The pages of medieval books are stalked by a ferocious monster: the fighting snail.

The knight pulls his arm back, poised to strike. He’s dressed in the typical armour of the 14th Century, with a chainmail suit, belted tunic and bucket-style helmet. Standing within a small grassy clearing, he’s holding up a shield which, inexplicably, has its own face. He also wields a club, which brushes the bottom of a swathe of religious text on the yellowed page of the medieval book he’s drawn onto. 

But even within the pages of antique tomes, knights must face mortal perils. This one’s chivalric opponent is a particularly slippery beast – a foe often found slinking along in their margins and engaging noblemen in deadly combat. Sometimes the creatures appear to be hovering, attacking knights in mid-air. Occasionally there is more than one. This is the uniquely medieval phenomenon of the fighting snail – and to this day, why they were depicted remains utterly mysterious.The phenomenon was so ubiquitous that any single explanation seems unlikely to give a reliable account for the fashion (Credit: The British Library)

The phenomenon was so ubiquitous that any single explanation seems unlikely to give a reliable account for the fashion (Credit: The British Library)

This has created a good deal of puzzlement amongst art historians and book historians, wondering just what do they mean?” says Kenneth Clarke, a senior lecturer in medieval literature at the University of York in the UK.

“Marginalia” artworks are those found in the margins of books. In the Middle Ages, once the text of a manuscript had been finished, the most exclusive might receive a final flourish – intricate borders of curly foliage, fantastical creatures and other assorted drawings. Sometimes these were added immediately, and sometimes many decades later, but they were no casual undertaking – often painted with precious pigments like lapis lazuli or highlighted in gold.

“These were very, very, very expensive books, with very small numbers of readers,” says Clarke.

The embellishments are found in a wide variety of religious works, including psalters (for songs), books of hours (for prayers), breviaries (for daily prayers), pontificals (for the rituals performed by bishops), and decretals (papal letters). They could be bizarre, playful, grotesque, and even rude – with bare bottoms, penises, medical conditions, and a surprisingly large number of bloodthirsty rabbits gracing the pages of otherwise sober devotional texts. Often, marginalia seem to have little connection to the text they’re found next to.

But for a brief period in the late 13th Century, illuminators – those who decorated books – across Europe embraced a new obsession: fighting snails. For a comprehensive study of these warring gastropods, the art historian Lilian Randall counted 70 examples, in 29 different books – most of which were printed in the two decades between 1290 and 1310. The illustrations are found across Europe, but particularly in France, where there was a thriving manuscript-production industry at the time, says Clarke.

The specific scenarios that warring snails found themselves in varied, but broadly followed the same format of a snail-assailant standing off against a knight. Often, the molluscs have their antenna – technically their upper tentacles, or ommatophores – pointed aggressively forwards, as though they were swords. In one, a snail is shown fighting a nude woman. In a few they’re not depicted as regular molluscs at all, but hybrids between snails and men – who are being ridden by rabbits, naturally.

Eventually, the warring snail meme even started to spill over into other places in the medieval world, such as cathedrals, where they were carved into facades or, in one case, hidden behind a kind of folding seat. 

So why were they there?The true meaning of these peculiar marginalia may be lost to history (Credit: The British Library)

The true meaning of these peculiar marginalia may be lost to history (Credit: The British Library)

“The snail-knight fight is an example of the world turned upside down, a broader phenomenon that produced a lot of different medieval images,” says Marian Bleeke, a professor of medieval art at the University of Chicago. “The basic idea is the overturning of existing or expected hierarchies. It is supposed to be surprising and even funny – I think we get that implicitly today,” she says. 

However, whether these drawings had deeper symbolic meanings beyond this status-flipping remains extremely murky. “The knight ought to be brave and strong, able to defeat all enemies, but here he cowers in fear in front of a snail or is even defeated by one. Where we might disagree is where to go from there,” she says.

Many interpretations have been put forward – including the idea that the snail fights represent the struggle between the upper and lower classes, or even the resurrection.

