Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Witless Warrior

The previous post on the Leber-Rouen Tarot deck looked at the trumps and court cards. Most of the elements of most of the cards in the Leber-Rouen Tarot are easily understood. The Fool card also exists, and the image is a unique one. It is clearly communicating a kind of Folly and clearly classicized, but some details are elusive. The Fool is portrayed as a Roman warrior with armor, two shields, and a half-dozen weapons. He wears a Roman plumed helmet, but it is depicted as a giant snail whose extended body mimics the fool's extended tongue, goatee, and the serpentine handle on one of his several swords. About his head swarm a dozen nearly-identical g-shaped whatzits, one of which he seems to be attempting to catch with his tongue. The motto of the Fool is Velim fundam dari mihi, the proper translation of which is not immediately clear.

The Leber-Rouen Fool Card

Sorting Out the Obvious

As always, the best approach is to work from the known, or fairly obvious, to the unknown. In interpreting this figure, given his function as a classicized fool, what defines him as a fool? There are five inescapably ludicrous elements. First, replacing the warrior's helmet with the helmet-shaped snail is inherently foolish. That is, even taken out of context, and regardless of any further significance it might have, it's just silly. Likewise, his prodigal weaponry is an unmanageable and clumsy burden, another sight gag that requires little thought to be appreciated. The pike and halberd in his left hand, the rondel dagger in his right, a shield on his back and another at his left hip, the several swords he is wearing and the one he has dropped, combine to constitute an absurdity. Third, the g-shaped whatzits harassing the Fool are a kind of annoyance and indignity that is appropriate to the depiction of a fool. Fourth, we have the exposed genitals of the Leber-Rouen Fool and, last but not least, his uncontrolled urination (streaming onto the sword he has fumbled) as he strides along.

With that quick, simple, and superficial examination, we understand the gist of the Leber-Rouen Fool card: the subject is classicized by making him a Roman soldier, and the details are used to make a mockery of him—a fool. There is significantly more, most obviously the motto, but we already understand how this card fits into the deck described in the previous post. What else is reasonably clear, or even obvious?

The elements mentioned above are foolish even in isolation, but what is the larger point? The uncontrolled urination is a simple sight gag, but there is an obvious meaning beyond the public shamelessness. Given that this is a warrior brandishing weapons, pissing freely as he advances also suggests that fear of battle has resulted in loss of control. In a word, this is cowardice. Because this is more than a simple absurdity layered on the figure, and because fear-induced incontinence is such a well-known phenomenon, we can be certain that this is an element of the intended meaning of the image.

By far the most significant such intended meaning relies on the incongruity of being so heavily armed and yet helpless in the face of attack. In a word, this is impotence. None of his weapons is useful for fending off the onslaught of whatzits, so he is reduced to dueling his diminutive adversaries with his tongue. The Leber-Rouen Fool is a ridiculous Roman soldier with fearsome weaponry but cowardly and impotent. This is folly on several levels. He has the wrong tools for the job. He is massively yet inadequately prepared for battle. There is the overkill aspect of "using a sledgehammer to swat a fly". The tongue of a fool is a feeble weapon even against so feeble an adversary. These are some of the morals one might attach to this tableau, but there is one ancient and overriding parallel: Aesop's fable of The Gnat and the Lion. This is an archetypal parable of great power and futility.

Aesop’s The Gnat and the Lion

In some of the collections attributed to Aesop, we find a gnat who took on a lion, mocked the lion's weapons, and challenged him to a contest. In the ensuing battle the lion mauled itself trying to fight off the biting insect, and the gnat prevailed. (Today we call this topos asymmetric warfare, and examples include the King of the Jungle being defeated by presumptuous gnats like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Folly indeed.) A longer version of this story was told by the 2nd-century Achilles Tatius (Leucippe and Clitophon). The obnoxious slave Conops (whose name is punned derisively as Gnat-man) tells a story of an elephant terrified of a gnat. Satyrus responds to this veiled threat with the story of the Lion and the Gnat, which ends with the gnat being caught in a spider's web. Here is the Aesop version in a 1692 translation by Sir Roger L'Estrange, from Laura Gibbs excellent Aesopica site.

