Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Friday 14 August 2015


A snail-cat, depicted in the Maastricht Hours – an illuminated devotional manuscript produced in the Netherlands during the early 1300s (public domain)

After my exhaustive books Mystery Cats of the World (1989) and Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012) were published, I might have been forgiven for thinking that I must surely have documented a representative selection of examples for every anomalous feline form ever recorded – but I would have been wrong, as now revealed here.

The vast assembly of curious creatures inhabiting the exquisite world wrought by generations of medieval monks and lay artists laboriously creating illuminated manuscripts of religious tracts and other devotional works is like none other anywhere in the history of zoological artwork. Alongside such stalwarts of classical Western mythology as dragons, unicorns, griffins, wildmen, and demons are all manner of truly bizarre entities that are commonly termed grotesques, for good reason. Impossible hybrids, crossbreeds, and composites of every conceivable (and inconceivable!) combination, they exhibit a surreal 'mix 'n' match' approach to morphology, deftly and effortlessly uniting the head(s) of one species with the limbs of a second, the wings of a third, and the body of who knows what from who knows where. In cases where these grotesques are more comical than frightening in form, however, they are generally referred to as drolleries.

As mentioned in previous ShukerNature blog articles and other publications of mine, I've always been especially interested in the more unusual contingent of animal life –real, imaginary, and those somewhere in between (I believe the term that I'm looking for here is cryptozoology!). Consequently, it should come as no surprise to learn that this marginalia menagerie, i.e. the zoological monsters and monstrosities lurking amid the margins (and sometimes cavorting among the illuminated letters too) of medieval manuscripts, have long held a particular fascination for me, and I have spent many long but very pleasant hours scrutinising examples from these sources as depicted in books, articles, and online, as well as sometimes directly examining such manuscripts themselves, thus embarking upon an entertaining if unequivocally esoteric safari seeking cryptic creatures of the decidedly uncommon and uncanny kind.

A virginal maiden attended by a spotted unicorn, depicted in the Maastricht Hours (public domain)

Thus it was that I was recently delighted to encounter not one but three different examples of a particular mini-monster of the marginalia variety that I had never previously spotted within the medieval manuscripts' sequestered yet richly ornate realm of emblazoned folios and ornamented parchment. Moreover, unlike so many others sharing its domain, this creature exhibited a well-defined, memorable – even quaint – form, an engaging little drollery combining the whorled shell of a snail with a cat's emerging head and neck (sometimes its front paws too). And so, gentle reader, without further ado I give you the snail-cat – or, should you prefer it, the cat-snail.

(Incidentally, as will be revealed later here, the artistic motif of animals housed in snail shells is by no means confined to cats. On the contrary, so many variations upon this molluscan theme are on record, including humans as well as animals, that these entities even have their very own term – malacomorphs, which translates as 'shell forms'.)

Back to the snail-cats: out of this current trio of molluscan moggies (or feline malacomorphs, to employ the more technical moniker for such incongruous crossbreeds), the first one to come to my attention did so while I was browsing through the British Library's online digital version (click here) of the Maastricht Hours – a sumptuously illustrated version of the once-popular book of hours. But what is a book of hours?

A manticore bishop with curlicue tail, from the Maastricht Hours (public domain)

Back in the 12th Century, the most common books owned by families in Europe wealthy enough to possess such items were psalters – which normally contained the 150 psalms of the Old Testament and a liturgical calendar. They were also beautifully illustrated by monks. Subsequently developed from the psalter was the breviary, which contained all the liturgical texts for the Office (aka the canonical prayers), whether said in choir or in private. During the 14th Century, however, books of hours appeared on the scene. A type of prayer book designed for laypeople, they largely eclipsed psalters and breviaries, and whereas these latter works had been illuminated predominantly by monks (monasteries being the principal producers of books back then), books of hours could be commissioned by the wealthy from professional scribes and lay-owned illuminators in towns and cities, and many of these beautiful works still survive today. Here is Wikipedia's definition of the book of hours:

The book of hours is a Christian devotional book popular in the Middle Ages. It is the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript. Like every manuscript, each manuscript book of hours is unique in one way or another, but most contain a similar collection of texts, prayers and psalms, often with appropriate decorations, for Christian devotion. Illumination or decoration is minimal in many examples, often restricted to decorated capital letters at the start of psalms and other prayers, but books made for wealthy patrons may be extremely lavish, with full-page miniatures.

