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The Humility of Snails, part 1 - The problem with gastropods

[E]x Africa semper aliquid novi - De Rerum Natura, Lucretius (8.42)

Boy fighting snail with sling, MS. Royal 10 E IV Courtesy of British Library

Introduction Out of Africa something new always comes, remarked Lucretius in his famous poem on the nature of things. In a somewhat similar way there always comes something new from the wonderful British Library's medieval blogpost. Recently, they issued a lovely post on marginal snails in medieval manuscripts, which can be read here. As pointed out by the eminent Sarah J. Biggs, there are various explanations proffered for what the snails meant to the medieval onlooker, what role or roles they play in the theatre of the page and how they should be understood. Some of these explanations have been summarised by Michael Camille in his famous book on medieval marginalia, Image on the Edge, and also in the British Library blogpost. To my mind, removed as it is from the early scholarly discussion on the subject, all of these suggestions are wanting to some extent. While some of them, like Lilian Randall's suggestion positing the snail as a counterpoint of chivalry, may have validity in some geographies and some particular epochs, it can only be applied with extreme caution and acute sensibility to the historical context of the manuscript in question. In this two-part blogpost, therefore, I would like to postulate another possible approach for how the snail should be understood in medieval iconography. Naturally, I lay no claim to have found the definite answer, but it might help us to get closer to some of the aspects of the snail imagery. The pictures in this post are all from the British Library, though some have been gathered from extraneous sources, and I am particularly indebted to Sarah J. Biggs for some of them. As the reader will notice, several of them are also found in the British Library blogpost. This is not an attempt to copy the great work performed there, but rather a necessity owing to limited time and the desire to present a selection which offers a somewhat diachronic overview. The reason why this blogpost is two-part is because there is a lot of minutiae to take into consideration in this

analysis, and to spare the reader any excess of verbosity, the essay has been divided into two parts. This part presents the problem, and two of its exhibits.

Snails were not the only creature who were manhandled at the bottom of the pages Bas-de-page from MS. Royal 10 E IV Courtesy of British Library The symbolism of the snail One of the reasons it is difficult to make assessments about the meaning of the snail, is that the extent of its symbolism in the Middle Ages is obscure to us. The basic characterstics of the snail are of course timeless, such as its slow speed and its house, but how these characteristics were applied can not be easily mapped. Hans Biedermann points out that throughout the ages the snail has variously been considered as a symbol of simple living, and a symbol of the Resurrection. The snail was also said to have medicinal properties. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) claimed that powder ground from snail shells should cure a person bitten by serpents, whereas a concoction made of slugs and earthworms allegedly cured abscesses. Hildegard also referred to snails as testudines, meaning turtles. These are small glimpses into how the snail was perceived in past times. For some reason they appear not in some of the most famous bestiaries of the High Middle Ages - that of Philippe de Taon (written c.1119) and the MS. Bodley 764 (mid-13th-century) - and the main source to animal reception is therefore seemingly unhelpful, although a more rigorous search may yield more material. Joyce Coleman, in a comment on the British Library blogpost, quotes Chandos Herald's (fl.1360s-80s) Life of the Black Prince written in the late 14th century as giving an example of people mimicking snails. The author refers to such people in a rather disdaining tone, as were it unworthy of a nobleman. The mendicant paradigm Because it is so difficult to assess the particulars of the snail's place in the medieval mind, we therefore have to consider each occurrence of this symbol in light of its historical context. In the following I will look at a few selected examples - too few for assessments, but sufficiently many for guesswork - which will be discussed in light of context. The timeframe of the works selected is c.1290-1430 and the selection contains images from England, France, Holland and Austria. The working hypothesis for this blogpost is that several of the snails from medieval margins can be understood when seen in light of the ideal of religious humility, which found a certain mendicant shape in the religious milieu following the foundation of the Franciscan and Dominican orders in the early 13th century. Humility has of course always been a key virtue in Christian theology, but it has been formulated in various ways throughout the centuries. In the 12th century, the age of crusades, there sprang forth a new ideal of sainthood which praised the saint who abandoned his riches and fought for the cause of God. This ideal was moulded on the legend of Alexis of Odessa, a nobleman who renounced wealth and family for a life of religious

