Killer Rabbits in Medieval Manuscripts: Why So Many Drawings in the Margins Depict Bunnies Going Bad

In all the kingdom of nature, does any creature threaten us less than the gentle rabbit? Though the question may sound entirely rhetorical today, our medieval ancestors took it more seriously — especially if they could read illuminated manuscripts, and even more so if they drew in the margins of those manuscripts themselves. "Often, in medieval manuscripts’ marginalia we find odd images with all sorts of monsters, half man-beasts, monkeys, and more," writes Sexy Codicology's Marjolein de Vos. "Even in religious books the margins sometimes have drawings that simply are making fun of monks, nuns and bishops." And then there are the killer bunnies.

Hunting scenes, de Vos adds, also commonly appear in medieval marginalia, and "this usually means that the bunny is the hunted; however, as we discovered, often the illuminators decided to change the roles around."

Jon Kaneko-James explains further: "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." But the creators of this particular type of humorous marginalia, known as drollery, saw things differently.

"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," writes Kaneko-James.

This enjoyment of the "world turned upside down" produced the drollery genre of "the rabbit's revenge," one "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 in all the drawings of "tough hunters cowering in the face of rabbits with big sticks."

Then, of course, we have the bunnies making their attacks while mounted on snails, snail combats being "another popular staple of Drolleries, with groups of peasants seen fighting snails with sticks, or saddling them and attempting to ride them."

Given how often we denizens of the 21st century have trouble getting humor from less than a century ago, it feels satisfying indeed to laugh just as hard at these drolleries as our medieval forebears must have — though many more of us surely get to see them today, circulating as rapidly on social media as they didn't when confined to the pages of illuminated manuscripts owned only by wealthy individuals and institutions.

You can see more marginal scenes of the rabbit's revenge at Sexy Codicology, Colossal, and Kaneko-James' blog. But one historical question remains unanswered: to what extent did they influence that pillar of modern cinematic comedy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

Related Content:

800 Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Are Now Online: Browse & Download Them Courtesy of the British Library and Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The Aberdeen Bestiary, One of the Great Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts, Now Digitized in High Resolution & Made Available Online

Medieval Cats Behaving Badly: Kitties That Left Paw Prints … and Peed … on 15th Century Manuscripts

Explosive Cats Imagined in a Strange, 16th Century Military Manual

David Lynch Made a Disturbing Web Sitcom Called “Rabbits”: It’s Now Used by Psychologists to Induce a Sense of Existential Crisis in Research Subjects

Monty Python and the Holy Grail Censorship Letter: We Want to Retain “Fart in Your General Direction”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Archive of Animations/Cartoons of Ancient Greece & Rome: From the 1920s Through Today

Ancient Greece and Rome have provided fertile hunting grounds for animated subject matter since the very inception of the form.

So what if the results wind up doing little more than frolic in the pastoral setting? Witness 1930’s Playful Pan, above, which can basically be summed up as Silly Symphony in a toga (with a cute bear cub who looks a lot like Mickey Mouse and some flame play that prefigures The Sorcerer’s Apprentice…)

Others are packed with history, mythic narrative, and period details, though be forewarned that not all are as visually appealing as Steve Simons’ Hoplites! Greeks at War, part of the Panoply Vase Animation Project.

Some series, such as the Asterix movies and Aesop and Sona staple of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show from 1959 to 1962have been the gateways through which many history lovers’ curiosity was first roused.

(Russian animator Anatoly Petrov’s erotic shorts for Soyuzmultfilm may rouse other, er, curiosities, and are definitely NSFW.)

And then there are instant classics like 2004’s It's All Greek to Scooby in which “Shaggy's purchase of a mysterious amulet only serves to cause a pestering archaeologist and centaur to chase him.”  (Ye gods…)

Senior Lecturer of Classical and Mediterranean Studies at Vanderbilt, Chiara Sulprizio, has collected all of these and more on her blog, Animated Antiquity.