Books of hours were usually written in Latin (the Latin name for them is horae), although there are many entirely or partially written in vernacular European languages, especially Dutch. The English term primer is usually now reserved for those books written in English. Tens of thousands of books of hours have survived to the present day, in libraries and private collections throughout the world.

Unidentified creature in the Maastricht Hours (public domain)

The typical book of hours is an abbreviated form of the breviary which contained the Divine Office recited in monasteries. It was developed for lay people who wished to incorporate elements of monasticism into their devotional life. Reciting the hours typically centered upon the reading of a number of psalms and other prayers. A typical book of hours contains:

·                     A Calendar of Church feasts
·                     An excerpt from each of the four gospels
·                     The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary
·                     The fifteen Psalms of Degrees
·                     The seven Penitential Psalms
·                     A Litany of Saints
·                     An Office for the Dead
·                     The Hours of the Cross
·                     Various other prayers

In its Catalogue of Illumination Manuscripts, the British Library lists the Maastricht Hours as MS [Manuscript] Stowe 17. Written in Latin (using Gothic script), but with a calendar and final prayers in French, it was produced during the first quarter of the 14th Century in Liège, the Netherlands, probably for a noblewoman, who may be represented as a kneeling female figure in several places throughout the manuscript. It is lavishly illustrated throughout, and its margins in particular are crammed with all manner of grotesque beasts and other figures, often engaged in bizarre, surprising forms of behaviour, especially so in view of their setting – a religious devotional book.

A fiddle-playing dog in the Maastricht Hours (public domain)

Handsomely bound in blind-tooled blue leather, it was once owned by Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville (1776-1839), 1st Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, who resided at Stowe House, near Buckingham in Buckinghamshire, England, where it formed part of the famous Stowe Library (hence its Stowe designation by the British Library). After a series of intervening changes of hand, however, it was finally purchased in 1883 by the British Museum, together with 1084 other Stowe manuscripts.

The Maastricht Hours consists of 273 folios. Like other manuscripts from the Middle Ages, it was bound without page numbers. In relation to such manuscripts, the term 'folio' (commonly abbreviated to 'fol' or simply 'f') is used in place of 'page', and the front or top side of each folio is referred to as the recto ('r'), with the back or under side of each folio being the verso ('v'). Consequently, as examples of how folios are designated in such manuscripts, the front side of a manuscript's fifth folio would be referred to as f 5r, and the back of the manuscript's 17th folio as f 17v. Bearing in mind that some consist of as many as 300 folios or even more, illuminated manuscripts housed in libraries sometimes have the respective number of each constituent folio lightly pencilled upon its recto side's top-right corner, for ease of access to specific folios.

Folio 185 recto (f 185r) of the Maastricht Hours, depicting a scowling snail-cat (public domain)

On f 185r of the Maastricht Hours, which contains a prayer for the family of the book's owner, a scowling snail-cat is clearly visible, perched upon an illuminated curl sweeping underneath the prayer. Its shell is dextral in shape, i.e. its whorls spiral to the right, and disproving the opinion of some writers who have suggested that perhaps snail-cats depicted in medieval manuscripts are simply ordinary domestic cats sitting inside empty (albeit exceedingly large!) snail shells with their head and neck sticking out of the shell's aperture, this particular snail-cat confirms its bona fide hybrid nature by sporting a pair of antenna-like snail stalks on top of its head. Unlike those of real snails, however, its stalks do not bear eyes at their tips – its eyes being set in its face instead, like those of normal cats.

Close-up of the Maastricht Hours snail-cat (public domain)

Incidentally, the specific conformation of this snail-cat's shell is very reminiscent of a fossil ammonite shell. Who knows – perhaps one of the illuminators working on the Maastricht Hours had seen such a specimen at some time, and incorporated its form into his snail-cat's design.