One leading idea is that the knights portrayed tackling snails represented cowardice – and their addition to religious texts may have been satirical. As Randall pointed out, many snail scenes involve a knight kneeling in prayer in front of his slimy attacker, or dropping his sword, with some showing a woman begging the gallant fighter not to engage such a deadly enemy.

Building on the theme of the gutless knight, Randall suggested that the snail motif may have been a  political commentary – with the knights representing the Lombards, a Germanic people who ran the Lombard Kingdom in modern-day Italy until the late 8th Century. “[The Lombards were shown] as this group who were collecting taxes, but also involved in usury,” says Clarke.

In medieval France – where most of the snail drawings were made – the Lombards were smeared in various ways, such as with suggestions they were unhygienic and cowardly. Randall noted that by the 12th Century, they had become synonymous with non-chivalrous behaviour in general. In one popular legend, a Lombard peasant encountered a heavily armoured snail, which the gods encourage him to fight – while his wife pleads with him not to be so reckless.

Clarke is sceptical of this particular idea, considering how common snail wars are in medieval books. Bleeke explains that today historians are less likely to expect marginal images to have such narrow meanings. “I just don’t think that’s how images work,” she says. “I would want to look at how the snail was represented, what it looked like, and where it was located, in order to think about the meaning being made in a specific instance.”

But whether Randall was right or not, Bleeke thinks they can teach us something important about how masculinity was viewed in the medieval world. “The brave, strong knight is an ideal or idealised version of masculinity, and the snail fight undermines that,” she says. “To me these images show us that gender has never been as stable or secure as some people might want to think.  It has always been a site of contestation.”

Airbus Atlantic: 700 staff sick after Christmas dinner, health officials say

Glass of wine

More than 700 Airbus Atlantic staff are believed to have fallen ill following the company’s Christmas dinner, health authorities in France have said.

Workers from the aerospace group’s site in western France were left suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea, Agence Régionale de Santé (ARS) said.

It is unclear what was on the menu at the festive feast turned nightmare before Christmas.

Airbus told the BBC, however, that only “around 100” were taken ill.

In a statement, it said it was co-operating with the ARS “to identify the cause of the illness and ensure this cannot happen again in the future”.

Airbus Atlantic is a subsidiary of the world’s largest aircraft maker, Airbus, and employs 15,000 people in five countries.

ARS did not provide details about exactly what food might have made people ill at the dinner, which took place last week, but it did say earlier on Friday that diners showed “clinical signs of vomiting or diarrhoea”.

An investigation was being launched to find the source of the mass food poisoning, the organisation told the AFP news agency.

The wider Airbus group employs 134,000 people and provides products and services in the aircraft, helicopter, defence, space and security industries.

In a separate incident in France earlier this year, a number of people fell ill and a Greek national died, after contracting the rare food-borne illness botulism at a restaurant in Bordeaux.

Israel-Gaza war: Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel paying ‘heavy price’

An aide whispers into the ear of Benjamin Netanyahu during a cabinet meeting
Image caption,The Israeli PM chairing a cabinet meeting on Sunday

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the Gaza war has come at a “very heavy price” for his side.

The military says 14 more soldiers have been killed in the Palestinian territory since Friday, bringing the total of the ground assault to 153.

Saturday was one of its deadliest days – but Mr Netanyahu said his forces had “no choice” but to keep fighting.

Meanwhile, the health ministry in Gaza – run by Hamas – says another 166 people were killed in the last day.

More than 20,000 people have been killed – mostly women and children, and 54,000 injured in Gaza since 7 October, the ministry says.

Remarking on the latest Israeli troop deaths, Mr Netanyahu said: “This is a difficult morning, after a very difficult day of fighting in Gaza.”

But he said his forces would continue with “full force until the end”, reiterating his goals of eliminating Hamas and ensuring the safe return of hostages held in Gaza.

“Let it be clear: this will be a long war,” the Israeli prime minister added.

The Israeli operation began after Hamas fighters crossed from Gaza into southern Israel on 7 October, killing 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages.