As a Lion was Blustering in the Forrest, up comes a Gnat to his very Beard, and enters into an Expostulation with him upon the Points of Honour and Courage. What do I Value your Teeth or your Claws, says the Gnat, that are but the Arms of every Bedlam Slut? As to the Matter of Resolution; I defy ye to put that Point immediately to an Issue. So the Trumpet Sounded, and the Combatants enter’d the Lists. The Gnat charg’d into the Nostrils of the Lion, and there Twing’d him, till he made him Tear himself with his own Paws, and in the Conclusion he Master’d the Lion. Upon this, a Retreat was Sounded, and the Gnat flew his way: but by Ill-hap afterward, in his Flight, he struck into a Cobweb, where the Victor fell Prey to a Spider. This Disgrace went to the Heart of him, after he had got the Better of a Lion, to be Worsted by an Insect.

THE MORAL. ‘Tis the Power of Fortune to Humble the Pride of the Mighty, even by the most Despicable Means, and to make a Gnat Triumph over a Lion: Wherefore let no Creature, how Great or Little soever, Presume on the One side, or Despair on the Other.

Translating the Motto

The Leber-Rouen Fool has been classicized as a Roman soldier, and the Roman soldier has been made foolish in a number of ways. The central aspect of this is parallel to the fable of the Gnat and the Lion, and that explains most of the design: the solder is extravagantly well-armed and yet unable to fight off his relatively inconsequential adversaries. Knowing that makes it possible to decide on a proper translation of the ambiguous motto.

The motto, VELIM FUNDAM DARI MIHI, might be translated in various ways. Words, like images, mean what we use them to mean. The same word in a different sentence, or a different paragraph, or as a motto for a different picture, may take on diverse meanings. That is why most words have multiple definitions in the dictionary. The Leber-Rouen Fool's design, analogous to Aesop's tale of the Gnat and the Lion, is pretty clear and effectively contextualizes the motto. Ross posted this translation a couple years ago:

"Funda" can mean a sling, a net, a pocket, a purse - i.e. something holding and catching things. ... the Fool is a soldier burdened with too many weapons. But all of his weapons are useless against the "8"'s buzzing around him - butterflies? bees? Whatever they are, I think the message is that he wants the one weapon he doesn't have - a net to catch those things. So the better translation (for what it's worth) is "I wish that a net would be given to me."

Last week he added, "More colloquially, 'I wish somebody'd gimme a net!'" That fits neatly with the main point of the image, making the overall intent of the Fool image almost as clear and direct as the examples in the previous post. At this point a wise man might stop, having adequately explained the card.

Interpretation and Overinterpretation

It is crucial to recognize what has already been accomplished in this analysis and how little remains. Having ascertained the gist of the image and its motto and the way that contributes to the design of the deck, we know everything required to explain this card. We're essentially done. However, historical examples may suggest an artistic ambiguity that enriches our understanding of the design. In that regard, we may find documented meanings beyond what is necessary and sufficient to explain the design. But any such ancillary connotations cannot change the fundamental meaning, and their plausibility as intended allusions is to be evaluated by their congruence with the primary meanings already established. In that light, there are at least three questions which come to mind from the oddities in this picture: 1) Is there some significance to the many phallic representations (the extended snail body, the extended tongue, goatee, serpentine sword handles, and the half-dozen weapons), beyond what has already been noted? 2) Do the g-shaped whatzits flying about his head have some significance, beyond being annoying insects? 3) Does the snail have any particular significance beyond being a silly helmet?

Fools are sometimes depicted with exposed genitals, adding to their indignity and characteristic low status. As mentioned above, the Leber-Rouen Fool appears both exposed and incontinent, pissing as he walks. His many phallic weapons and their snake-like handles combine in that context of the Leber-Rouen Fool into an exaggerated jumble of phallic symbolism. (Even the rams-head knee guards may be included.) Although displaying all these literal and figurative signs of potency, the Fool is still reduced to sticking out his tongue to counter the swarm. Impotence, already mentioned, is a reasonable reading. More than anything else, however, the many phallic symbols draw attention to the Fool's own phallus, which reveals his panic. That is, the Fool's implied cowardice, also already noted. Rather than armed and dangerous, the swaggering coward is over-armed and ludicrous.