The Maastricht Hours snail-cat compared with a fossil shell from the common British ammonite Peltoceras; the latter illustration is from C.P. Castell's book British Mesozoic Fossils (BMNH, 1962)  (public domain/© C.P. Castell/BMNH - inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

But this is not the only shelly surprise contained within this manuscript's folios. Several other entities of equally unexpected shell-bearing status can also be found here, as now shown.

Snail-youth on f 8r and in close-up (public domain)

The head and shoulders of a curly-headed youth(?) emerge from a sinistral shell (its whorls spiralling to the left) at the bottom of f 8r, as do those of an unidentified horned ungulate at the bottom of f 11r.

Enshelled unidentified ungulate on f 11r and in close-up (public domain)

A bearded dextral-shelled snail-man with emerging upper torso including arms can be seen at the bottom of f 193v:

Snail-man on f 193v and in close-up (public domain)

A dextral-shelled snail-goat appears on f 222v:

Snail-goat on f 222v and in close-up (public domain)

And on f 272r a woman is shown dancing before a smaller dextral-shelled snail-human whose face has been obscured by wear and tear of the book down through the centuries.

Woman dancing before smaller snail-human on f 272r and in close-up (public domain)

Whoever produced the artwork for this manuscript evidently had a serious passion for manufacturing malacomorphs!

My second snail-cat turned up in the Bibliothèque Mazarine's MS 62, NT Épîtres de Saint Paul (originally the personal library of Cardinal Mazarin, the celebrated Italian cardinal and diplomat who served as Chief Minister to the French monarchy from 1642 until his death in 1661, the Bibliothèque Mazarine is the oldest public library in France). As its title suggests, this manuscript contains the Epistles of St Paul from the New Testament, written in the Vulgate Latin translation. It consists of 149 folios, dates from the final quarter of the 14th Century, and was originally owned by the Convent of the Minimes in the village of Nigeon, located on the hill of Chaillot, near Paris.

F 70v of the Bibliothèque Mazarine's MS 62, NT Épîtres de Saint Paul, revealing the presence of a snail-cat in the left-hand margin (public domain)

On f 70v of this manuscript, one of the quadrants in the elaborately illuminated margin's left-hand side contains a delightful snail-cat, one that in sharp contrast to the distinctly unfriendly version in the Maastricht Hours is happily smiling, is housed within a sinistral snail shell, and is revealing its front paws. It lacks the snail horns of the Maastricht snail-cat, but its ears are unusually long and pointed.

Close-up of the snail-cat in f 70v of the Bibliothèque Mazarine's MS 62, NT Épîtres de Saint Paul (public domain)

As with the Maastricht Hours, moreover, its snail-cat is not the only malacomorph drollery present in this manuscript. Browsing through its complete collection of illuminated folios online (click here), I also spotted a snail-griffin on f 89v whose shell is attached solely to its haunches, with the rest of its body entirely external to it; a bearded human-headed snail-monster on f 102v; and a strange dog-like snail-monster bearing what resembles a reverse coxcomb upon its head on f 112.

Snail-griffin (top left), human-headed snail-monster (top right), and dog-like coxcombed snail-monster (bottom), from the Bibliothèque Mazarine's MS 62, NT Épîtres de Saint Paul (public domain)

Snail-cat #3 appears in a Paris-originating book of hours manuscript entitled Horae ad Usum Parisiensem, which dates from the final quarter of the 15th Century, consists of 190 folios plus four additional folios in parchment, and is written in Latin. It is held in the National Library of France's Department of Manuscripts, but can be viewed in its entirety online here.

Its snail-cat appears on f 187r, and like the previous example it is smiling with front paws present outside its shell, whose whorls spiral in a dextral configuration. Its ears are less pronounced and pointed than those of snail-cat #2, and it lacks the snail horns of snail-cat #1.

