was one more obstacle to the Holy Grail, maybe it will feature in the next Indiana Jones film. Perhaps it was the symbolic fight against vegetarianism?

    • I was astonished actually because I hadn’t expected it and I never knew that they existed in stone before. It’s not very large, not more than abou5 15cm/6 inches across and in row of other images, including two birds that are gouging each other in a fight. It was a find!

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