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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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 Detail; Brunetto Latini Li Livres dou Tresor (1315-1325CE)
Detail; Brunetto Latini Li Livres dou Tresor (1315-1325CE)

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 described them 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.
Detail from: Decretals of Gregory IX (1300-1340CE)
Detail from: Decretals of Gregory IX (1300-1340CE)
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 for humorous purposes.

Detail; Brunetto Latini Li Livres dou Tresor (1315-1325CE

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. Traditional art in the middle ages used rabbits to represent purity, innocence, cowardice, and fertility, all
in addition to their status of “easy kill”.

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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.
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