Fools are sometimes depicted with flies. However, there seems to be no convention in this regard, and each such image depicts a unique tableau. Moreover, there is no certainty that the g-shaped whatzits harassing the Leber-Rouen Fool are musca, flies or gnats. No compelling suggestions have been offered regarding the nature of the whatzits, nor explaining their g-shaped representation, other than a generic nuisance. No cognate has yet been identified for these g-gnats in any other works, except the present comparison with the biting fly of Aesop's fable. They might symbolize some contemporary social or political nuisance beginning with the letter "g". Considering that the engraved images were intended to be further decorated after printing, it may be that the g-shaped whatzits were merely wings, and that a line or daub was supposed to be added in metallic paint or foil as the bodies. They have also been identified as the number "8", as well as various insects including bees and butterflies. None of these are well supported; none explain the peculiar representation; and none add any meaning to the overall composition.

A 16th-century image (right) of an open-mouthed fool swarmed by insects and armed with a harp or lyre, by Hans Sebald Beham, was posted to Aeclectic. (It is from a deck of cards, and as such it also depicts the suit sign, a parrot.) The figure appears foolish largely because of his uncomprehending stare and his gaping pie-hole, into which the unfortunate bugs may fly. This illustrates a proverbial (Spanish and Italian) saying about keeping one's mouth shut: no flies enter a closed mouth. A modern version might be, better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. In any case, this mouth-breather and his aerial cohort appear unrelated to either the Leber-Rouen Fool card or to any convention about fools and flies. Another 16th-century fool (above-left) is depicted with flies, engraved by Anton Möller. He is shown entertaining, balanced on one foot with the other foot tucked behind his head, despite being pestered by flies and a dog. Unlike the Beham fool, this fellow appears to be a very clever and talented performer, and the picture honors his skill and concentration.

Perhaps the most appealing elaboration on the insect swarm comes from the modern English saying, "there are no flies on him". This means precisely that "he is no fool", and the converse is that someone with flies on them is a fool. This usage seems to date from the middle of the 19th century, but perhaps it has an antique origin, in one language or another. In any case, the idea that a slow (literally slow-moving; figuratively slow-witted) person may gather flies while a quick person does not is appealing and unforced. In lieu of earlier documentation for that saying, and in light of the juxtaposition of a heavily armed warrior with the swarm of pestering whatzits, the fable of the Gnat and the Lion appears to be not merely an adequate explanatory parallel but the only one yet offered. The exact identity of the g-shaped whatzits remains uncertain.

Then there is the snail...

The Trail of the Snail

Snails and warriors are a commonplace. There are many examples of medieval manuscripts being decorated with a knight and a snail. Articles and even a book have taken it as their subject. Marginalia is a narrow subject, so to speak. Whether monstrous or droll, in serious texts such images were associated with exempla, proverbs, and the kind of subject matter that might find its way into genre pictures. Whimsical elements of the Leber-Rouen Fool are similar in appearance and therefore, presumably, in origins and significance. Michael Camille's book on border illumination, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, has a section titled "Significance and the Snail". It begins with a quote dismissing such images.

The ornamentation of a manuscript must have been regarded as a work having no connection whatever with the character of the book itself. Its details amused or aroused the admiration of the beholder, who in his amusement or admiration took no thought whether the text was sacred or profane. A tradition of ornament had in the course of generations been established, and no-one, not even probably a person of exemplary piety, sustained any shock to his feelings when he performed his devotions from a prayerbook whose margins were made the playground for the antics of monkeys or bears and impossible monsters, or afforded room for caricatures reflecting upon the ministers of religion.
This pronouncement by a Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum on the non-meaning of marginal art is the clearest expression of a nineteenth-century attitude, a fear of the proliferation of perversities, that blinded generations of scholars, from M.R. James to Margaret Rickert, to the significance of marginal visual play....
The notion, however, that marginal art is full of 'meaning' also has a long history. In the middle of the last century the Comte de Bastard, bibliophile and publisher of the first facsimiles of illuminated manuscripts, wrote an article in which he interpreted the common marginal image of the snail, an example of which he had encountered in the margins of a French Book of Hours. Because he found it adjacent to a picture of the Raising of Lazarus, he thought the creature emerging from its shell was a symbol of the Resurrection....

