Small knight-snail-goat is medieval treasure

A silver-gilt praying knight emerging from a snail shell onto a non-equine quadruped, likely a goat, is one of the stand-out pieces of this year’s British Museum annual treasure report on Portable Antiquities Scheme finds. The object is less than an inch long, has flat back and a short rivet which indicates it was mounted to something thin and rigid like a leather belt. It is solid silver and its shaped and molded front is gilded with some wear on the top of the man’s head on the center of the shell.

It was unearthed by a metal detectorist in a field near Pontefract last September. The mount dates between 1200 and 1350, a time when scenes of knights and snails had a burst of popularity in the art of France, Flanders and England. The motif of a knight in combat against a snail and its many variants were common in the margins of illuminated manuscripts from Arthurian tales to psalters. They weren’t references to anything specific in the text, but rather  satirical references to cowardice in a monde renversé (world upside down) style; ie, the little, weak, slow snail treated as a valiant, sometimes even victorious chivalric opponent.

Knights, mounted and on foot, armed to the teeth with swords, lances and bows, charge a snail that faces them with antennae extended. Sometimes a woman begs the knight not to take this terrible risk. Sometimes the knight is on his knees in capitulation before his snail foe. Other variants merge animals and men or feature hybrid animals or animal combatants in place of the knights. The chimeric imagery often evoked snail shell shapes, as in the curled tail of a serpent. The knight-snail-goat has that same elision, where the spirals of the shell are placed where the curled horns of a ram would be.

The Aspremont Psalter-Hours, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia features a marginal illustration of a knight at arms emerging from a snail shell mounted on the back of a dog. The pose and position of the shell over the animal is comparable to the recently-discovered mount, although the knight in the mount has his hands clasped in prayer, not wielding shield and lance. His Norman style helmet is his only armament.

12 thoughts on “Small knight-snail-goat is medieval treasure

  1. I’m puzzled by the scrape marks on the back. When the silver was poured into the mold, the surface would be fairly flat and smooth.

  2. “The number Thou shallst count is THREE!” :yes:

    That badge was indeed clearly mounted onto something like a leather belt, and as there is indeed only a single “nubbin”, that scraping follows a function. Medieval drollery knows all kinds of motifs, and particularly for the snails and slugs different explanation have been given. While the hero is here riding on one, it might be a symbol for armour.

    Contrastingly, when on a crusade to the Holy Land, knights were dealing with sluggish ‘Lombard’ finance intermediates. Still, a ‘Lombard credit’ is the granting of credit to banks against pledged items, mostly in the form of securities or life insurance policies.

    London’s Lombard Street originally was occupied by “Lombard” bankers, who possibly operated a little later than the ones ridiculed in the books of hours. Later, as crusades to the Holy Land were not longer possible, e.g. Anthony de Lucy, 3rd Baron Lucy, however, sent a letter from London to his wife, letting her know that he and some friends lent some money and would be about to set sail for a crusade against the pagan (real) Prussians (cf.: “Northern Crusades”), where he apparently was killed in in 1368AD, in what today is Lithuania (cf. ‘St Bee’s Man’, found in the 1980ies).

    “Tannhäuser” –i.e. not the dude from the Wagner opera, but the ‘real’ one (like myself from the Bavarian Nordgau, b. ca. 1230AD; d. after 1265AD, his real identity possibly ‘Siboto III. von Tannhausen’)– is in the ‘Codex Manesse’ manuscript (from ca. 1320) depicted wearing the Teutonic Order habit, suggesting he might have fought in the Sixth Crusade. The ‘Deutschhauskirche’ in Würzburg alledgedly possesses the tombstone of Siboto III of Tanhusen.

    His song ‘Steter dienest der ist gv°t’ [Codex Manesse, 267v] ridicules classic Minnesinger poetry, in essence describing almost a shopping list for crusades to the Holy Land, and how –despite the tasks in each verse are getting more and more impossible– the singer “wont be easily disheartened”. “This song parodies the absurdity of courtly service by describing a list of requests from his lady. –The lyrics I translated as follows down below:


    Constant service done very well,
    done to ladies that look ‘belle’,
    As I have done to mine.