Snail-cat on f 187r and in two close-ups, from Horae ad Usum Parisiensem (public domain)

Whereas the illuminator of the Maastricht Hours exhibited a definite obsession with malacomorphs, the artist responsible for the marginalia menagerie in Horae ad Usum Parisiensem showed far more interest in composite centaurs, depicting a wide range of forms, but only one malacomorph other than the snail-cat. This second malacomorph is itself a composite, combining the turbaned head, arms, and upper torso of a man with a pair of large bat-like wings the lower torso and front paws of a leonine creature, and a sinistral snail shell; it appears on f 46r.

Composite malacomorph on f 46r from Horae ad Usum Parisiensem (public domain)

During my browsing of various other illuminated manuscripts online in recent times, I've collected a number of additional malacomorphs, and a small selection of the more interesting and unusual ones is presented below.

An unidentified (possibly porcine?) but unequivocally angry malacomorph appears on f 109v of esteemed Flemish author-poet Jacob van Maerlant's manuscript Van Der Naturen Bloeme, produced in The Hague, Netherlands, in c 1350. This is in turn a free translation of 13th-Century Brabant author Thomas of Cantimpré's 20-volume magnum opus De Natura Rerum.

Jacob van Maerlant's angry malacomorph (public domain)

The Luttrell Psalter is an illuminated manuscript produced sometime during 1325-1340 for the wealthy Luttrell family of Irnham in Lincolnshire, headed by Irnham's lord of the manor, Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, who commissioned its preparation. It consists of 309 folios, is written in Latin, and is now held in the British Library as Additional Manuscript (Add. MS) 42130, after having been acquired by the British Museum in 1929.

It is famous for its extraordinary array of truly monstrous marginalia grotesques, prepared by anonymous illuminators. Indeed, in her fascinating book Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts (2002), Alixe Bovey, a curator in the British Library's Department of Manuscripts, notes that the realistic scenes of daily life on a medieval estate such as owned by the Luttrells as portrayed in this psalter are interspersed with:

…creatures of such startling monstrosity that they prompted one scholar to comment that 'the mind of a man who could deliberately set himself to ornament a book with such subjects…can hardly have been normal'. While it seems unwise to use the margins of the Luttrell Psalter to diagnose the mental condition of its artists, there can be no doubt that the artist who illuminated many of its pages had an exceptionally fertile imagination.

Indeed he did, and as proof of that, here is a noteworthy avian malacomorph that appears on f 171v of the Luttrell Psalter:

Avian malacomorph from the Luttrell Psalter (public domain)

The Hours of Joanna the Mad is an illuminated book of hours manuscript that had originally been owned by Joanna of Castile (1479-1555), the (controversially) mentally-ill consort of Philip the Handsome, king of Castile. It had been produced for her in the city of Bruges (in what is now Belgium) some time between 1486 and 1506, but is now held as Add. MS 18852 in the British Library. As with so many others of its kind, this illuminated manuscript's margins are plentifully supplied with grotesques and drolleries, including a couple of very distinctive malacomorphs – one of which is a bearded snail-man, the other a snail-stag.

The bearded snail-man, from f 91r in the Hours of Joanna the Mad (public domain)

A mirror-image pair of snail-stags from f 305r and f 305v (hence they do not face each other, but I've realigned them to do so here) in the Hours of Joanna the Mad (public domain)

An antiphonary is one of the liturgical books intended for use in the liturgical choir, and many medieval examples were elaborately illuminated. One of these is the multi-volume antiphony produced during the 1400s for the Augustinian monastery of San Gaggio (i.e. Pope St Caius) in Florence, Italy, and among its numerous marginalia is a collared snail-dog, with horns or horn-like ears:

Collared snail-dog from the Antiphony of San Gaggio (public domain)

The Tours MS 0008 manuscript held by the Bibliothèque Municipale in Tours, France, dates from c.1320, originated in Spain, and consists of an illuminated Bible with Latin text, which contains a veritable pantheon of marginalia, including two appearances by snail-goats. In one of these appearances, the horned, beardy-chinned malacomorph in question is defiantly sticking its tongue out at a knight about to shoot it with an arrow (on f 89r); and in the other (on f 327v), it is using its tongue to do something unmentionable to a certain part of a nearby monkey's anatomy!

