5 Crazy Memes That Went Viral (Centuries And Decades Ago)

The internet is an engine producing a constant supply of shared insanity. There’s an ever-evolving language being spoken in cats, tea-loving Muppets, and prequel Jedi. But as we’ve shown you before, nonsensical memes were around long before the internet made monkey haircuts and birds with human arms normal. For example …

5

Ancient Drawings Of Knights Vs. Snails Turned Up Everywhere

When you picture the illustrations in medieval manuscripts, you probably imagine dry, functional drawings of astronomers being burned alive or unfaithful wives being stoned by mobs of bored villagers. What you might not think of is an endless barrage of batshit drawings of knights going toe-to-toe with giant snails. No one knows how it started or why it continued, but you see this running joke(?) in practically every 13th- and 14th-century manuscript, no matter the subject. Let’s take a look at some.

via British Library
This one is squirting raisins?

It seems like a snail is an easy fight for someone holding a sword and moving 500 or 600 times faster than it. Plus, the one above isn’t exactly “giant.” Sure, it’s big for a snail, but it’s about the same threat as a very sleepy dog wearing a French horn. What if it got a little bigger, though?

via British Library
“OK, shit. This might be trouble.”

You probably get the sense that the snails don’t do well in these historical battles. At best they’re hoping to get gross amounts of slime on you when they cleave themselves in half on your sword. And the news gets worse for the poor snails.

via British Library
“I’ve got a horse now, fucker!”

It doesn’t matter if you’re the toughest snail in the garden — when a mounted knight is coming at you from the margins of the book, you’re dead. And when the snails got clever and tried to team up, the knights pulled out the big guns.

Why are they killing these snails? What does it mean? Are the men heroes or inhuman snail murderers? As with modern memes, we’re assuming it’s an inside reference whose meaning was lost even to the people copying it. And like the intentionally nonsensical images kids post these days, with each iteration, somebody added their own twist. Note the horrified squirrel bystander in this one. Look at him! He is absolutely losing his shit.

Sometimes the knight vs. snail pictures are weirdly unfinished, like they were scribbled in as an afterthought. It’s almost as if this bizarre clash between man and mollusk was the first thing every illustrator thought of when they were mindlessly doodling. It was the 13th-century version of dickbutt.

Oddly enough, for an image this popular, there are apparently no written records to explain why knights vs. snails were considered such a hot idea. It’s a “great unsolved mystery of medieval manuscripts,” like how the ones written on human flesh always bite for your fingers.

The first person who theorized about epic snail-on-knight combat, all the way back in 1850, was the wonderfully named Comte de Bastard, who said it might be a symbol of the Resurrection. But this was based on him seeing only two images, both of which were near illustrations of Lazarus rising from the grave. So he might have been taking wild guesses based on the last thing he saw. A more accepted theory is that the slimy snails might be a symbol for Lombards, a group widely loathed for backstabbing, lending money at interest, and “non-chivalrous comportment in general.” But that doesn’t explain why the knight often looks shocked or terrified at seeing a gigantic snail monster.

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With so little to go on, medieval scholars floated pretty much every possible explanation. For example, that it’s a representation of medieval class struggle, or an exaggerated depiction of fighting pesky garden pests. Or maybe it’s a dumb joke doodled for fun by bored illustrators and we’re supposed to laugh at the knight for cowering before such a “heavily armored” opponent. And naturally, at one point somebody floated the theory that the snail is somehow a symbol of female sexuality — something also known for being both impenetrable and moist.

4

Shitter, Beware — The Toilet Meme Of Ancient Rome

Besides the remains of a man who died in the middle of pounding one off, the most scandalous discovery in the ash-buried ruins of Pompeii was the incredibly vulgar and creative graffiti. The Pomepiians wrote profound, historically significant things like “Take off your tunic, please, and show me your hairy privates” and “I have buggered men.” But one phrase stands out, not because of its colorful use of pubic hair adjectives, but for its resilience. It appeared everywhere around Rome, and for a very long time: Cacator Cave Malum. Roughly translated: “Shitter, beware.”

“Shitter, Beware” was inscribed on public toilets, private toilets, city streets, and even tombs all over ancient Rome. Sometimes the phrase was expanded to refer to a punishment from the god Jupiter for dropping an ill-placed deuce. Sometimes the phrase was part of a whole fresco depicting the goddess Isis protecting a respectfully pious pooper from the snakelike agathodaemons. A huge, ornate carving in the Roman city of Aquileia depicts Jupiter about to toss a whole handful of lightning bolts to fry some poor sloppy peasant mid-turd. Because when you’re going to invest in hundreds of hours of chiseling, you want to make sure your art is about something meaningful, like gods murdering people while they poop.

To read about it, it sounds like the average Roman citizen raced from toilet to toilet with a bursting colon that could never make it, incurring the wrath of their gods with each sudden and unwanted shit. According to historian J.C. McKeown, even gravestones frequently carried the Cacator Cave Malum phrase. That’s how big of a hit this poop joke was: People let it mark their loved ones’ eternal resting places. Or maybe it wasn’t a joke, and instead a friendly reminder not to shit on the dead? The character Trimalchio from the Roman novel Satyricon pledges one of his freedmen to guard his tomb after his death specifically to prevent people from shitting on it. Whether this was a response to a genuine epidemic of vigilante turdvengeance or a sort of irreverent sanitation warning about hovering your wide-open anus over human remains is still being argued by historians. Not acclaimed historians, but still.

