My Albion: The Humility of Snails, part 2 – The snail and the knight

My Albion: The Humility of Snails, part 2 – The snail and the knight.

For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

– Luke 14: 11




In my previous blogpost I launched the suggestion that snails in medieval marginalia might be read as symbols of humility, often depicted in contrast to the prideful life of knights and warriors. Furthermore, I suggested that this symbolism was influenced by the paradigm of sanctity that emerged with the foundation of mendicant orders, in which humility was now associated with good works, self-abnegation and a reclusive lifestyle. This is a change from the 12th-century, in which humility and warfare were often twin virtues, inspired by the legends of St. Alexis of Odessa and exemplified with the emergence of the orders of warrior monks such as the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers. This is of course not to say that the mendicant orders were in opposition to the crusades. On the contrary, the Franciscan liturgy for St. Louis – composed towards the turn of the 13th century – praises him for his crusades and viewed them as an imitatio Christi. However, warfare became frequently disassociated with sanctity in the 13th century, and Louis is therefore more a deviation proving the point than anything else.

This two-part exploration was triggered by a recent blogpost from the ever-so-lovely British Library’s medieval blog, and the piece in question was written by Sarah J. Biggs. In this second part, I will provide examples from several manuscripts from the time of this paradigm of sanctity and into the 15th century, looking at how well they fit with the idea that the snail is a symbol for humility. For the pictures from MS. Yates Thomspon 27 I am gratefully indebted to Robert Miller. Almost all pictures courtesy of the British Library.