Two snail-goats in the Tours MS 0008 manuscript (public domain)

The Breviary of Renaud de Bar is MS 107 in the collections of the Bibliothèque Municipale in Verdun, France. Dating from the early 1300s, it was commissioned for Renaud de Bar, the bishop of Metz, by his sister, Marguerite, who was the abbess of Abby St Maur. On f 97r is a snail-monk holding a forked club; similarly, on f 107 v, a snail-woman is wielding a forked club and also holding a shield as she confronts a girl wearing nothing but a cap and a mantle that she is holding open towards the malacomorph like some medieval flasher! And on f 160v, yet another forked club is being parried, this time by a man with a shield opposing a rearing snail-goat with long curved horns.

Three scenes featuring marginalia malacomorphs from the Breviary of Renaud de Bar (public domain)

The Varie Hours is an exceedingly ornate illuminated book of hours commissioned by 15th-Century French court official Simon de Varie. Completed in 1455, it was subsequently divided into three volumes; the first two are held at the National Library of the Netherlands in The Hague, the third at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, USA.

What is especially interesting in terms of its profuse array of marginalia is that this particular book of hours depicts malacomorphs of a fundamentally different nature from those hitherto observed by me in illuminated manuscripts. For instead of possessing spherical spiralled shells like typical land snails, they sport long, pointed spiralled shells similar to those of certain marine gastropods such as Turritella. Two of these atypical malacomorphs can be found on the same folio – f 72 in Vol. 3 – one of which is a snail-goat (at the bottom), and the other (at the top) a composite with the head of a bearded be-turbaned man but the furry upper torso and pawed forelegs of an undetermined animal.

Two malacomorphs on f 72 in Vol. 3 of the Varie Hours (public domain/courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum)

Returning once more to snail-cats, and having established that the snail-cat motif is not unique to a single illuminated manuscript, the obvious question now needing to be answered is: what – if anything – does it represent? In medieval lore, each type of animal was invested with certain attributes and thus came to symbolise various specific human emotions and characteristics – love, apathy, piety, hatred, power, deceit, joy, sinfulness, charity, betrayal, loyalty, greed, honesty, lust, virtue, and so forth.

In view of its famous slowness of pace, in Christian symbolism the snail came to epitomise the deadly sin of sloth and laziness. And the cat fared little better in such symbolism, traditionally deemed to personify lasciviousness and cruelty, and to be in league with the forces of darkness. Consequently, it does not bode well for a snail-cat present in a Christian illuminated manuscript to symbolise anything positive or benevolent.

Having said that, however, there is no indication that these feline malacomorphs were intended to signify anything at all. This is because their appearances as marginalia in various folios from such manuscripts seem not to correspond in any way with the main content or text of those particular folios. The same is also true not only for other malacomorphs but also for many marginalia grotesques and drolleries in general.

A typically surreal example of marginalia (on f 145r) from the Luttrell Psalter (public domain)

If anything, their presence often tends to be more subversive than pertinent, i.e. suggesting that the illuminators have inserted them as sly or playful attempts to mock, deflate, or even act as light, comic relief to the strictly serious, devotional nature of the folios' principal content rather than to instruct or act in any kind of directly relevant, contextual manner.

Moreover, in some cases this phantasmagorical menagerie of marginalia might be nothing more significant than the product of illuminators' attempts to stave off boredom when faced with the exceedingly long and very tedious task of copying or illuminating a major manuscript.

In short, snail-cats and various other bizarre fauna of the folios may simply be medieval doodles, originally executed centuries ago merely as brief, functionless escapes from ennui, but cherished today in their own right as fascinating, captivating fantasies that add charm, surprise, and not a little rebellion to the sternly religious literary abodes in which they linger and lurk, always ready to startle unwary readers with their extraordinary forms and outrageous, humorous behaviour – and long may they continue to do so!

Close-up of the snail-stag from f 305v in the Hours of Joanna the Mad (public domain)

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