Images like these have been very popular on the internet recently, with this listicle from The Poke giving some great examples of the genre, as well as the great Sexy Codicology website, and a lot of fantastic accounts on Twitter.
The image of cute little bunny rabbits doing horrible violence to people is strangely adorable – watching the twitchy nosed little guys beat the hell out of people who’d normally have then for dinner with Rosemary, thyme and sage – but it does beg a simple question: what the hell is going on?
The Ordinary Imagery of the Rabbit
The usual imagery of the rabbit in Medieval art is that of purity and helplessness – that’s why some Medieval portrayals of Christ have marginal art portraying a veritable petting zoo of innocent, nonviolent, little white and brown bunnies going about their business in a field.
The other association of the rabbit is more commonly known – that of fertility. In the same way as the name of a male chicken has long been associated with the male member (there are some very instructive statues on the island of Delos that date back as far as 4BC), there’s no mistake that the Anglo-French word for rabbit (“conil”) metamorphed into the 14th century word coney, and the Spanish root word for rabbit, conejo (which is pronounced almost exactly the same as the rather perjorative modern word coño) metamorphosed into a term for the lady’s area.
The reasons are pretty damn simple: we’ll talk about fur and burrows, and leave it at that.
That still doesn’t answer the question of the violent bunny rabbit, though.
There are a great many strange things that can be seen in medieval illuminated manuscripts: weird human-animal hybrids, distorted monsters and odd scenes. These largely come under the category of ‘Drolleries’ or ‘Grotesques’. I’ll be entirely honest and admit that codicology isn’t my thing, so I’m not 100% certain why someone would spend hours lovingly illuminating an otherwise serious manuscript with such bizarre and nightmarish scenes, but for some reason, they would.
Drolleries sometimes also depicted comedic scenes, like a barber with a wooden leg (which, for reasons that escape me, was the height of medieval comedy) or a man sawing a branch out from under himself… which brings us to a particular type of Drollery – the ‘World Turned Upside Down’.
The World Turned Upside Down and The Rabbit’s Revenge
Since rabbits and hares were signs of cowardice, innocence, helplessness, and passive but willing sexuality (lots of medieval sexual imagery involves wolves jumping on rabbits), the idea of them getting their revenge amused medieval artists as much as it amuses me. All told, they are pretty helpless animals whose only hope of survival is to breed fast and run away, a trait that wasn’t particularly successful in the Medieval era – a significant proportion of the French economy was based on eating and skinning rabbits.
The image of the rabbit’s revenge transcends just the illuminated manuscript – the misericord seats in Manchester Cathedral are supported by a 15th century carving of a hunter being spitroasted by rabbits while his dogs are boiled in the pot.
In medieval manuscripts the image of the rabbit’s revenge is often used to show the cowardice or stupidity of the person illustrated. We see this in the Middle English nickname Stickhare, a name for cowards, and if the we take a look at the Poke list, we’ll see a lot of tough hunters cowering in the face of rabbits with big sticks. In the 13th century epic Roman de Renart we even have the character Coward, who is a hare, capturing an armed man who drops his sword at the sight of him and ends up being dangled from a stick.
Finally, there’s this image of a dog jousting against a rabbit who is riding a snail-man. This seems to be a huge depiction of the meta-universe of manuscript illustration. Snail combats were another popular staple of Drolleries, with groups of peasants seen fighting snails with sticks, or saddling them and attempting to ride them. The misericord seats in Bristol even show a group of peasants with flails having tied their goods to the back of a snail, attempting to use it as a pack animal.
Snails also being used to depict cowardice, with tales of peasants either attacking snails in a frenzy of fear, or else meeting one on the road and running a mile.
So there we have it – the violent rabbits, racing snails and anthropomorphic dogs all come from the same imaginary universe, and they’re friends.