The Humility of Snails
By Steffen Hope
Published Online on My Albion (2013)
Introduction: [E]x Africa semper aliquid novi ~ De Rerum Natura, Lucretius (8.42)
Out of Africa something new always comes, remarked Lucretius in his famous poem on the nature of things. In a somewhat similar way there always comes something new from the wonderful British Library’s medieval blogpost. Recently, they issued a lovely post on marginal snails in medieval manuscripts, which can be read here. As pointed out by the eminent Sarah J. Biggs, there are various explanations proffered for what the snails meant to the medieval onlooker, what role or roles they play in the theatre of the page and how they should be understood.
Some of these explanations have been summarised by Michael Camille in his famous book on medieval marginalia, Image on the Edge, and also in the British Library blogpost. To my mind, removed as it is from the early scholarly discussion on the subject, all of these suggestions are wanting to some extent. While some of them, like Lilian Randall’s suggestion positing the snail as a counterpoint of chivalry, may have validity in some geographies and some particular epochs, it can only be applied with extreme caution and acute sensibility to the historical context of the manuscript in question.
In this two-part blogpost, therefore, I would like to postulate another possible approach for how the snail should be understood in medieval iconography. Naturally, I lay no claim to have found the definite answer, but it might help us to get closer to some of the aspects of the snail imagery.