asceticism. Within this paradigm of the world-renouncing recluse, asceticism was conjoined with a militant apostolicity, which can be seen in the hagiology of the royal saints Stephen of Hungary and Charlemagne. It was this paradigm which most likely served as conduit for the orders of warrior monks which emerged in the first half of the 12th century. In the 13th century there was a paradigm change. Following the teachings of Dominic and Francis, there came a new ideal of sainthood during the 13th century. The militant apostolicity was no longer as important, and the emphasis was on self-abnegation, poverty, munificence towards the poor and meditation on God's truth. This resulted in the canonisations of saints who differed from the high ecclesiastics and royal saints of the 12th century, namely reclusive noblewomen and mendicant preachers. This is not to say that military feats were not important. In the canonisation proceedings of Louis IX of France (canonised 1297), his role as crusader was of some importance. Interestingly enough, it was the Franciscans who most vociferously had urged on the crusades of Louis. Nonetheless, the mendicant paradigm of the 13th and the 14th centuries tended to emphasise a kind of humility which embraced poverty and good works, which almost disassociated itself from the militant prowess of the lay aristocracy. The selection of marginalia in this post is largely gathered from the period when the mendicant ideal of humility exerted strong influence over Western Christendom, and (with one exception) before it entered into the most excessive forms of public self-mortification witnessed in the wake of the black plague.

Deer running, perhaps competing with snails, perhaps a pairing of virtues MS. Royal 10 E IV Courtesy of British Library The marginal snail

The Smithfield Decretals The first manuscript to be considered is MS. Royal 10 E IV, also known as the Smithfield Decretals. This is a MS. from the turn of the 13th century containing the decretals of Pope Gregory IX, edited by Raymund de Piafort (c.1175-1275) with a gloss of Bernard of Parma (d.c.1266), and it is of Southern French origin. This is a collection of Papal letters and as such belongs to the very diverse category of religious literature, though there might also be some political content to the texts. Although the book is of French origin, some of its illuminations were later English additions. Here are two particularly striking renditions of the snail in combat. One of these can be seen above, where a youngster prepares to attack a snail with slingshot in the manner of David. Whether this is a representation, a mock-representation or an inversion of David and Goliath - or none of these - can not be ascertained. Although

the sling is a typical attribute of David, usage of this weapon may not be limited only to him. It is therefore possible that this is a representation of youth disdaining humility, though of course this is mere conjecture. We also find another scene of combat between snail and man in the Smithfield decretals, as seen below. Here the knight, armed with a club, engages in hand-to-hand combat - or hand-to-horn combat - with what seems like a rather aggressive snail. Whether it is significant that the knight here uses a club rather than the noble sword I cannot say, but if the hypothesis on the snail as a icon of humility, this may represent the unchivalrous soldier whose pride eclipses the virtues sought among the Christian soldiery. The case here is very uncertain, however, since I do not know the texts these images accompany, and I can therefore not judge the extent to concordance between text and image.

Knight fighting snail with club MS. Royal 10 IV E Courtesy of British Library The Maastricht Hours This book, MS. Stowe 17, or the Maastricht Hours, dates from the first quarter of the 14th century. It is a book of hours produced in Maastricht, Holland, for a noblewoman. As a female of the higher echelons of society, she belongs to the very societal group who throughout the 13th century had produced an increasing number of saints, and would continue to do so in the decades ahead. It is therefore likely that humility was one of the key virtues which the lady was exhorted to embrace. With some liberty of fancy, one might image it was this same noblewoman who seems to communicate with the stag on f.205, where the text is taken from Job 13: answer me, how many sins and iniquities do I have. The deer is among other virtues praised for its caring for other members of its society, and to be a hunter of serpents, i.e. sins.