Israel insists that it takes steps to avoid civilian casualties, and blames Hamas for embedding itself in densely-populated areas.

US President Joe Biden – a key ally of Mr Netanyahu – emphasised the “critical need” to protect civilian lives during a call with the Israeli prime minister on Saturday, the White House said.

Mr Biden told reporters that he had not asked for a ceasefire in the call. Both men believe such a move would benefit Hamas.

On Friday, the UN Security Council approved a resolution demanding large-scale aid deliveries to Gaza – but this, too, stopped short of calling for a ceasefire between the two warring sides.

Talks held in Egypt earlier this week designed to secure a fresh truce between Israel and Hamas have so far failed to deliver results.

A Palestinian official familiar with the ceasefire negotiations told the BBC that Egypt presented a new three-stage plan that would begin with a two-week humanitarian truce – which could be extended – during which Hamas would release 40 hostages and Israel would release 120 Palestinian prisoners.

This stage would be followed by the formation of an independent body to deal with humanitarian relief and reconstruction, as well as a comprehensive ceasefire and an exchange of prisoners.

Internally displaced Palestinians prepare bread sing firewood in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. Photo: 23 December 2023
Image caption,Many Palestinians have been forced to flee northern Gaza to the territory’s south

The Israeli military has kept up its bombing campaign in Gaza – ordering civilians to flee. The UN said the latest evacuation order affected 150,000 people in the middle of the territory.

On Saturday, Israel said 700 Palestinian militants had been arrested during its ground offensive to date.

It also said one of its fighter jets had killed Hassah Atrash, a man it accused of smuggling weapons into Gaza to arm Hamas. There has been no confirmation from Hamas.

The Israeli military has said it has almost full operational control of the north of the Gaza Strip, and is stepping up operations elsewhere.

A spokesman has said troops are entering new Hamas strongholds in southern areas.

Briefing his cabinet on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu denied suggestions the US president had persuaded him against further expanding his military operation.

The Wall Street Journal had reported that Mr Netanyahu had been talked out of attacking Hamas’s ally in Lebanon, the Hezbollah group.

A government spokesperson told the BBC “the situation in the north… is intolerable” and that Israel was “trying to deter Hezbollah from dragging us into a war”.

“We will continue making the necessary preparations to repel this threat from the northern border,” he added.

Tanker hit off India coast by drone from Iran, says US

File photo showing chemical products tanker off coast of UK
Image caption,The strike hit a chemical products tanker, like the one shown here in a file photo

A chemical tanker in the Indian Ocean was hit by a drone launched from Iran on Saturday, the US military says.

A fire on board the Chem Pluto was extinguished. There were no casualties.

Iran has not commented. Houthi rebels in Yemen – who are backed by Iran and support Hamas in its war with Israel – have recently used drones and rockets to target vessels in the Red Sea.

But this event is the first of its kind so far away from there, according to maritime security firm Ambrey.

The same company also said the vessel was heading from Saudi Arabia to India, and was linked to Israel. The Houthis have claimed to be targeting Israel-linked vessels over the conflict in Gaza.

The US said the Chem Pluto was hit by “a one-way attack drone fired from Iran”. It is believed to be the first time the US has publicly accused Iran of targeting a ship directly.

It has previously accused Iran of being “deeply involved” in planning operations against commercial vessels in the Red Sea – a charge Tehran has denied.

However, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have warned they could force the closure of waterways other than the Red Sea if “America and its allies continue committing crimes” in Gaza.

The Pentagon statement said the Chem Pluto, “a Liberia-flagged, Japanese-owned, and Netherlands-operated chemical tanker”, was struck on Saturday at 10:00 local time (06:00 GMT). The hit caused structural damage.

The incident took place 200 nautical miles (370km) south-west of the city of Veraval in India’s Gujarat state, according to United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO).

Ambrey said the event fell within an area considered a “heightened threat area” for Iranian drones.

The Indian navy sent an aircraft and warships to offer assistance. The BBC was not able to independently verify the incident.

