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Why Did Medieval Books Have Pictures of Knights Fighting Giant Snails?

If you have ever gone through medieval books, you may have seen a picture or two of knights battling with giant snails. But what did it mean? Were snails really that big back then? Was this an exaggeration of something? Or is it symbolic?

The drawings of the battles between snails and knights are seen in various literary pieces during medieval times. There is no definite origin for it, but it is assumed that snails represented different things; death, social status, satire, and more.

Did The Snails Represent Resurrection or Death?

Comte de Bastard, in 1850 was one of the first people to address the presence of the snails on the manuscripts. He noticed in some work depicting the Raising of Lazarus. The biblical story is about how Jesus brought Lazarus back to life. This led Comte to think that the snails symbolized resurrection.

Lisa Spangenberg linked the artwork to death because of Psalm 58. The biblical verse discussed how the wicked would be punished. In this case, the knights were fighting the wicked.

Let them be like a snail which melts away as it goes, Like a stillborn child of a woman, that they may not see the sun.

Psalm 58

(Source: Just History Posts)

Do The Snails Represent Enemies?

According to Lilian Randall, a historian, the snails represented the Lombards. Lombards were of Germanic descent who ruled the Italian Peninsula. During the time snail, marginalia was at its peak. The Lombards were very unpopular in Europe. They were known for their callous behavior and unorthodox ways. Randall suggested that the artwork was an interpretation of good ideals versus bad ones. However, several others disagreed with her theory.

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.

British Library

(Source: Just History Posts)

The Snails Represent Social Status

Several people suggested that the Snail vs. Knights artwork was a representation of the social classes. Knights were the elites of society, and the snails were the masses. The snails did not have weapons to fight or defend themselves, and they were basically struggling to win against those who had better opportunities.

These arguments led to the idea that the snails also represented social climbers. Back then, the definition was different. Social climbers were men who came from nothing and were promoted by the sitting king. In some of the art, knights are seen to have lost the battle. Similarly, the king would often be influenced by whoever they give power to. Thus showing how powerless some can be. (Source: Just History Posts)

Did Anyone Find Out For Sure?

At the end of the day, there is no solid evidence of what these pictures represent. What if they, instead of hiding a deeper meaning, they’re just shallow funny illustrations. We won’t be able to tell why these were so popular back then, but one thing is for sure people did enjoy them and are still entertaining people today. (Source: Just History Posts)

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