Historiating woman and marginal stag MS. Stowe 17 Courtesy of British Library The snail imagery in the Maastricht Hours does not belong to combat scenes, but to a very curious hybrid, namely a cat popping its head out of a snail shell, disguised with the snail's horns. It appears next to a prayer for the family, common to missals, Deus qui caritatis dona per gratiam sancti spiritu tuorum cordibus fidelium infundis, God who give Your charity through the grace of Your Holy Spirit, pour it unto the hearts of the happy (my translation).

Snail-cat MS. Stowe 17 Courtesy of British Library

Whether this cat in a shell bears any connotations of humility remains unsolved, but the combination of these two beasts is interesting in light of the humility of the mendicant paradigm of sainthood. While the cat was considered appropriate company for nuns, the snail may in its turn represent the virtue of humility and possibly also self-abnegation that the saintly lay woman was expected to strive for in the 14th century.

The helpful cat MS. Stowe 17 Courtesy of British Library

Here ends the first part. With the exposition of the approach and two starters, I hope this will be a good starting point for the tentative conclusion in my next blogpost, where I will examine select images from five more manuscripts in light of the hypothesis of the snail as a symbol of humility.

The Humility of Snails, part 2 - The snail and the knight


For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. - Luke 14: 11

In my previous blogpost I launched the suggestion that snails in medieval marginalia might be read as symbols of humility, often depicted in contrast to the prideful life of knights and warriors. Furthermore, I suggested that this symbolism was influenced by the paradigm of sanctity that emerged with the foundation of mendicant orders, in which humility was now associated with good works, self-abnegation and a reclusive lifestyle. This is a change from the 12th-century, in which humility and warfare were often twin virtues, inspired by the legends of St. Alexis of Odessa and exemplified with the emergence of the orders of warrior monks such as the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers. This is of course not to say that the mendicant orders were in opposition to the crusades. On the contrary, the Franciscan liturgy for St. Louis - composed towards the turn of the 13th century praises him for his crusades and viewed them as an imitatio Christi. However, warfare became frequently disassociated with sanctity in the 13th century, and Louis is therefore more a deviation proving the point than anything else. This two-part exploration was triggered by a recent blogpost from the ever-so-lovely British Library's medieval blog, and the piece in question was written by Sarah J. Biggs. In this second part, I will provide examples from several manuscripts from the time of this paradigm of sanctity and into the 15th century, looking at how well they fit with the idea that the snail is a symbol for humility. For the pictures from MS. Yates Thomspon 27 I am gratefully indebted to Robert Miller. Almost all pictures courtesy of the British Library.

The Marginal Snail

The Gorleston Psalter

The Gorleston Psalter, found in Add. MS. 49622, is an English psalter made in the timeframe 1310-24, and contains two depictions of the snail that fit very well with the idea of the snail as a symbol of humility. The first example can be seen above, where a knight has planted his sword in the ground and lifts his hands, pressed together, at the snail as if in devotion. If the slug represents humility and the peaceful life, this scene may show a warrior, a man of pride, casting aside the weapon of his trade in devotion to the virtue which stands in starkest contrast to his own way of life. We might even imagine there has been some sort of combat or debate in advance of this scene, and the knight is now defeated and yield to the humble victor. This idea is strengthened by the second example, as seen below.

Monkey business of the worst kind Here we see combat depicted, an arrow launched by an ape is flying towards the snail. Apes (distinguished from the monkeys by their lack of tails) were frequently associated with evil and vices in medieval imagination. Bestiaries claimed that they took their name from the fact that they aped after humans, and as such came to represent a mirror-image to the human world, where apes and other simia were doing the devil's work or at least turned the ideals of the Christian world upside down. This ape is clearly at war with humility, and from the look of it he seems to be winning, reminding perhaps the viewer that the devil can overcome mankind's humility. MS. Yates Thompson 19

Next up is MS. Yates Thompson 19, containing Li Livres dou Trsour, an encyclopedia written in 1264 by Brunetto Latini, the master of Dante Alighieri. The manuscript was made in the timeframe 1315-25 in Northern France. As an encyclopedia it was not exclusively - nor perhaps even primarily - a work of devotion, but we might presume that Christian devotion is not absent from the work.