A BBC map shows the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Iran and India - with the city of Veraval marked in the latter country

In a separate development, the US Central Command (Centcom) said that on Saturday “two Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles were fired into international shipping lanes in the Southern Red Sea from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. No ships reported being impacted”.

It also said the USS Laboon warship patrolling the area “shot down four unmanned aerial drones originating from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen that were inbound” to the American vessel.

Later that day, a crude oil tanker reported being hit by a Houthi drone in the southern Red Sea, while another tanker saw a near miss.

Many global shipping groups have suspended operations in the Red Sea due to the increased risk of attacks. The UK government has vowed to ensure the route’s safety.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps told the Sunday Times newspaper that the UK was committed to repelling attacks on vessels – and would not allow the Red Sea to become a “no-go area”.

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary David Cameron described Iran as a “thoroughly malign influence in the region and in the world”.

He said the Iranian leadership and its proxies needed to be sent an “incredibly clear message that this escalation will not be tolerated”.

Chris Farrell from Neptune P2P Group, a UK maritime security company, described nervousness in the region and observed that container ships were proving more likely to reroute than larger vessels.”Nobody really knows the situation out there,” he told the BBC World Service’s Weekend programme.

“Because of the lack of stability, that’s creating the uncertainty with the clients and the shipping companies which are putting their assets within that region.”

Elijah McClain: Paramedics found guilty in death of Colorado man

Elijah McClain
Image caption,Elijah McClain died after police put him in a chokehold and a medic injected him with ketamine

Two paramedics who injected Elijah McClain with an overdose of a sedative after police put him in a chokehold have been convicted of his 2019 death.

In a rare prosecution of medical personnel, a jury found Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec guilty of criminally negligent homicide.

It was the last trial against police and paramedics charged in the killing of Mr McClain, 23, in Aurora, Colorado.

The case of the young black man initially received little attention.

But it faced fresh scrutiny a year later after George Floyd’s death in Minnesota sparked nationwide racial justice protests against police brutality.

The mostly white jury returned their verdict on Friday against Cooper and Cichuniec after two days of deliberations.

They also convicted Cichuniec of second-degree assault, but cleared Cooper of assault.

According to the Denver Post, Mr McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, raised her fist in the air as she left court and called out: “We did it!”

“They cannot blame their job training for their indifference to evil or their participation in an evil action,” she had written in a statement before the verdict.

“That is completely on them. May all of their souls rot in hell when their time comes.”

Cooper’s wife wept as courtroom officers moved to handcuff her husband, according to reporters in court.

Mr McClain had been walking home from a convenience store when he was stopped by three police officers responding to a call about a “sketchy” individual in the area.

Paramedics Jeremy Cooper, left, and Peter Cichuniec, right, at an arraignment in the Adams County district court at the Adams County Justice Center January 20, 2023.
Image caption,Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec could face years in prison

At the time of the incident, on 24 August 2019, he was wearing headphones and a balaclava to protect himself from chronic chills caused by anaemia, his family has said. Mr McClain initially ignored the officers’ commands to stop.

He was placed in a chokehold during the confrontation that followed. Bodycam footage of the incident shows him repeatedly telling officers: “I can’t breathe.”

Mr McClain is also heard pleading with the officers: “I’m an introvert and I’m different.”

After he was restrained, Cooper and Cichuniec injected him with ketamine, a powerful sedative. He never regained consciousness and died after being removed from life support three days later.

Defence lawyers argued the two paramedics had followed their training in administering the sedative after diagnosing Mr McClain with “excited delirium”.

Prosecutors said the paramedics had failed to conduct basic medical checks on Mr McClain, before injecting him with the maximum dose of ketamine. 

They had also left him lying on the ground, making it difficult to breathe, and had failed to monitor his condition.

Three officers held Mr McClain up against a wall during the incident. In bodycam footage, Mr McClain can be heard saying: “I intend to take my power back.”

One of the policemen is then heard saying: “He just grabbed your gun, dude.”

