Recently in the British Library’s excellent Medieval Manuscripts blog a curator mentioned a post medieval colleague noticing a marginal illustration showing a knight engaging in combat with a snail. This is not a rare motif in medieval mss. The Medieval Manuscripts post covers the bibliography regarding the motif, including a blog post by Carl Pyrdum on What’s So Funny about Knights and Snails?
Various reasons for the popularity are proposed, but none are really convincing. I am therefore willing to propose another reason: Psalm 58. Here’s Psalm 58 in the Wycliffe translation. This is a psalm about divine vengeance, and the section I’m most interested in is this bit in verses 6–7:
6 God shall all-break the teeth of them in their mouth; the Lord shall break (al)together the great teeth of lions. (O God, break all the teeth in their mouths; O Lord, break all in pieces the great teeth of these lions.)
7 They shall come to nought, as water running away; he bent his bow, till they be made sick. (They shall come to nothing, like water running forth; and when they go to bend their bows, they shall be made feeble, or weak.)
8 As wax that floateth away, they shall be taken away; fire fell above, and they saw not the sun. (Like a snail that melteth away into slime, they shall be taken away; like a dead-born child, they shall not see the sun.)
I think the armored snail fighting the armored knight is a reminder of the inevitability of death; the knight, like the snail, will ultimately “melteth away into slime.”
Just because I can, here’s the sixteenth century metrical version of Psalm 58 from Sternhold and Hopkins. This particular version is the work of John Hopkins:
6 The teeth O Lord, which fast are set
in their mouth round about,
The lions’ teeth that are so great,
do thou, O Lord, break out.
7 Let them consume away and waste,
as water runs forth right;
The shafts that they do shoot in haste,
let them be broke in flight:8 As snails do waste within the shell,
and unto slime do run,
As one before his time that fell,
and never saw the sun.
I first discovered this version of Psalm 58 in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles.
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