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The picture used for the heading this blog was found in a manuscript dated c. 1428 entitled ‘Livre des merveilles du monde’ or ‘Secrets de l’histoire naturelle’. This manuscript [1] with text of Jean Mansel has excerpts from e.g. Plinius, Orosius, and others, with descriptions of myths and telling stories of traders and diplomats about countries from Africa and Asia. It provoked the interest in the exotic fauna of these regions, often perceived as ‘magical and dream-like’ [2]. One of the stories, about Sri Lanka, is illuminated with a picture of snails. One shell is empty (perhaps a sign of a successful hunt?) and two people are chatting on it. The other is being hunted up-hill by a man blowing the horn and with four dogs. Hunting for a giant snail…

Fred Naggs, specialist of Sri Lankan snails at the Natural History Museum, London, wrote to me about this picture: “The images do not resemble any Sri Lankan snail. They are of course highly stylised and are a mixture of observation and invention exemplified by the living example showing an eye on the side of the foot and four tentacles, each with a stylommatophoran eye. The umbilicus closed with a callus would be consistent with that of Acavus [a genus occurring on Sri Lanka] but not its irregular outline. The number of whorls is consistent with Acavus but there is no sign of the reflected lip. Maybe it should just be thought of as generalised snail and nothing more”. However, the artist might not have intended to make the snail fully alike a natural specimen, he surely must have known one of the island species and may have been carried away in his imagination. Or just wanted to exaggerate the size to impress.

[1] BNF, Ms. Français 1379, http://bit.ly/Kml0x9 (accessed 2 January 2014).
[2] LeGoff, J. (1999). Un autre Moyen Age: 1–1404. Gallimard, Paris.