Beginning with the 2-minute fragment that’s all we have left of Winsor McCay’s 1921 The Centaurs, Sulprizio shares some of her favorite cartoon representations of ancient Greece, Rome, and beyond. Her areas of professional specializationgender and sexuality, Greek comedy, and Roman satireare well suited to her chosen hobby, and her commentary doubles down on historical context to include the history of animation.

The appearance of cartoon stars like Daffy Duck, Tom and Jerry, and Popeye further demonstrates this antique subject matter’s sturdiness. TED-Ed and the BBC may view the genre as an excellent teaching tool, but there’s nothing stopping the animator from shoehorning some fabrications in amongst the buxom nymphs and buff gladiators.

(Raise your hand if your mother ever sacrificed you on the altar to Spinachia, goddess of spinach, in hopes that she might unleash a mushroom cloud of super-atomic power in your puny bicep.)

You’ll find a number of entries featuring the work of Japanese and Russian animators, including Thermae Romae, part of the juggernaut that’s sprung from Mari Yamazaki’s popular graphic novel series and Icarus and the Wise Men from the legendary Fyodor Khitruk, whose retelling of the myth sent a message about freedom from the Soviet Union, circa 1976.

Begin your decade-by-decade explorations of Chiara Sulprizio’s animated antiquities here or suggest that a missing favorite be added to the collection. (We vote for this one!)

Related Content:

Watch Art on Ancient Greek Vases Come to Life with 21st Century Animation

18 Classic Myths Explained with Animation: Pandora’s Box, Sisyphus & More

An Animated Reconstruction of Ancient Rome: Take A 30-Minute Stroll Through the City’s Virtually-Recreated Streets

25 Animations of Great Literary Works: From Plato, Dostoevsky & Dickinson, to Kafka, Hemingway & Bradbury

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, this April. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Cringe-Inducing Humor of The Office Explained with Philosophical Theories of Mind

"I'm a friend first and a boss second," says David Brent, middle manager at the Slough branch of paper company Wernham-Hogg. "Probably an entertainer third." Those of us who've watched the original British run of The Office — and especially those of us who still watch it regularly — will remember that and many other of Brent's pitiable declarations besides. As portrayed by the show's co-creator Ricky Gervais, Brent constitutes both The Office's comedic and emotional core, at once a fully realized character and someone we've all known in real life. His distinctive combination of social incompetence and an aggressive desperation to be liked provokes in us not just laughter but a more complex set of emotions as well, resulting in one expression above all others: the cringe.

"In David Brent, we have a character so invested in the performance of himself that he's blocked his own access to others' feelings." So goes the analysis of Evan Puschak, a.k.a. the Nerdwriter, in his video interpreting the humor of The Office through philosophical theories of mind.

The elaborate friend-boss-entertainer song-and-dance Brent constantly puts on for his co-workers so occupies him that he lacks the ability or even the inclination to have any sense of what they're thinking. "The irony is that Brent can't see that a weak theory of mind always makes for a weak self-performance. You can't brute force your preferred personality onto another's consciousness: it takes two to build an identity."

Central though Brent is to The Office, we laugh not just at what he says and does, but how the other characters (which Puschak places across a spectrum of ability to understand the minds of others) react — or fail to react — to what he says and does, how he reacts to their reactions, and so on. Mastery of the comedic effects of all this has kept the original Office effective more than fifteen years later, though its effect may not be entirely pleasurable: "A lot of people say that cringe humor like this is hard to watch," says Puschak, "but in the same way that under our confidence, in theory of mind, lies an anxiety, I think that under our cringing there's actually a deep feeling of relief." When Brent and others fail to connect, their "body language speaks in a way that is totally transparent: in that moment the embarrassment is not only palpable, it's palpably honest." And it reminds us that — if we're being honest — none of us are exactly mind-readers ourselves.

You can get the complete British run of The Office on Amazon here.

