Snails, The Original Meme

By: Cortney Navarchi

Commonly found in the blank spaces of the 13th and 14th-century English texts, brave knights yielding their strongest armor, with faces filled with fright, challenge a meager mollusk to battle. Despite the knight’s fiercest armor, the simple snail dominates the match and reigns victorious over the knight. Cowering, the knight prays to the mollusk for mercy.

Knight v Snail VI:  The Gastropod Conqueror (from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 162v)

In the medieval era of history, snails mark their prevalence in doodles found on the borders of notes, texts, sketches, and artworks. Historians have speculated a myriad of theories attempting to solve the great mollusk mystery.

One theory is snails developed a negative connotation given their slimy and mobile appearance.

During the Middle Ages, mostly negative traits were ascribed to the snail. It developed into a symbol of cowardice. The snail carries its house on its back like a thief, and therefore it was seen as a creature that couldn’t be trusted. The snail crawls on its belly, and because of that it was considered a coward and a parasite. Its ability to disappear into its shell was seen as feigning strength it didn’t have, and its ability to reappear made it seem like a social climber.

A 14th-century depiction of a knight battling a snail, as illustrated in the margins of the Gorleston Psalter Courtesy of the British Library

Another theory is that the snail also symbolizes the cowardice and dishonest behavior of the Lombards, a people from the northern part of the Italian peninsula. Lombards who moved to France, Flanders, and England made their living mainly as pawnbrokers. Combined with a story of their army’s cowardice during a battle against Charlemagne, the snail became the attributed satirical symbol of the Lombards. However, the problem with the snail specifically representing the Lombards is that the snail sometimes defeats the knight (Kern, 2015).

Paint represent assassination of Alboin, King of the Lombards by artist Charles Landseer (1799–1879). Source: Leicester Galleries

Read more at:

Some scholars believe these images reflect a biblical resurrection, but many of the pictures lack religious icons or texts. One article said:

One of the first people to pick up on the strange addition of snails to manuscripts was Comte de Bastard in 1850. He noticed that in two manuscripts there were marginal snails very close to miniatures of the Raising of Lazarus (for those not aware, this is a Biblical story where Jesus brings Lazarus of Bethany back to life four days after his burial). This led Comte to theorise that the snails must represent the Resurrection – the two images must be linked (Hollman, 2017).

Another suggestion tied to death comes from medievalist Lisa Spangenberg, who highlights another Biblical connection – Psalm 58. This is discussing the punishment of the wicked, saying “let them be like a snail which melts away as it goes, Like a stillborn child of a woman, that they may not see the sun”. This leads to the suggestion that the valorous knights are fighting the “wicked” who will eventually meet their just punishment (Hollman, 2017).

A Knight losing against a giant snail (Ormesby Psalter, England, c. 1300).

Understanding the culture of the Middle Ages sheds light on the perspective of these snail memes. As of today, speculation behind the meaning of snail art in the medieval era is up for interpretation. Below we see a snail gazing at a frog with stern eyes. The frog, requiting with a scarred demeanor.

The oldest registered terrestrial gastropod is Maturipupa, which lived in Europe during the Carboniferous. The species of the genus Helix, from which the garden snail is perhaps the best known, flourished in the Cretaceous period (BioExpedition Publishing, 2017).

The common snail (Helix aspersa) Aka Winston the Snail

The average garden snail is between 2.3 cm-3.3cm in length. Helix Aspersa was the predominant species in Europe during the medieval period. Some adult marine snails (Homalogyra) and forest-litter snails (Stenopylis, Punctum) are less than one millimetre (0.04 inch) in diameter. At the other extreme, the largest land snail, the African Achatina achatina, forms a shell that is almost 20 centimetres (eight inches) long. The largest freshwater snails, Pomacea from South America, reach nearly 10 centimetres in diameter, and the largest marine snail, the Australian Syrinx aruanus, occasionally grows to more than 0.6 metre (two feet). (Solem, 2020).

Looking closer into the artwork, the snail or snails invoke fear upon the knights. The knights being one of the strongest and most fearful of warriors, are frightened by the mollusk. This gastropod is exaggerated in size, conveying a dangerous monster. We know for a fact; giant snails did not exist in this period. We know the average snail is roughly 3.3 cm, and there was no record of a snail invasion to imply an attack. We know there’s no documented evidence of religious significance, and overall, every historian is still puzzled by these productions. Therefore, this artwork can be depicted as comical or even ironic. Logically, the knight could easily defeat the snail, and yet, the fragile mollusk is described as mighty, strong, and dangerous.

Bunnies also made their debut along the same timeline as snails.

What Makes a Meme?

1. A meme must be popular but not too mainstream. Memes have the power to impact culture and carry an implicit message. If a meme is overused, people lose interest. Placed subtly, and you create an inside joke.

2. They possess the quality to produce derivatives. Memes can create derivatives that follow the same format or idea.

3. They occur spontaneously.

4. They have a humorous element. It can be a comical aspect because it’s absurd, surreal, a non-sequitur, or observational (funny because it’s true) (Manson, 2015).

Many of the pictures produced in this era are similar yet different. They follow the common theme of a powerful being against a harmless snail. Much like the memes of today, medieval snails randomly appear on the borders of texts and drawings. Snails are depicted in various comedic forms, some with human faces and others with animal-like bodies. Using irony, the power struggle between the strong and the feeble, with the snail dominating over its predecessor, dubs the snail a meme. For in what universe would a snail overthrow a knight?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s