    A salamander I must get her,
    but one thing she strongly said:
    The one I send her must be RED.
    Out of [French] Provence into the land,
    to Nuremberg; In that I will succeed.

    And the Danube over the Rhine,
    Once I make it so, as I want she will do.
    But where I say “Yes!” she will say “No!”
    Such is what in accord we do.

    Thanks to that I have that girl of mine,
    The one I call my sweet sunshine.
    Heia hey!

    For too long she did not concubine.

    CHORUS: Yes – today and forever more ‘Yes’
    Loud and completely, and still ‘Yes!’.
    An aching heart’s weapon it turns out to be,
    What is this love doing to me ?
    The pure one and praise worthy ?
    That she wont make me glad,
    is what keeps making me sad.

    Sweet delusion keeps me happy, though,
    that I am getting from that ‘frouw’:
    In case the ‘Miuseberg’ would be flat
    freed from snow, ‘Sweety’ will reward me that.
    All that does churn my heart,
    is what I see in her ensured.

    My will she would fullfill certainly,
    if I build her a house of ivory,
    placing it atop a lake, she wants from me.
    I might have gracious friendship for gallantry,
    in case I bring to her from Galilee,
    From every collateral free,
    a mountain that I would put up on,
    that Adam must have sat upon–
    Heia hey!

    All other deeds would be surpassed.


    A tree that in India stands,
    huge, she wishes from my hands.
    My wlll she would fulfill,
    Let’s see if all that I will get to her:
    I must gain for her that Grail,
    that once possessed Lord Parcyfail.
    And the apple that Paris did address,
    for ‘minne’ to Venus the Lovegodess.

    And the mantle that encased,
    the woman that is untainted.
    Many other wonders she did propose,
    which grievous did on me impose:
    She is longing for the Ark,
    that Noah had timbered.
    Heia hey!

    Brought I that, how dear I would be!

  3. I disagree that the “nubbin” is what was left after scraping away the rest of the silver. I think the nubbin was erected in the mold and the silver poured around it to hold it in place. It would be silly to have to carve away so much silver.

    So I’m still puzzled by the scrape marks. They look rather decorative to me.

  4. …got carried away a bit. What I –originally– had wanted to post is this:

    Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (commonly E.T.A. Hoffmann), Romantic author of fantasy and Gothic horror, a jurist, composer, music critic and artist, in a self-portrait atop Murr the cat fighting the “Prussian bureaucracy” (only one year before his death, so the “bureaukrauts” might have won):ämpft_gegen_die_Bürokratie_1821.jpg

    As far as the scratches are concerned:

    Provided that the whole thing is one single cast, i.e. including the “nub”, and the positive model had been wax, the waxen original could have been scratched already, i.e. without taking away any of the metal.

    Of course, I simply could not tell myself by just looking at it.

  5. The mount may have been poured in an open mould.
    If that is the case, the molten silver would have been proud above the mould because of surface tension. The back would have then have to be filed down to create a flat surface to mate with whatever it was mounted upon. The silver shavings from the filing would have been swept up and saved to go into the melt for the next object cast.

  6. That thing just fell off, and I doubt that this silver rivet was the only one. Belts, and sets of belts, tend to be remarkably long.

    What I supposed is indeed an open mould, but with wax. All the created wax models are then scratched down to create individual flat surfaces –i.e. minus the “nubs”– then put into clay, the wax molten out and silver cast in.

    Personally, I reckon that not even in the ‘Dark Ages’ would somebody in real life cast individual rivets 😉

  7. If you look at the front of the piece, you will see that the center of the snail’s spiral has what appears to be one end of the nubbin which projects from the back. In other words, the flat mold held a vertical rod and the silver was poured around it.

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  9. Well if it was a buckle or maybe it was a decorative boss on a book, a bible. Would have been an probable use since is it a bit of medieval marginalia itself.

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