Bizarre Art in Medieval Manuscripts: Humor or Symbolism?
Ashley Giannico



Knights fighting giant snails? Rabbits taking revenge? Dozens upon dozens of butt jokes? One may expect these subjects in 21st century contemporary art, but in fact these are skillfully painted into the margins of illuminated manuscripts from the Medieval period (5CE -15CE)... and no one really knows why.
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Medieval “grotesques” and “demons”
With the middle ages came an interest with monsters and tales of faraway lands.
external image 53Bid6wMr5suqqfM1OP4amEj-4TqYbCUsJuE6qpLK848TUtYRsRwu9-u6un6BZpZPnYTGN6jLxPDSyQjvsXYipjZfP7TQ3O1bXgqTtYiw0TsTBgwimTAv6Q5tsziMG_0ilZOJQHH In 970CE a book titles “Wonders of the East” was written. This book described “creatures” in the lands to the east. The majority of these creatures were “living apart from society”, often in swamps, caves, and forests. Reasoning has been described as people simply gained a fascination with monsters and polytheistic religions, or that merchants would tell of monsters in areas where precious spices originated to discourage competition from wanting to gain access. Some say that the use of monsters and grotesques was to represent both humans who had lost their humanity to sin, and to represent creatures from--
---hell that people should fear, and serve as a reminder as to why people should follow the bible and be part of the Christian religion.
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One such race
of creatures spoken of were those of headless men with faces on their chests called the “Blemmyae”. Throughout many manuscripts, depictions of these headless man creatures have surfaced. The creatures were based on a tribe in Africa named the Blemmyae: a normal group of people in Nubia. After many stories spread through hear-say, the news got to the philosopher, Pliny, whom was told of cannibals with faces on their chests. These creatures were soon drawn throughout many different manuscripts (6)





Cynocephali (Cyno=dog, cephaly=disease of thehead)
Up in the mountains and unexplored parts of modern day Iran and the mountains of India are said to be a tribe of dog headed people. The legends of these creatures known as cynocephali can be traced back to India, China, Greece, and later in other parts of Europe. These people in addition to the heads, possess tails and speak in no human language, instead barking and growling to communicate. It is said the cynocephali wear clothes from animal skin, fine tanned animal skin from those whiexternal image 7zpdXmsS5gYDRFkMx5g58sLlQEaLuKqIOOfcDCl_rHVpxFtXFVMt6Sor4fJSJ7FrHCV1g7PDnEQnajqpSlYkg4X16eXjiDRzS9VzV-iEcSTT56dS2bjnCpLza2YBtmyLFj0RnYFKch they hunted, the richer would wear linens. The meat of their prey (and suspectedly the skins) were roasted in the sun. The cynocephali also domesticated animals such as sheep, the amount of sheep one owed corresponded with wealth. They did not sleep on beds in houses but instead on grasses and animal skins in caves.
They were able to use tools and
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would trade food supplies with nearby human towns and with other tribes in exchange for weapons such as spears, bows, and arrows, but were also supposedly extremely successful at war with humans.
Many scholars believe that the basis of these creatures came from canine ancestry myths, and additionally were one of the earlier bases for werewolves. Christians then used the cynocephali as a representation of a sort of evil/sin, people who had lost their humanity and became half animal. Wolves in European art especially were used as symbols of violence, power, and viciousness, traits that were used as both positive and negative depending on the context.Certain manuscripts of the Christian religion claim that St. Peter preached gospel to a cynocephali while another said he was one himself (8&9).