This is the kind of simple and intelligible symbolism that could have become conventional... if it had appeared in a seminal manuscript, and therefore been copied again and again, and perhaps even spread to other works and media. But that didn't happen. While that snail may have signified "resurrection" to the illuminator, that is not an obvious reading, nor did it become conventional. Instead, like the disparate examples of flies discussed above, each image is a unique depiction relying on alternative associations, radically different compositions, and varied surrounding context to make different points. The snail, although sometimes used in such idiosyncratic manner, also tended toward a conventional meaning. The harmless and fearful snail was associated with cowardice in the same way that the fearsome and courageous lion was associated with fortitude.

There have been many interpretations of the ubiquitous knight and snail motif since.... Lilian Randall argued that in 29 different manuscripts made between 1290 and 1320 the knighting the snail was associated with a particular ethnic group in medieval society—the cowardly Lombards, who not only bore the stigma of being turncoats but who, along with the Jews, were Europe's bankers. The snail has been resurrected again in the broader context of folklore studies as a shifting sign for various groups in society. In some places it is an object of terror for knights, in others it is attacked by peasants, tailors and other 'low' groups. The snail emerging from its shell was associated with the social climber; its shape and size linked it to the genitals of women and hermaphrodites.

So there are varied examples and meanings for the snail. As with most symbols, it means different things in different contexts. Context counts. That is why it is crucial to work from the known to the unknown, to establish that context, tethering our view before venturing into the muddy waters of speculation. Camille illustrates some of these variations with more examples.

A marginal image of a knight dropping his sword at the sight of a snail perched on the tendrils of a minute Flemish Psalter suggests in this instance an erotic encounter [by] being juxtaposed with the drooping drone of the testicular bagpipe above, and a woman's 'basket' being attacked by a ram on the right page.

Note that it is a failed erotic encounter being depicted. The bagpipe drone, usually upright over the shoulder, is depicted as ludicrously limp, the knight's sword is dropped, and the ram's attack is successfully thwarted. These all reflect impotence, a theme already observed in the Leber-Rouen Fool.

But the same motif cannot have the same playful association with genitalia when found at the edges of a royal charter bearing the seal of Edward III of England. Nor is it a saucy snail that slithers across the choir screen or jube that once separated the nave from the choir at Chartres Cathedral. Here, in the corner of an animal panel in low relief, a knight drops his armor and flees from the gigantic gastropod in the top-right corner. Also carved on the west front of the cathedrals of Paris and Amiens, the subject here suggests the vice of cowardice seen as a sin against God. The appearance of such animal exempla within the sacred precincts of the Cathedral itself, alongside more standard bestiary symbols, such as the lion, indicates how common proverbial expressions like 'to flee a snail' (fuit pour ly lymaiche) were also visualized as part of the Cathedral's 'Bible in stone'.

Cowardice is the most common recurrent theme of the snail, and is a theme already observed in the Leber-Rouen Fool's incontinence.

.... Just as the proverb has no single divine authority, but is spoken in response to specific situations, marginal imagery likewise lacks the iconographic stability of a religious narrative or icon. The knight and snail motif is drawn in the pattern-book (c.1230) of Villard d'Honnecourt ready to be placed into a variety of contexts, where it will work in different ways and mean different things.

