The British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog has an interesting compilation of marginal art depicting knights charging at snails. I’ve seen snails in marginals before, but never realized they were such a persistent motif. The symbolism and placement is still puzzling to many medievalists, particularly since the snail did not have a stable meaning associated with it. Lillian M.C Randall found over 70 such images in 29 manuscripts produced in Northern France at the end of the 13th century.
The post is well-illustrated and floats a few unconvincing theories, but also leaves out some interesting observations. Paris Review, where I first saw the link, adds this intriguing quote from Albert the Great:
If thou wilt forejudge, or conjecture things to come … Take the stone which is called Chelonites. It is of purple, and divers other colours, and it is found in the head of the Snail. If any man will bear this stone under his tongue, he shall forejudge, and prophesy of things to come. But notwithstanding, it is said to have this power only on the first day of the month, when the moon is rising and waxing, and again on the twenty-ninth day when the moon is waning.
I found it odd that neither post went to scripture, where the word “snail” only appears once, in Psalm 58:8:
O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
Let them be like the snail which dissolves into slime,
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
Here, it’s use as a straight-up curse, depicting a vile creature known most for its tendency to dissolve. That doesn’t really make for a foe worthy of a charging knight, but may simply be a way of showing contempt for an enemy soon to be vanquished. This enemy is slow and armored, two qualities that give it strength compared to the knights, who charge recklessly.
Perhaps the shells were admired for their imitation of the golden ratio, sometimes called the golden mean, which also refers to the classical notion of perfection in balance between extremes.
Or maybe the monks just liked drawing snails.
A snail also figures in a story by Hans Christian Anderson, where it mocks the rose for not meditating deeply on its purpose or existence, being content to live and die and give pleasure to others. The snail, meanwhile, enjoys the comforts of its shell while it thinks deep thoughts that make it deeply unhappy:
“The world is nothing to me. What have I to do with the world? I have enough to do with myself, and enough in myself.”
“But must we not all here on earth give up our best parts to others, and offer as much as lies in our power? It is true, I have only given roses. But you- you who are so richly endowed- what have you given to the world? What will you give it?”
“What have I given? What am I going to give? I spit at it; it’s good for nothing, and does not concern me. For my part, you may go on bearing roses; you cannot do anything else. Let the hazel bush bear nuts, and the cows and sheep give milk; they have each their public. I have mine in myself. I retire within myself and there I stop. The world is nothing to me.”
It’s an enigmatic story without a clear moral. There’s a sense of the cycle of life at the end, but the snail is much the worse for the misery brought on by deep and slow meditation, while the rose is happy to give beauty to others. Some of Anderson’s stories were reworkings of tales he’d heard as a child, which perhaps retained some lost narrative traditions.
And this is beside the point, but interesting nonetheless: from MISHNAH-TRACTATE SHABBAT 8:1
1. III:3: Said R. Judah said Rab, “Of whatever the Holy One, blessed be He, has created in his world, he has created nothing for nothing. He created the snail as a remedy for a scab, the fly as antidote to the hornet, the mosquito as antidote for a serpent’s bite, a serpent as the antidote for an eruption, a crushed spider as the antidote to a scorpion’s bite.”
And this, from Legends of the Jews:
The snail trailing a moist streak after it as it crawls, and so using up its vitality, serves as a remedy for boils.
The trail of slime left by a snail was seen as a wasting of its substance. Snails were destroyed by salt, which was considered pure.