Why Are There Violent Rabbits In The Margins Of Medieval Manuscripts?

Rabbit 1Images 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

Rabbit 2The 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.


Drollerie 1There 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

Rabbit 4Since 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.

Rabbit 3

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.


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59 thoughts on “Why Are There Violent Rabbits In The Margins Of Medieval Manuscripts?”

  1. Thanks for shedding light on this curious subject.
    Regarding thebabrber wirh a wooden leg: I think barbers were also surgeons and did amputations in the middle ages hence the joke.

      1. It’s probably a deliberate reference: Terry Jones is a really good Medievalist in his own right. He wrote a fantastic book about the Knight’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales, putting it all into context.

  2. I have two collector’s edition “sniper bunnies”. One’s the ‘day sniper’ and the other is the ‘night sniper’. When I saw them, in their graffiti laden boxes hunting other animals, I thought they were hilarious! Each has ~4 color-coordinated machine guns. (Only one package of munitions was opened.)

    They’re in the original boxes, and I’d love to sell them to someone who appreciates the irony… Please let me know if interested!


    1. Lol, I only thought of it afterwards! I think the Holy Grail reference was probably a deliberate, too. Terry Jones from the Pythons is a fantastic Medievalist. I read his book about Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale when I was in Uni.

  3. “Lots of medieval sexual imagery involves wolves jumping on rabbits.” Could we maybe get a bit more information on this? I haven’t run across it and google image search is coming up dry…

    1. Hi Peter, I should admit that I’m more of an Early Modern historian than medieval, so some of the knowledge I used in this article is old and fuzzy, but I seem to remember there being one specific example in an edition of Roman de Renart, but I’ve seen it referenced in a couple of History Journals. If I can find a more specific example I’ll post it on this blog.

      1. Thanks. I’ve been doing a bit of woodworking using medieval/celtic type patterns for woodburning, and if I could find something like this it could make for a fun inside joke to use as a pattern on a bed headboard.

  4. “The tailor was dumbstruck and very frightened for he knew what had happened and what his hostess was about so early in the morning. The woman was a witch and she had turned herself into a hare in order to go out into the morning and do mischief to her neighbours. In some places, witches went about in the guise of small animals, sucking milk from the teats of grazing cattle so that they were dry and would give nothing when they came to be milked. Sometimes the witch in her animal form would jump into a baby’s cradle when it was sleeping and smother the infant. Witches were always getting up to terrible evil like that in the countryside…”


    In Irish folklore, the hare is often associated with Sidh (Fairy) or other pagan elements. In these stories, characters who harm hares often suffer dreadful consequences. These monks were simply rendering animalistically the rife misogyny of the day as part of the hegemony of Christianity.

  5. You really ought to let us know which manuscripts these adorn. Just because they were made a long time ago doesn’t mean we don’t care about where you found them or who made them.

  6. This rabbit/snail situation in medieval manuscripts has puzzled me without any real explanation for a long time. Recently an interested student told me that it was thought to be the way of a political cartoon, either on manuscripts or the art on public buildings. I like the idea of the peasants of the time having their own way of mocking their “betters”

  7. And I thought Kaja was teasing me with these faux manuscript illustrations. Truth be told, I’m still unlined to believe this is a big hoodwink. X

  8. These buns and snails have worried me for a long time. Firstly the frequency and secondly the time span such images were used. This might be a bit basic but I think those artists, scribes and monks of the time were taking : the micky” out of the amount of time money and glory those heading off the save the holy lands leaving the lowest workers to deal with crops that were being devastated by these creatures . Surely there must have been hatred for BIG Boy on the horse, his crowd of followers heading off for gloriously Christian war years leaving settlements virtually under the old men, children and woman.
    There was the one way to ease the long suffering peasant at home and the monks and writers took this portray into their lives. a little humour

  9. We’d better look at the symbol. If rabbit refers to the female organ, maybe bunnies fighting men represents men tormented by their sexuality.

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