Medieval illuminations in the margins of manuscripts are a wonderland of imagination and humor. The 14th century gives the avid reader an amazing selection of such illustrations to entertain us. ‘The Hound, the Hare, and the Snail’ is one of my favorites. Through it, we can see wit and the finest of artistry. Imagine the skill of a monk, ascribe sitting at their desk adding such charming devices to a handwritten manuscript. Here we have the proudest of Hares sitting upon his mighty mount, the hound while displaying a snail on his right wrist. To the average reader, this may seem innocent. But to the avid historian, the avid re-enactor there is so much wickedness displayed right out in the open.
Here we have a hare, daring to ride upright like a great nobleman, mounted on a great steed. A hare would never be seen as food for the table of true nobles. We know he is male, for he sits astride. A lady would have mounted side-saddle. His steed is a pure white hound, female in fact to the discerning eye. Not a great stallion. He holds the reins of his mount in his left hand. In the 14th century, anyone who displayed their skill at leading with their left hand was thought by the church to have been touched by the devil. A white gauntlet adorns his right paw, there mounted in full view is a snail.
This snail dares to pretend to be a fine bird of prey. One of the greatest symbols of nobility in the 14th century. A snail, such an innocent device you might think (How dare a snail to think it is equal to a falcon) But in reality, this apparently whimsical little artwork is a simply beautiful way of both having a dig at the noble classes, but also entertaining the reader.
This tiny element, all three little creatures combined, might be just inches tall. So small that many may never really take the time to look at them closely. I will revisit such illustrations in the future. Some may shock you such is their temerity to flaunt what many think, is the great morality of the high medieval period.