Tag Archives: medieval

The Knight vs. The Snail

Image from the Gorleston Psalter (14th Century)

This is a doodle from a medieval manuscript. Such manuscripts were written by monks (who, other than nobles and clergy, were really the only ones that could even read after all) and usually included some sort of doodle or artwork in the margins. But some are pretty strange. Like this one. Do you know why the knight is fighting a snail? Because if you read enough 14th century literature this image turns up everywhere. And nobody knows why.

Perhaps its a weird joke – the knight finally facing an equally-armored foe – or maybe it’s a metaphor. Some people have proposed that the snails are references to biblical passages, or political groups, or sex. Here’s a tip – if you don’t know what something represents, sex is always a good guess. Maybe the monks just really hated snails, but then why do the knights always look so worried?

Maybe they know something we don’t. I’m not saying knights battled giant snails in medieval Europe. But I’m not not saying it either.

To see more images, go to the Medieval Manuscripts blog at the British Library. Thanks to and reddit for the heads up.


Posted by on October 22, 2013 in Anthropology, History


Tags: , , , ,

Rat Kings

This is what we know about rat kings.

The term originated in continental Europe sometime before or during the 16th century. A mention of a kind of rat patriarch, fed and cared for by its nestmates, is recorded in Gesner’s Historia Animalium (1551-58), while the earliest report of the specific knotted tails phenomenon hails from 1564. A large number, sometimes up to several dozen, are bound together by their tails, which have become knotted and glued together with filth and calluses. If scientific analysis of preserved specimens is to be believed, the animals may live like this for quite a while.

Germany seems to be the epicenter of these phenomena and specimens continue to be reported, even into the modern era. The most famous specimen (held in the museum Mauritianum of Altenburg) dates from 1828. The last report came from an Estonian farmer in 2005. Like our little spooky film suggests, these creatures are often associated with bad luck and regarded as plague bearers. This may not be unfounded, as the high rat population density needed to form a rat king would also lend itself to the spread of rodential pestilences. The black rat seems to be the most common host, although brown rats, mice, and other rodents have also been reported.

The actual validity of their existence is questionable. Rats are, in fact, quite clean creatures and spent a lot of time grooming themselves. It is unlikely that their hygiene would be allowed to lax so far as to bind them together, even in cramped conditions. Furthermore, no living specimens have actually been delivered, only dead ones, raising the possibility that these are, in fact, man-made. The most likely theory is that these are hoaxes based upon skewed medieval reports. However, the idea is the perfect mix of sneakily believable, unsettling, and weird enough to pique our morbid curiosity, and has gained quite a place in pop culture and literature, featured in classic works such as The Nutcracker and in modern fantasy. China Miéville, Scott Westerfeld, and even Terry Pratchett have all touched upon it.

Sources:, Wikipedia

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 1, 2011 in History, Natural History


Tags: , , , , ,