You may think that memes are a modern invention, thanks to social media and the ever-evolving digital world. But, a recent discovery made by the British Museum has shown how our ancestors in the Middle Ages liked to poke fun. The findings were revealed under the latest Treasure Annual Report by the British Minister of State for Digital and Culture and the British Museum, Caroline Dinenage MP, on Monday.
Presenting the oldest meme, the British Museum in its press release reported how the team of archaeologists found a quirky and unique medieval ‘snail man’ mount from Pontefract, West Yorkshire, in 2020, which may have been a form of ‘medieval meme’. The meme dates back to AD 1200–1350 that depicts a human figure emerging from a snail shell on the back of a goat, of which no close parallel has been identified, says the press release.
The historical artefact shows a male knight wearing a Norman-style helmet with a long-sleeved tunic and one leg lunging forwards, which gives an impression that the man is stepping out from the shell. The man’s hands are pressed together as if in prayer, implying that the creator wanted to express some religious connotations as well. The British Museum says that depictions of snail combat are a “mysterious medieval phenomenon” and motifs of armed knights fighting snails are common in manuscripts from this period. The meme can suggest references to the Resurrection, to associations with a repenting thief and cowardice.
Another interpretation of this snail man according to the British Museum could be a stigma against the Lombards, who were seen as cowardly and malicious in Northern Europe. The Lombards were Germanic people who ruled most of the Italian Peninsula in the Middle Ages. The motif can be seen as the traditional ‘good versus evil’ struggle which is reflected in the chivalrous knight fighting the slimy snail. However, these are all interpretations and the exact comical fusion of snail and man remains unexplained by this theory.
Besides the snail man, the Museum had also found various Iron Age objects dating between 80 BC-AD 100, at Kensworth, Bedfordshire, the United Kingdom that included a decorated bronze mirror, a pair of tweezers, a pin and many fragments from bronze vessels, as well as a ceramic vessel.