But it is unclear from the dark and jerky footage whether Mr McClain tried to grab any officer’s firearm, as lawyers for the policemen maintained, and prosecutors said that had never happened.

Two officers involved in the incident, Nathan Woodyard and Jason Rosenblatt, were acquitted of charges in November and October, respectively.

A third officer, Randy Roedema, was found guilty in October of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault. Prosecutors in that case argued that his statement that Mr McClain was “definitely on something” had contributed to the paramedics’ decision to inject him with ketamine.

Roedema is due to be sentenced in January.

The city of Aurora in 2021 agreed to pay $15m (£12m) to settle a lawsuit brought by Mr McClain’s parents.

Does flying island doctor have the world’s best job?

Dr Payne on Orkney
Image caption,Dr Payne says working as a GP on remote islands is a privilege

Does flying island doctor Rebecca Payne have one of the world’s most fulfilling jobs?

As an out-of-hours island GP, she provides healthcare to some of the most remote communities in the world, all while experiencing “magic moments”, from seeing baby seals and king penguins to the northern lights.

“Every day I pinch myself and think, ‘I cannot believe this is the life I’m living.’ I absolutely love my job,” she said.

Dr Payne was working for the Care Quality Commission when she got chatting to another doctor who worked in the Orkney islands in Scotland.

“I was like, ‘Wow, that sort of island job would be my dream but it would never be practical, I’ve got two kids and my husband works full-time.’ And she said, ‘No, no, no, hear me out, my job is amazing and we’re recruiting.'”

Dr Payne has now been working for NHS Orkney for four years, often flying between the archipelago’s islands.

She is on a rota with seven other doctors who each spend one week in eight in Orkney.

Dr Payne working as a flying doctor in the Falklands
Image caption,Dr Payne recently worked as a flying doctor in the Falklands

She spends the rest of her time working from home in Cardiff as a researcher for Oxford University and occasionally working on other islands as a locum – a doctor used to temporarily fill shifts.

Working in remote settings brings with it some very particular challenges.

“Some of the small islands I work on you might be the only healthcare professional, so your job involves everything from managing emergencies, sorting out helicopters, managing asthma, collecting medication from the ferry, taking blood and taking it to the aeroplane for collection.

“It’s whatever comes in through the door type of medicine… from a kid who’s got a bead up their nose to somebody who’s had a massive heart attack.”

Poor weather conditions mean getting on or off an island is not always straightforward.

She was once trapped on Eday, one of the islands of Orkney, over new year because a big storm meant her plane was cancelled.

She said something common to island communities was people not seeking help as soon as they should.

“Sometimes, particularly farmers, will try treating themselves that little bit longer than maybe they should and so people sometimes come in a lot more poorly than they might in other settings,” she explained.

Dr Payne said the worst situation was somebody deteriorating in a storm and needing a helicopter retrieval.

“You’d get them into hospital sooner rather than later on an island setting… everything happens two steps sooner in order to avoid a really sick patient in a really remote location,” she said.

In her four years in the job, Dr Payne has developed a real love for Orkney.

“It’s just the most magical place you can imagine,” she said.

“The light is amazing… it’s got this kind of otherworldliness to it.”

She added patients there really appreciated their doctors.

“They know it’s not easy to get doctors there, particularly in bad weather and to work somewhere where people are just grateful is so rewarding,” she said.

When she works on Barra in the Outer Hebrides, an island chain off the west coast of mainland Scotland, her plane has to land on the beach – “just one of the most incredible experiences of my life”.

Last summer she fulfilled a dream to spend a month in the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean approximately 400 miles (650km) off South America.

Her job involved covering the hospital, A&E and out of hours GP services – her two teenage children and husband were even able to join her for part of it.

About 10 minutes away from the archipelago’s only hospital – King Edward VII Hospital – Gentoo penguins can be seen on the beach.

Image caption,Dr Payne’s husband Gareth captured photos of penguins on their trip to the Falklands

The family were able to watch them come in from the sea on their bellies and waddle across the beaches fast as they could to avoid patrolling sealions.

“They were just the cutest,” said Dr Payne.