Related Content:

Ricky Gervais Presents “Learn Guitar with David Brent”

The Philosophy of Bill Murray: The Intellectual Foundations of His Comedic Persona

A Romp Through the Philosophy of Mind: A Free Online Course from Oxford

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

John Cleese Revisits His 20 Years as an Ivy League Professor in His New Book, Professor at Large: The Cornell Years

Creative Commons image by Paul Boxley

It takes real intelligence to successfully make dumb comedy. John Cleese and his Monty Python colleagues are a premium example. You can call sketches like the “Ministry of Silly Walks” and “Dead Parrot” surrealist, and they are comparable to the absurdist stunts favored by certain early 20th century modern artists. But you can also call them very smart kinds of stupid, a description of some of the highest forms of comedy, I’d say, and one that applies to so much of Cleese’s best work, from the Pythons, to Fawlty Towers, to A Fish Called Wanda. We are moved by stupidity, Cleese believes, and silliness is the engine of good comedy. “Sometimes very, very silly things,” he says in the interview with Cornell University Press director Dean Smith below, "have the power to touch us deeply." Then he tells the old joke about a grasshopper named Norman.

Is Cleese still funny? Depends. Many listeners of a recent BBC Radio 4 show found his act a little stale. He has also come off lately as a “classic old man yelling at a cloud,” writes Fiona Sturges at The Guardian. (He called, surely in jest, for the hanging of EU president Jean Claude Juncker, for example, during the Brexit campaign).

In curmudgeonly interviews, he complains about hypersensitivity with examples of jokes contemporary audiences simply don’t find amusing, or at least not coming from him. Cleese has railed about the evils of political correctness, especially on college campuses, while spending the past 20 years as a “professor-at-large” on the prestigious campus of Cornell University, where he has delivered “incredibly popular events and classes—including talks, workshops, and an analysis of A Fish Called Wanda and The Life of Brian.”

These appearances draw hundreds of people, and their enormous popularity should offer Cleese some reassurance that he may not need to fear censorship, and that his wit—while it might not be as well appreciated in today's mass entertainment—still has plenty of currency in places where smart people gather. From seminars on script writing to lectures on psychology and human development, Cleese’s appearances at Cornell lead to riveting, sometimes hilarious, and often controversial conversations.

In the episodes here from the Cornell University Press podcast, you can hear Cleese’s full conversation with Smith, part of the promotion of his 2018 book Professor at Large: The Cornell Years, in which he includes an interview with Princess Bride screenwriter William Goldman, a lecture about creativity called “Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind,” a discussion of facial recognition technology, and a talk on group dynamics with business students and faculty. Like Cleese’s mind, these lectures and discussions range far and wide, demonstrating, once again in his long career, that it takes real smarts to not only speak with ease on several academic subjects, but to understand the mechanics of stupidity. You can pick up a copy of Professor at Large: The Cornell Years here.

Related Content:

John Cleese on How “Stupid People Have No Idea How Stupid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dunning-Kruger Effect)

John Cleese Explains the Brain — and the Pleasures of DirecTV

John Cleese’s Philosophy of Creativity: Creating Oases for Childlike Play

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Fake Donald Trump on Our Fake National Emergency

It's even funnier when juxtaposed with Trump's real speech...

Monty Python’s Best Philosophy Sketches: “The Philosophers’ Football Match,” “Philosopher’s Drinking Song” & More

From dead parrots to The Meaning of Life, Monty Python covered a lot of territory. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, the Pythons made a habit of weaving arcane intellectual references into the silliest of sketches. A classic example is "Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion Visit Jean-Paul Sartre," (above) from episode 27 of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

The sketch features writing partners John Cleese as Mrs. Premise and Graham Chapman as Mrs. Conclusion, gabbing away in a launderette about how best to put down a budgie. Mrs. Premise suggests flushing it down the loo. "Ooh! No!" protests Mrs. Conclusion. "You shouldn't do that. No that's dangerous. Yes, they breed in the sewers, and eventually you get evil-smelling flocks of huge soiled budgies flying out of people's lavatories infringing their personal freedom."

From there the conversation veers straight into Jean-Paul Sartre's The Roads to Freedom. It's a classic sketch--vintage Python--and you can read a transcript here while watching it above.