In the manuscript, as seen above, we find another combat scene featuring a snail, here standing against a charge by an armoured knight. We don't know the outcome, but here we might imagine the haughtiness of war about to do battle with the virtue of humility. This scene is particularly interesting because of another, similar, combat scene, in which the knight's target is not a snail, but a gryllus, otherwise known as a hybrid.

The meaning of such hybrids is still a matter that remains unsolved, but the snail and the gryllus can easily be contrasted as representatives of two different worlds, the virtuous and the viceful, the good and the evil. If this is the case, the scenes above can be said to depict examples of bad and good chivalry respectively, for it was customary in medieval didactic writing to educate through good and bad examples alike, a tradition reaching all the way back to Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica and beyond. The Luttrell Psalter This psalter, found in MS. Add 42130, was made in the timeframe 1325-40 on the orders of Geoffrey Luttrell III (1276-1345), a Lincolnshire landowner. The work was carried out in stages and its illumination programme was left unfinished for reasons unknown. The snail found in this psalter is different from the rest here presented, in

that it does not seem to interact with anyone, so that it does not invite comparison with a representative of either vices or virtues. It is simply a bas-de-page illumination, yet it might be intented to serve as a mnemonic helper for the psalm text. The text is from Psalm 89 and the snail is just below the verse "Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence". If this snail, too, represents humility or meekness, it certainly fits well with the psalm text in question.

Picture courtesy of this website

The Hours of Yolande of Flanders This book of hours, following the Use of Paris and found in MS. Yates Thompson 27, was made in the timeframe 1353-63 for Yolande of Flanders. This wonderfully weird book contains three snails, all of which can be successfully read as symbols of humility. It is of course particularly interesting to note that as a female member of high society, Yolande was a representative of that echelon from which the Roman Catholic sanctorale drew many of its new members in the 14th century.

In the selection above we find again the motif of snails and knights. The first seems frightened and awestruck by his encounter with the gastropod, possibly in the realisation that he has erred in his ways, or something in that vein. The second might be considered a continuation of the first scene, and this knight - or the same knight - has

succumbed to the mastery of the snail, yielded his pride of arms, perhaps, to the humility so emblematic of 14thcentury sainthood.

There is also another fascinating example in this MS., as seen above. What this naked man represents is difficult to say, though if the snail is a symbol of humility this might very well be pride sitting astraddle the animal, chastising it with a club.

Spiegel der Weisheit The last example in this blogpost takes us out of the 14th-century and the mendicant paradigm of sainthood, and also away from the psalters and books of hours. Like Latini's Books of Treasure, this is an anomaly, but intended as a continuation of the collection so far considered. This book is Ulrich von Pottenstein's Spiegel der Weisheit, here found in MS. Egerton 1121, an Austrian MS. from 1430. Here, as seen below, a snail is standing face to face with a black cat, which, as we know, has accrued a particularly negative reputation. If the snail here, too, is meant as a representative of humility, it is presumably mirroring the wickedness commonly ascribed to the cat. Their symbolic difference may perhaps be exacerbated by the fact that the snail is here rendered in white though that might also owe to the fact that Southern European snails do have white shells.

Summary remarks The array of books presented in this two-part blogpost spans a wide variety of literature, about two centuries and several countries. Each has contained some depiction of a snail or a snail-like hybrid. Reading these images as

symbols of humility, in tune with the Christian virtues and the emphasis of contemporary sanctity, gives meaning and makes sense of the snails and their companions and environment on the page, both as protagonists facing a viceful foe or as mnemonic devices accompanying the page's text. This in its turn proves nothing. We have too little information about the extent and the frequency of snail imagery in devotional books - and non-devotional for that matter - to make any broad statements. This has merely been a thought-experiment in which the snail has been interpreted in a particular manner. As I hope to have successfully shown, it is indeed a possible conjecture which fits both with the contemporary currents and the purpose of the books in which most of them are found. Much remains to be done here, and in the future it will be necessary to carefully consider each illumination together with accompanying text and the illumination programmes of their respective books. However, I hope this demonstration has established one possible way of making sense of these images, which might be considered just as plausible as the suggestions put forth by past scholarship.