And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 18. august 2014

The Humility of Snails, part 3 - Houses of the Humble

Snail wheeled by a fox (?)
Cambrai, MS 102, c.1290
With thanks to Damien Kempf
Last year, inspired by a blogpost by Sarah J. Biggs at British Library's medieval blog, I wrote a two-part essay about snails in medieval marginalia (here and here). These fantastic gastropods have captured the imagination of modern scholars for generations, and many suggestions have been proffered in the attempt to explain what they meant to their audience. I was dissatisfied with a lot of the suggestions as they sometimes seemed to be too geographically specific to explain a widely disseminated phenomenon, and sometimes seemed to be presented without any solid foundation in research. 

I mean, how the hell do you explain this?
MS Neuchâtel A28, Flemish book of hours, Bruges, c.1500
With thanks to Sjoerd Levelt
As a thought experiment, I offered a scholarly new explanation for what these snails represented, namely that they were symbols of humility, reminding the reader through different situations what was expected from a good Christian. I furthermore tied this symbolism into the mendicant sanctity that came into vogue in the 13th century and continued through the 14th, a model of sanctity based on good works, self-abnegation, and humility, to name some of the key virtues of this saint-paradigm. Through an examination of the snails in a handful of medieval manuscripts, I came to the inconclusive conclusion that the idea of the snail as a symbol of humility made very much sense in a number of religious or religiously informed books from the period 1290-1430.

St Lawrence, and a marginal snail
MS Neuchâtel A28, Flemish book of hours, Bruges, c.1500
With thanks to Johan Oosterman
I was content with such a result. In the field of medieval history, the scarcity of material allows very seldom for conclusive proof, and very often the best we can hope for is a plausible conjecture that can stand the test of time. I was therefore greatly and pleasantly surprised, when I was notified of a 15th-century poem that proved that snails did serve as a symbol of humility in the Middle Ages.

The poem in question is a long political meditation by John Lydgate (1371-1451) called The Truce of 1444. It was brought to my attention by Jenni Nuttall (who has a great blog), and can be found together with a number of other poems from the period collected and edited by Thomas Wright in Political Poems and Songs relating to English History (also thanks to Jenni Nuttall for this link). Lydgate wrote this poem as a political meditation following the truce between France and England of May 1444, which stipulated a two-year armistice, which later was extended to five years, and saw the bethrotal between Margaret of Anjou and King Henry V. Although the title given to the poem - at least in Wright's edition - refers to the truce, the poem itself is more a meditation on politics in general, seemingly an exhortation for people outside the court not to meddle in the politics of the court. Lydgate himself was no stranger to politics. As a monk of Bury St Edmunds, he had prepared his Livesof SS Edmund and Fremund for the young King Henry VI's visits at the monastery in 1333-34. Lydgate had furthermore written extensively on kingship and chivalry in other texts.

However, the tone of the poem suggests a more politically withdrawn monk who has become wary of the world of courtly politics. The text is interspersed with several moralistic animal fables and similes, and referring to the prudence of ancient men like Cato and Socrates, and advicing the lowly to be still lest they face the wrath of princes. One of these animal fables is of particular interest to us as it treats a lobster's attack on a snail:

I sauh a krevys, with his clawes longe,
Pursewe a snayl, poore and impotent;
Hows of this snayl, the wallys wer nat stronge,
A slender shelle, the sydes al torent.
Whoo hath no goold, his tresour soone spent;
The snaylis castel but a sklendir coote;
Whoo seith trouthe, offte he shalle be shent;
A good be stille is offte wel wourth a groote.

This short fable - concluded with one of the repeated lines in the work - is a tale of oppression and abuse of power by the mighty, while the snail represents the lower estates, the poor, and quite likely the humble. Although the word humble is not used, the poor and powerless snail stands in contrast with the long-clawed lobster in a way much similar to the humble snail and the powerful knight in so many marginal illuminations. This is not to say that Lydgate's lobster is a symbol specifically of chivalry, it is more likely representing all kinds of secular power. Nor is it to say that Lydgate draws on the marginal snail for his inspiration, we don't know if Lydgate even knew this (though it is very likely that he did). The reason this use of the snail is interesting to my case, is that the snail is here used as a symbol of those who suffer from abuse of power, the lowly, those who do not belong in the secular court. In short, the snail is the opposite of military might. We do not know whether such a representation of the snail was widespread in medieval Europe, or whether it was in any way connected to the tradition of marginal snails - we simply lack the decisive evidence for such claims. However, Lydgate's use of the snail is symbolically in tune with the snail as a representation of humility as hypothesised by myself in the two previous blogposts. It is therefore reasonable to claim that within the symbolic range of the snail in the Middle Ages, could be found the snail as representative of humility. 

Humility (perhaps) under attack
MS. W.45, The Fieschi Psalter, Flemish, 13th century
With thanks to  @bxknits, courtesy of Walters Art Museum


Edwards, A. S. G., "John Lydgate's Lives of Ss Edmund and Fremund: Politics, Hagiography and Literature", printed in Bale, Anthony, Saint Edmund King and Martyr: Changing Images of a Medieval Saint

Wagner, John A., Encyclopedia of the Hundred Years War

Wright, Thomas (ed.), Political Poems and Songs Relating to English History

University of Alberta's Lydgate project:

University of Michigan's Middle English Dictionary:

Post Scriptum: A big thank you to all who have helped me with suitable images, insights, feedback and help in the process of these blogposts. 

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