Yet another example is described in Camille's Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England. He describes a "stupendous, slimy snail",

... linked to the phrase at the bottom of the page, following the fish-filled line-ending—'lumine vultus tui' (the light of thy face_—by its shining body which, outlined in pure white, has even left a sticky, luminous trail around it. Whereas snails are common in Gothic marginal art, often shown in combat with cowardly knights and representing everything from Lombards to the devil, here it is the artist's interest in the snail's naturalistic appearance and shiny surface that forms the associative link with the psalm text.... Yet another level on which the snail might have been 'read' is reflected in a contemporary sermon which, discussing the horns of oxen and snails, compares it to 'a patient and humble person, when he is touched by his superior through fatherly corrections, bows his head and withdraws his horns of pride and impatience'. Wordplay that might have produced a particular pictorial association for the artist making the image might not always have been understood by the reader, who made his or her own association. The snail in all its polyvalence never means just one thing in a community of interpreters, where one person might 'get' the verbal association, another notice its pairing with the bull opposite and another enjoy it for what it is: a slimy creature crawling across the page in the wrong direction.

Wordplay and visual punning are naturally appropriate to depiction of cards for a game. Another mention of the virtue of Humility as a reading of the snail comes from Norman Douglas (Birds and Beasts of the Greek Anthology, 1927), who pointed out that "Crates of Thebes wishes to regulate his life according to the 'humility of the snail and the economy of the ant'". Ross has translated a passage from Louis Charbonneau-Lassay (Le bestiaire du Christ: la mystérieuse emblématique de Jésus-Christ, 1940) with some negative meanings.

In profane symbolism, the simple garden snail (escargot) symbolized inability because of the awkwardness of its movements and the futility of its actions. Worse still, to the extreme slowness of its progress it owes being the symbol of the demon of Sloth: when Goltzius wanted to personify this vice, he did it under the aspect of a languorous woman accompanied by an ass and carrying a slug (limaçon) crawling on her hand (16th century).
Christian symbolism also made of the slug the emblem of those souls which clung too closely to the things of this world; in this interpretation it was followed by noble heraldry, which the pen of old La Colombière explained thusly: "All of the interpreters of Holy Scripture understand by the slug, the spirit which is too attached to worldly affections; the poet Hesiod names this animal house-carrier because he is so attached to his things, that he carries them everywhere with him."
Otherwise, the tiny and charming snail (escargot) of the woods, so delightfully filled with black and brown swirls against a background of yellow or white, came to be demonised. From ancient beliefs it borrowed unnatural associations with the "serpents" and was given to Satan under the names of "slug of the asp" (Poitou, Touraine, Anjou), and, elsewhere, "slug of the devil" (Guyenne). It was held that the handling of this mollusk brought on frenzy and epilepsy....

Sloth, worldly, devilish... nasty bugger. Finally, it is worth considering an implication of the fact that while the Fool has many "arms", a snail is without arms, literally unarmed. In the context of the Fool, the snail on his head precisely matches the proverbial joke: In a battle of wits, he's unarmed. As with the expression, "no flies on him", this is a modern saying, but one which expresses an intelligible and perfectly appropriate reading of the Leber-Rouen Fool.

Wealth You Can't Spend

To recap some of the examples documented above, the snail appears LAZY, slow, and awkward, and symbolizes the vice of sloth. However, this same slowness appears PATIENT. The snail is HELPLESS, literally "unarmed" albeit armored, and is a standard menu item. The snail appears FEARFUL, retreating into its shell at first touch. However, this same timidity appears HUMBLE. Related to its harmless and fearful characteristics, the snail became a symbol of COWARDICE, being commonly shown as the ironic nemesis of cowardly knights. The snail is ARMORED in its shell, with an obvious visual similarity to a helmet—the sight gag which may be the most strikingly farcical element of the whole silly picture. The snail has various SEXUAL analogies: male genitalia are suggested by the extension of the body from the rounded base; female genitalia are also suggested, and when paired with a cowardly knight there is an implication of impotence. The snail was considered by some to be SERPENTINE, "slug of the asp", and its diabolical touch might causes fits. The snail was DEGRADED, lowly, slimy, inhabiting damp places, crawling on its belly. However, the slime also appears LUMINOUS. The snail appears WORLDLY, overly attached to possessions, carrying his house with him wherever he goes. However, coming out of that same house seemed to some a symbol of RESURRECTION. And as Randall has documented, the snail became a symbol of LOMBARDS, a secondary meaning based on the primary meaning of cowardice, with the disparaging connotations that were transferred to other groups of low status.