Another classic is the "Philosopher's Drinking Song," shown above in a scene from Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl. The song was written and sung by Eric Idle. In the sketch, members of the philosophy department at the "University of Woolloomooloo” lead the audience in singing, "Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable; Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar who could think you under the table..."

And one of our favorites: "The Philosophers' Football Match" (above), a filmed sequence from Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, pitting the Ancient Greeks against the Germans, with Confucius as referee. The sketch was originally broadcast in 1972 in a two-part West German television special, Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus.

When you're done laughing, you can dive deep into philosophy here with our collection of 75 Free Philosophy Courses online.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in November 2011.

Related Content:

Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic” Sketch Reenacted by Two Vintage Voice Synthesizers (One Is Stephen Hawking’s Voice)

John Cleese’s Philosophy of Creativity: Creating Oases for Childlike Play

John Cleese on How “Stupid People Have No Idea How Stupid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dunning-Kruger Effect)

Lin-Manuel Miranda & Emily Blunt Take You Through 22 Classic Musicals in 12 Minutes

Watching James Corden, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Emily Blunt donning bad wigs to mug their way through a 12-minute salute to 22 movie musical “classics” is a bit reminiscent of watching the three most popular counselors ham it up during an overlong summer camp skit.

Their one-take performance was part of Role Call, a regular feature of the Late Late Show with James Corden. Usually, this fan favorite is an excuse for Corden and a megastar guest—Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Samuel L. Jackson—to bumble through the most iconic moments of their career.

These kinds of larks are more fun for being a mess, and the live studio audience screams like besotted campers at every goofy quick change and winking inside reference. Blunt and Miranda are definitely game, though one wonders if they felt a bit chagrinned that the film they are promoting, Mary Poppins Returns, is given pride of placement, while the original 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke is strangely absent.

As is Thoroughly Modern Millie, Victor/Victoria, and even The Sound of Music.

Maybe Corden’s saving up for a Julia Andrews-centric Role Call.

What did make the cut points to how few original movie musicals there are to resonate with modern audiences.

Of the 22, over 2/3 started out as Broadway plays.

And "You Can’t Stop the Beat" from 2007’s Hairspray was born of the 2002 stage adaptation, not the gritty 1988 original starring John Waters’ mainstay, Divine.

Is it wrong to hope that most viewers hearing "Your Song" will think, Elton John! not Moulin Rouge”?

And Beauty and The Beast is perhaps not so much a movie musical as a children’s feature-length animation, so why not The Little Mermaid, The Lion  King, or hell, Snow White or Pinocchio?

Alas, 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is as far back as this skit’s memory goes, presumably because the audience has a greater likelihood of recognizing Marilyn Monroe than say, Howard Keel.

More interesting than the jokey horseplay with Into the Woods and The Muppet Movie is the choice to blithely cast white actors in roles that were written for black women (Dreamgirls, Little Shop of Horrors). I don’t think anyone would try to get away with that on Broadway these days, even in in a spoofy charitable event like Broadway Bares or Easter Bonnet… though if they did, getting Lin-Manuel Miranda on board would be a very good idea.

As to why Hamilton isn’t one of the titles below … it’s not a movie musical—yet!

Readers—what glaring omissions leap out at you?

Cabaret

Chicago

La La Land

Beauty and the Beast

Guys and Dolls

Evita

Singin’ in the Rain

Mary Poppins Returns

The Muppet Movie

The Wizard of Oz 

Hairspray

Dreamgirls

Annie

Fiddler on the Roof

Into the Woods 

Little Shop of Horrors

Les Miserables

Moulin Rouge 

Once

Fame 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Mama Mia

Related Content:

Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical Debuted on Broadway 50 Years Ago: Watch Footage of the Cast Performing in 1968

David Bowie Dreamed of Turning George Orwell’s 1984 Into a Musical: Hear the Songs That Survived the Abandoned Project

Alexander Hamilton: Hip-Hop Hero at the White House Poetry Evening

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City this January as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

More in this category... »
Quantcast