Snails in the Margins of Medieval Art

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March 31, 2017 13:17 EDT

Do sketches in the margins of medieval art show the early use of memes?

Hidden within the margins of medieval art resides a rather unexpected theme: knights vs. snails.

Arthurian romances were illuminated with illustrations in the borders that involved colorful drawings and interesting doodles. Snails may not immediately inspire any great sentiment, so why are they so often found in the margins of medieval art?

In the 1960s, scholar Lilian Randall took notice of the snail patterns in Gothic marginal warfare. She found 70 snails warding off warriors in 29 manuscripts between 1290 and 1310. Randall connected the drawings in the margins to historical stereotypes—the biggest being their representation of the Lombards as being greedy, mean and cowardly. Lombards were Germanic people who had invaded Italy but were defeated in 772 by Charlemagne, permanently staining their reputation.

By the late 1200s, when the snails started becoming popular, the Lombards had become lenders and pawnbrokers throughout Europe. They didn’t have full rights but they had powers, creating a juxtaposition easily targetable and apparently comparable to snails. Snails symbolized the Lombards’ retreat from Charlemagne by the way they carry their house on their back. Calling Lombards snails was an anti-foreign slur that grew into a widely used trope.

Similarly to the evolution of language, the exact depiction of the snail cannot be defined due to its changing meaning throughout the 14th and 15th centuries when it became a cliché. People also speculate that the snails represented the slowness of time or insulation of the ruling class.

Regardless, the snails, along with other symbols within the margins, revealed something. Scribes labored over the transcripts, but the margins remained a space left for imagination. These drawings sought to parody the indignities and absurdities of the artists’ world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: iv-serg

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