Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Historian And The Snail

This is not some bizarre twist to the classic fairytale and no snails were kissed in the making of this post. Rather I found myself, one morning this week, confronting an unwelcome intruder to my morning routine. For a slug was casually hanging out on my floor as if he had every right in the world to be spending his morning there. As my friends know well I am prone to girlish squeals, so after I had emitted such a girlish squeal I flung the uninvited guest out of my window.

Though feeling a grudging sense of respect for the tenacity of his grim ascent to the lofty fourth floor of my flat, I have no particular interest in what became of him after departing my room. Did he fall onto some unsuspecting soul below my window, was he happily reunited with some leafy paradise or was he quite simply squashed? As long as he wasn’t enjoying the hospitality of my four walls I quite simply didn’t care.

Monster snail attacking knight, Smithfield Decretals, (British Library, Royal 10 E IV, f. 107).

The intrusion of this slug into my morning routine has however reminded me of manuscript illumination and the challenge for the art historian to explain the presence of slugs and snails within the margins of medieval manuscripts. They do not only appear amongst floral borders, which is more obvious to rationalise, but also often in narrative scenes.

Snail, Villard de Honnecourt, (Bibliotheque Nationale de France, MS. Fr. 19030, f. 3).

A surprising amount of publications have been written about snails in manuscripts, perhaps because these occurrences beside devotional texts are so perplexing. Explanations have ranged from the peculiar to the down-right preposterous.

Snail combat, Macclesfield Psalter, (Cambridge FitzWilliam Museum, MS. 1-2005, f. 76).

The snail has alternatively been seen as a symbol of the Resurrection, an ethnic joke about the Lombards, an agricultural pest banished to the margins, a reference to the sin of cowardice, and of course the obligatory sexual insinuations. Perhaps we’ll never understand why the snail thrived amongst the parchment leaves of medieval manuscripts. But historians will continue to strive for new interpretations, for the medieval snail is much harder to banish than my uninvited slug.

Snail, Luttrell Psalter, (British Library, Additional MS. 42130, f. 160).

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