3

“Quoz!” And Other Viral Phrases Of 19th-Century London

In the endless howling night before the internet, when we were forced to communicate directly with other people, memes spread by word of mouth, with phrases crackling through the streets and playgrounds before they soon vanished. Most of these are now lost to history, but not all.

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Charles Mackay was a 19th-century British journalist whose book Memoirs Of Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness of Crowds is considered an early masterpiece of skepticism and title brevity awareness. One of the less-remembered chapters features Mackay discussing how certain phrases would go viral and sweep through London. Before long, everyone was using them to get laughs, and then they were abandoned in a few weeks. To put it another way, Mackay wrote a book on the “Where’s the Beef?”s and “Too Much InforMATION!”s of the 1800s.

The first phrase Mackay could remember was “Quoz!” This was an exclamation used whenever a “vulgar wit wished to mark its incredulity and raise a laugh at the same time.” It basically means, “That shit is fucking ridiculous.” And for a few months, quoz was everywhere in London, graffitied on walls or toilets and provoking gales of laughter in every pub argument. Then everyone forgot about it and moved on to “What a shocking bad hat!” This became the height of hilarity after a candidate for political office used the phrase while trying to bribe voters with a new hat. Think of it as the “covfefe” of Victorian Southwark, insofar both were really strained jokes certain to annoy and confuse future generations.

After the hat thing came “There he goes with his eye out!” Mackay wrote “many thought it very funny, and the idle amused themselves by chalking it upon walls, or scribbling it upon monuments.” He didn’t bother explaining what it meant, but with nothing else to go on, it either means “That man’s unwelcome gaze is falling on butts” or “That fellow lost a fight to a woodpecker.” Probably the first one.

These sudden bursts of slang were followed in quick succession by “Has your mother sold her mangle?” and “Flare Up!” both of which sound like they’re about herpes. These should all come in handy if you’re a time traveler wanting to sound hip during very specific weeks in 1800s London, and in absolutely no other situation.

2

“Ask For Babs” Has Been A (Seemingly Meaningless) Hollywood Meme For Decades

If you’ve never seen the film Animal House before, you probably should. It’s brilliant, timeless, and a cultural landmark that defined hundreds of jokes and references in future movies. For the purposes of the article, though, we want you to at least watch the end of the credits:

Decades before the modern age, in which EVERY movie expects you to sit through the entire credits for bonus material, director John Landis snuck in a little nod to their distributor, Universal Studios. He tells viewers, “When in Hollywood Visit Universal Studios (Ask for Babs).” Babs is one of the villains in the film, a conniving sorority girl who gets her clothes ripped off at the end and who, according to the epilogue, later becomes a tour guide at Universal Studios. It’s so weirdly not a joke that it must be true, right? Or is it a joke because their tour guides don’t wear clothes? Was Landis trying to annoy the lowest-level employees at his movie’s distributor? Is “Babs” another word for cocaine?

Later Landis movies also contained this same gag tucked away in the literal last minute of every film, and urban legend says that actually asking for Babs at Universal Studios got you a special something. But what? Entrance to a dog fighting arena? Five minutes in a dark closet with the Pink Panther?

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Either way, “Ask for Babs” remained a probably nonsense running joke for decades. Some insisted that asking for Babs only led to a discount at Universal, but this became officially against policy in 1989. Ultimately, like everything on this list, it was probably nothing but a thing people said for no reason at all.

1

That Super/Stussy/Infinity S You All Drew In Your Textbooks

We’re gonna show you the image of that stupid “Stussy” S, but we almost don’t have to. If you’re of a certain age and have any memory of being bored in an American classroom, chances are you have hypnotically doodled this geometric shape on a notebook or folder, seen it carved into desks, Sharpied it on bathroom walls, and/or spray-painted it all the places where you find the lamest graffiti. We’re talking about this thing:

There have been a lot of theories about the origin of this symbol, but unfortunately, nothing close to a consensus has been reached. People have attributed it to representing Superman, Suzuki, and the band Styx, but it doesn’t completely resemble any of those logos. It’s also been associated with graffiti culture, so much so that it was frequently mislabeled as a gang sign.

It was also long thought to be a brand logo of surfer/skate clothing company Stussy, considering they used the image in old edgy Super 8 promos. However when Julian Morgans from Vice checked in with Stussy PR Director Emmy Coates, she clarified that it was not an original Stussy logo, while also admitting she “gets asked that all the time.” Presumably alongside whether or not “Stussy” is some sort of sexual portmanteau.

It’s also been suggested that part of the appeal of the symbol is its resemblance to a Mobius Strip or an extremely basic Endless Knot, a symbol that showed up in a lot of ’60s psychedelic art. Or maybe it’s a really simple doodle that’s easy to repeat. Maybe humans do weird pointless shit and we’re still the same lunatics who spent 200 years drawing snail fights. Cacator Cave Malum, everyone!

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