Sciapods- (Shadow Foot)
Often depicted alongside cynocephali, blemmyae, and cyclops, and other mutated humanoids are the creatures known as Sciapods (Monopodes). These creatures have only one giant foot with which they will hop around on or drag as they pull themselves along the ground with their arms. They are often depicted lying on their back with their single massive foot up in the air. The simple explanation is that they are using it as an umbrella from the sun inexternal image l11eOvMQ3eJ_nyooBkvyAMuz113pdEVvwTufluLT4FNYw5KzZNtFypSMfYlnnBZS5DEX9Q7Li6Hh4o78rLzqV8Iw_35eLUAGoSAhJJb3w9VELMpmh6TTvnxLGcDC7VodxY1bLpA2 extreme heat. The name sciapod can be translated from greek to mean “shadow foot”. It is believed that these people were based on a group of Ethiopian men and set to live in the mountains and forests in caves (10&11).external image uCGNWv6Hl9s-p-psIZ5a6bBVLGNp3hybzyLLCaZdgV7at6Djg1hbOm8kJ5tiZ2u4W144llgALMMvltVcRV8UzJ0x7V4YtcYd_yyXpuknUO6M0lU4BDxdg5rbbSr4gyid4eCx5ffe


Giant Snails

For what purpose were knights and villagers depicted battling giant snails? There must be a reason considering there are hundreds of examples. Many theories have arisen as to why these were so avidly painted throughout manuscripts, one so being that the snails were representations of the Lombards, a Germanic people that invaded Italy seen and depicted as barbarians to most european people as “cowardly” and “mean”. After their defeat in 772CE they were looked down upon even more so than before as most of them became usurers and pawnbrokers.
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The term “snail” was used as an insult/slur against them.
However, as the majority of these illustrations were done between 1200-1400CE, the meaning of the snails changed from being a symbol to being a
joke
. In other words it became a 14th century meme. Another theory, though seeming less likely than the former, is that the depictions of man vs snail is to represent the struggle society had as snails destroyed harvest crops. Either way, in the end its meaning became lost as the symbolism of the snails became a literal depiction of a giant snail external image Sr3HQdosyL8vlUK-buXFoVCVs0ZTsbfHiHCgZJFFVTA0_ncpad7xrfqsKYSjriqDvRvE6iUxIACdv9Jy_NtNbuOKTU5m8PjGD57teDFEpA7iDhKliLTFpL5oDmrWuMwK9OZKHi41for humorous purposes (1,3,5)

Evil Rabbits


While the snails had a historical basis, these portrayals of violent rabbits is believed to have been purely for a good laugh. Rabbits were originally introduced around europe as pets, sources of fur, and a food item, often depicted in a petting zoo setting in medieval art. Escaped rabbits bred quickly and became widespread throughout wild europe, allowing therm to become easy hunting prey to humans and native predators (4). Traditional art in the middle ages used rabbits to represent purity, innocence, cowardice, and fertility, all in additioexternal image UEmW30AQ955WM44r1M7gahlBwSV1iZZsxBf-hBFUGS5SIcnsCg1c9w2KLfe2AxC1MWbsuhfMoTNf5PdMsfHI9kaPWOkrU1jdEyp0YD4-uP2w5lUX3CJCoH0nDtAin9zL79wTYZCkn to their status of “easy kill”.
Artists began to find humor in the concept of “a world turned upside down”. They began to draw rabbits often depicted with swords, maces, sticks, and spears. Additionally they were placed in the context of either taking revenge on humans, or living in an alternate universe where humans were never on top and rabbits were (2&3)





















Works Cited
1) Schultz, Colin. "Why Were Medieval Knights Always Fighting Snails?" Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 11 May 2017
2) "Why Are There Violent Rabbits In The Margins Of Medieval Manuscripts?" Jon Kaneko-James. N.p., 31 Aug. 2015. Web. 11 May 2017.
3) Page, Thomas. "Bizarre Doodles Discovered in Ancient Manuscripts." CNN. Cable News Network, 14 June 2016. Web. 11 May 2017
4) Bunnyhugga. "History of Rabbits." Follow the Bunnyhugga News. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2017.
5) Voxdotcom. "Why Knights Fought Snails in Medieval Art." YouTube. YouTube, 29 Mar. 2017. Web. 15 May 2017.
6) Bovey, Alixe. "Medieval Monsters: From the Mystical to the Demonic." The British Library. The British Library, 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 18 May 2017.
7) https://hortulus-journal.com/journal/volume-5-number-1-2009/thimann/
8) Swancer, Brent. "A Strange History of Dog-Headed Men." Mysterious Universe. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2017
9) Astma, Aaron J. "Cynocephali." Theoi. N.p., n.d. Web
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