“You wake up and think ‘did it really happened?’ Was I dreaming from the minute I turned up at Brize Norton to take an RAF flight?’.”

About 10% of the population of the Falkland Islands live on islands that cover an area about two-thirds of the size of Wales.

She described one particular shift when she was working as the flying doctor covering the islands as “one of the best days of my entire life”.

There are no scheduled flights to the smaller islands so people email where they want to go or what they need to be transported and a timetable for the eight-seater Britten-Norman Islander aircraft is constructed around that.

On this particular shift she was sitting next to the pilot with a sheep shearer and noisy cat on the way back to being reunited with its owner, but the flight was also used to help a farmer find some missing cows from the air.

After taking blood in the back of a 4×4, there were stops to drop off the cat and house calls to see three more patients.

Image caption,The Falklands is home to seals

The landing strip was muddy so instead they landed on the beach, doing a fly-over first to scare off any penguins.

“I was thinking, ‘I cannot believe I could be sitting in a surgery somewhere or I could be wild and free and looking out for penguins on a beach after delivering healthcare to the remotest communities in the world’,” she said.

On another memorable day in the Falkland Islands the family drove across beaches and moors in a 4×4 to visit Volunteer Point to see penguins.

“There were penguins everywhere, there were king penguins sitting in little groups with all the babies in the middle and the adults around them keeping them safe… totally unforgettable,” she said.

What can the rest of the world learn from the way healthcare is delivered on islands?

“I’ve never been on an island yet where I felt like a bad doctor because generally you have the time and the setup that allows you to deliver great care, and that gets me out of bed in the morning,” said Dr Payne.

“There are many islands where people living there don’t have access to a hospital without getting on a ferry… it’s the amazing general practice they receive that makes the difference.”

Dr Payne will be in the Orkney islands with her family this Christmas and then she her sights on St Helena, a remote volcanic outpost in the South Atlantic Ocean.

A plane collecting Dr Payne from Kirkwall airport in Orkney
Image caption,A plane collecting Dr Payne from Kirkwall airport in Orkney

She believes jobs like hers are “the real antidote to people getting midcareer blues and thinking about early retirement”.

“Mixing it up and using your skills in a different setting can really bring the love back for what we do and so I would say to colleagues that are maybe feelings burnt out or disillusioned to just go for a short locum at one of these places, try something really different, because it really can bring the joy back.”

She added: “I get to be in these amazing places, working with incredible people and being able to make a difference when it matters most.”

Ukraine says it downed three Russian Su-34 warplanes

A Su-34 jet
Image caption,A Su-34 jet (file image)

Ukraine’s military says it shot down three Russian fighter jets on Friday in the south of the country.

Three Su-34 fighter bombers were shot down over Kherson region, the Ukrainian air force announced.

President Volodymr Zelensky thanked the servicemen who had downed the planes, saying the incident had occurred in war-torn Kherson Region.

Moscow has not commented on the claims, but influential Russian bloggers have reported losses.

In his nightly address on Friday, Mr Zelensky said the downing of the planes would make Russian pilots attacking targets in Ukraine aware that “none of them [would] go unpunished”.

He also said he had spoken to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte about the future delivery of F-16 jets, as well as a new EU support package.

Russia has not commented on the reported loss of its jets, but Fighterbomber, an influential Russian war blogger, reported the loss of an unspecified number of planes, saying they had probably been downed by US-made Patriot missiles.

Both surviving and dead crew members were recovered, the blogger added.

Another blogger, Voenniy Osvedomitel, said the planes had probably been used to drop glide bombs on a Ukrainian position on the Russian-controlled side of the Dnipro River.

Ukraine is facing an ammunition shortage as it continues to fight occupying Russian forces, following Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Kyiv’s counter-offensive ground to a halt at the start of the winter, and Republican representatives in the US – by far Ukraine’s largest military backer – have been reluctant to further fund Ukraine’s war effort.

In a year-end press conference this week, Mr Zelensky insisted that Ukraine was not losing the war with Russia.