|When snails attack
||[Jul. 9th, 2009|05:20 pm]
Carl Pyrdum at Got Medieval has a good post this week about the motif of a knight fighting a snail in the marginal illustrations of manuscripts. He shared this image from the Macclesfield Psalter.
I see two things in that picture.
1. The knight is drawing his sword with his left hand. There aren't many illustrations of left-handed swordsmen in medieval art. The only other one I can think of is from 1497 and shows up in the statutes of the Collegium Sapientiae in Freiburg. You can see it on the cover of Ruth Mazo Karras' From Boys to Men.
2. The left-handedness may be part of the joke. It looks to me like we're supposed to understand that the knight was out for a stroll, carrying his sheathed sword wrapped up in his sword belt, like the statues on Naumburg cathedral. Suddenly, he was ambushed by a snail! It all happened so fast that he didn't have time to transfer his scabbard to his left hand. (It was a racing snail, ok?) So now he has to use a variation of the quick-draw technique from the last play of the sword vs. dagger section in Fiore dei Liberi's Flos Duellatorum. He's about to poke the snail in the eye with his scabbard chape in order to buy a moment to sort himself out.
It's a joke about speed, but it's also an arming sword play, complete with encoded information about weight transfer and footwork. That's the cool thing about medieval fighting illustrations: they're more like little video clips than single stop-motion photographs. If you study enough fechtbucher, you start to recognize the motion compressed into them. You see how the knight has taken his right foot off the line of attack? You can tell because the background gives you some perspective and because his weight is on his left. After he hits the snail in the eye, he clears his sword, pivots around his right foot and strikes the beast from its now-blind side. It's all one tempo; Fiore would love it.