The recent discovery of a Late Medieval silver-gilt mount, depicting a male knight emerging from a snail shell, provides a unique example of the mysterious phenomenon of ‘snail-men’ imagery in the Late Middle Ages, and could have been a form of medieval satire.
The mount, found by a metal detectorist in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, in September 2020, dates from around AD 1200-1350, and may have once been worn as a badge, or attached to a leather strap or belt.
The spiral shell is mounted on the back of a goat, and the knight, wearing a long-sleeved surcoat and a Norman style helmet, has one leg protruding forwards, as if stepping out from the cavity of the shell.
Illustrations of medieval knights and snails are a common feature in the margins of 13th and 14th-century illuminated manuscripts.
It has been suggested that the snail was an emblem of the Resurrection. The religious connotations of this particular mount are hinted by the placement of the figure’s hands as if in prayer. Another explanation is that the tradition originates from the stigmatisation of the Lombards as cowardly and malicious in Late Medieval Northern Europe; the snail alludes to the Lombards’ cowardice, whilst the knight signifies chivalry.
‘The image of the praying knight emerging from a snail shell atop a goat implies an element of parody or satire,’ said Beverley Nenk, Curator of Later Medieval Collections at the British Museum. ‘The mount could be a satirical reference to cowardly or non-chivalric behaviour of opponents in battle, or as a parody of the upper of knightly classes.’
The British Museum reports that the snail-man mount could have been the medieval equivalent of a modern-day ‘meme’.
The object has been declared Treasure, and Wakefield Museum wishes to acquire it.
The object's PAS database entry can be found at Record ID: SWYOR-4E467E - MEDIEVAL mount (finds.org.uk).