Here’s a funny thing that’s just come to my attention: it turns out that among all the grotesques and drolleries in medieval illuminated manuscripts, a particularly popular motif is snail-hybrids. Now the name for these critters (a new word for me!) technically means “mollusc-form”, but mollusca is a huge phylum and we really aren’t referring to anything here but whorled snails. No clams or other bivalves, no octopuses or other cephalopods, no limpets, nudibranchs, or slugs… Not that some of those wouldn’t make for interesting hybrid creatures, too, but it seems that what interested our medieval manuscript illuminators was spiral shells. So here are some of my favorite examples.
These tiny, sometimes wonderfully detailed depictions of marvelous malacomorphic creatures come with no explanation. They have nothing to do with the texts they adorn (which are primarily Bibles and Books of Hours). No names or labels tell us where these critters might live, or what their habitats or habits might be. Are they usually the size of a normal specimen of the animal that makes up their front half? Or are they they size of little garden snails? Or somewhere in between? Do such creatures still exist, or are they all extinct now? I suppose they’d be pretty easy to hunt, despite the protection of the shell. They are presumably not speedy. What a shame it would be if they were all hunted to extinction at the beginning of the Renaissance.
I begin at the top with my two favorites, a lovely long-legged snail-bird and an exceptionally happy snail-cat. Next is a snail-griffin, interesting in that it has hind legs, unlike any of these other malacomorphic beasts, and another snail-cat, these two from the same manuscript and by the looks of it the hand of the same malacomorphophile artist. The snail-dog dates a bit later, and reminds me of “snips and snails and puppy-dog tails.” Griffin and cat are quite masterly and finished, the dog is much sketchier in style.
Next I have two snail-goats. Does the first have forelegs that are simply pulled farther back into its shell, or does it, true to its snailier nature, have no legs at all?
I conclude with the malacomorphs that I don’t know how to identify. There’s the flying snail, pure and simple which, from its appearance in a book of music, I like to think flutters about singing like a canary. Then there’s the snail-monster with branched antlers, hands that resemble those of a Dr Seuss character, and is that a fishy tail sticking out the back? I think the next little one is a snail-aardvark, but there’s even a suggestion of armadillo about the ridges on the shell. The creature with the unusually cone-shaped shell must be some sort of snail-stag or -antelope, I think, and the final creature? Snail-opossum? Snail-shrew? Whatever it is, it’s peeved!
There are lots of others, too, including a charming snail-rabbit, more snail-goats and snail-cats, and a three-eared malacomorph, all of which I originally wanted to include. But really, I have to draw the line somewhere, so I’d better quit before I go completely overboard! I’m quite delighted with these guys, and am thinking of different things I might be able do with the idea in stories or block prints. (Special thanks to Karl Shuker and Snail Hunter for gathering and posting images of these magnificent marvelous malacomorphs.)
[Pictures: Snail-bird, from Luttrell Psalter, c 1325-40, from the British Library;
Snail-cat, from Horae ad Usum Parisiensem, last quarter of 15th century, from national Library of France;
Snail-griffin and snail-cat, from Bibliotheque Mazarine MS 62 (Épitres de Saint Paul), last quarter of 14th century;
Snail-dog, from Antiphony of San Gaggio, 15th century;
Snail-goat, from Maastricht Hours, first quarter of 14th century, from the British Museum;
Snail-goat, from Bréviaire de Renaud de Bar, c 1302-4, from Bibliotheque Municipal Verdun;
Winged snail, from Chansons français de trois viox, c 1471, from Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel;
Snailmonster, from Universal Cosmography by André Thévet, 1571;
Snail-aardvark, from Copenhagen Chansonnier, c 1470, from Royal Library in Copenhagen;
Snail-stag, from Varie Hours, 1455, from the J. Paul Getty Museum;
Snail-opossum, from Der Naturen Bloeme by Jacob van Maerlant, c 1350.