The assortment of associations cataloged above does not exhaust the subject, merely my patience. It is sufficient to serve as an example. Collecting or, more commonly, simply rummaging through collections of "possibilities" is what generally passes for "historical research" in the online Tarot community. However, in lieu of a reasoned analysis connecting one or more of these associations directly to a particular Tarot card, this is little more than babbling. Some analysis is required: What makes sense of a pictorial element in the overall composition of the card, in the context of a particular deck, and the larger context of the social milieu of the deck's provenance? One may casually note that most of the snail associations are negative, and therefore may be applied to a fool, but that is only slightly more informative that the naked listing of attributes.

The most significant "meaning" of the snail on the Leber-Rouen Fool card is the one most obvious, noted in the very first observation of this post: It looks like a helmet and yet is absurdly silly as a helmet. It is a ridiculous visual pun, a sight gag. That doesn't change, regardless of additional "possibilities", "connotations", or "what a 16th-century card-player might have thought" upon seeing the image. Second, although most of the meanings discussed above seem to be of limited application, there does appear to be a conventional reading of a snail and knight, which might pertain to our snail on a soldier's head. In that regard, the snail was (literally) "unarmed", and only the most cowardly of adversaries would "flee from a snail". As such, the snail was a symbol of harmlessness and cowardice.

In this regard, the snail is analogous to the lion. Both have a variety of meanings in various contexts, but also a most typical or characteristic meaning, and those two primary meanings of the lion and snail are opposite. The lion is strong, heavily armed and dangerous, intimidating (lions eat people), fearless (roars and attacks), and to fight a lion was symbolic of enormous strength/courage—both moral and physical. The snail is weak, "unarmed" and helpless, silly (people eat snails), cowardly (retreats into its shell when bothered), and to flee from a snail was a sign of enormous weakness/cowardice—both moral and physical. Cowardly knights and cowardly Lombards were conventionally depicted with snails. Just as Hercules was often depicted wearing the Nemean lion skin, the Leber-Rouen Fool wears the snail. The Fool's incontinence tends to support this secondary reading. Another point of opposition with Hercules concerns the gnats. One aspect of Hercules was Hercules Apomyios or Muscarius, (derived from Zeus Apomyios), who drove flies away. The Leber-Rouen Fool appears to attract flies rather than disperse them. In these various ways, the Fool is depicted as the opposite of the archetypal hero whose only weapon was a club.

Of course, any number of additional, tertiary readings of the snail may be adduced. As discussed above, these readings are neither obvious nor conventional (i.e., they are not necessary), and they account for no details that are not adequately explained without them. However, such gratuitous readings are in keeping with Camille's observation:

The snail in all its polyvalence never means just one thing in a community of interpreters, where one person might 'get' the verbal association, another notice its pairing with the bull opposite and another enjoy it for what it is: a slimy creature crawling across the page in the wrong direction.

Our concern here, however, is not what a snail might mean to a community of interpreters, but what meaning explains the design of the composition on the Leber-Rouen Fool card. Not surprisingly, the exploration of obscure elements like the assorted phallic symbols, the g-shaped whatzits, and the snail helmet is fun and can go on indefinitely. However, it is also essentially fruitless in terms of adding to 1) the obvious elements, 2) the comparison with Aesop's fable of the Gnat and Lion, and 3) Ross' translation of the motto. The figure is a Roman soldier, travestied in various ways and depicted as helpless and fearful despite his showy display of weapons.


  1. This was fascinating, thank you for all the research you must do. I thought you might be interested to know that the gastropod, in tarot, lives on:
    (With the exception of ‘Judgement’, the set conforms to the standard tarot set).

  2. Hi, Prof.,

    Wow! Naturally, my weakness this week is snails, so the Chariot is my favorite. Thanks for pointing it out.


  3. Wow!

    Thanks for such an extraordinary post! Your writings tend to be very good evidence of how facts can be awe-inspiring.

    The only thing all these snails are missing is some butter! But if your post let me craving escargots, it also let my spirit well fed.