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.

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Comments (22)
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  • Epo says:

    I find them quite Bugs Bun­ny-ish…

  • Carette says:

    “a bar­ber with a wood­en leg” — fun­ny to the medieval mind if back then it was the bar­bers who per­formed ampu­ta­tions, as I’ve heard. An ampu­tat­ed bar­ber who then inflicts the same hor­ror on anoth­er? Dark­ly fun­ny!

  • Phasmainmachina says:

    Bar­ber-sur­geons were com­mon in the mid­dle-ages, the body of one such indi­vid­ual dat­ing from the 14th Cen­tu­ry was dis­cov­ered in 1938 under­neath one of the stones in the Ave­bury stone cir­cle in Wilt­shire, Eng­land. It seems he was among the group of peo­ple engaged in top­pling the stones when it fell on top of him. As those stones can weigh up to near­ly 100 tonnes, it proved fatal!
    Regard­ing the ‘bun­nies’, I believe that the draw­ings depict hares, which were con­sid­ered a much dark­er, more threat­en­ing crea­ture; the fact that one is drawn in a pose like a box­er fac­ing up to an armoured Knight is sug­ges­tive of the behav­iour of hares in March, where female hares will stand and box with prospec­tive mates, often quite vio­lent­ly.

  • Frederick Harrison says:

    The rab­bit car­ry­ing a shield and lance, rid­ing a snail with a human face begs the ques­tion: did Jay Ward know about this before he cre­at­ed Cru­sad­er Rab­bit in 1950, thus cre­at­ing the first ani­mat­ed for tele­vi­sion car­toon series. (He had much bet­ter suc­cess with his sec­ond series Rocky & Bull­win­kle. June For­ay did the voic­es for both Cru­sad­er and Rocky.)

  • Christian says:

    Tweet John, Michael, and Eric while you can! Com­plete the research!!!

  • ericv says:

    since bar­bers were sur­geons in the past, a bar­ber with a wood­den leg means surgery was done to the sur­geon, he had to endure what he did to oth­ers, and sur­vived .

  • M says:

    Seems like­ly. Mar­gin­a­lia is a well-researched area of acad­e­mia. Even a Bach­e­lor’s-lev­el Eng­lish major is exposed to some small analy­sis of it.

  • JanetA says:

    I won­dered if the Rab­bit of Caer­bannog would come into play …

  • jic says:

    Bar­ber-sur­geons were com­mon until at least the mid-19th cen­tu­ry. Before that, sur­geons with med­ical degrees were the excep­tion, not the rule.

  • Jenny Porter-Szeto says:

    Giv­en Ter­ry Jones’ exten­sive pas­sion for research­ing and writ­ing about Medieval lit­er­a­ture, I’d say it’s almost cer­tain that mar­gin bun­nies form part of the inspi­ra­tion for the killer rab­bit.

  • dx0ne says:

    There’s even game about it in the mak­ing

  • Adria says:

    La ima­gen del cone­jo, en sen­ti­do sim­bóli­co del Tarot (para algu­nas inter­preta­ciones de arqueti­pos) rep­re­sen­ta los deseos insat­is­fe­chos. Des­de esta premisa, puede leerse a la víc­ti­ma, cazador o sim­ple humano, como “tor­tu­ra­do”, atra­pa­do por y en ello. Desconoz­co si era el propósi­to que daba el ilustrador en cada caso y lo comen­to a man­era de cul­tura gen­er­al.

  • Alan says:

    It may be that the peg-leg­grd bar­ber struck the mede­vial fun­ny bone so hard is that bar­bers dou­bled as sur­geons who per­formed limb ampu­ta­tions.

  • Dr Ron Newton says:

    Per­haps the bar­ber joke is that the bar­ber-sur­geon ampu­tat­ed the wrong limb by acci­dent (always a risk) — his own!

  • John says:

    Anya was F’ing right, it’s Bun­nies!

  • Angela Welsh says:

    Bar­bers used to serve as the first “sur­geons.” Hence, the irony of a bar­ber hav­ing a wood­en leg!

  • Lauren Ann Lough says:

    Oth­er cin­e­mat­ic rab­bit roles include DONNIE DARKO and THE NIGHT OF THE LEPUS!

  • Subaru says:

    Killer rab­bits are pret­ty dan­ger­ous, those bas­tards can eat you alive, inside out. The great one is the most dan­ger­ous.

  • Steve says:

    Yes, I agree with your two points.

  • The Pyat says:

    Can any­one find among these man­u­scripts an image show­ing a woman with a rab­bit? If there is one, it’s extreme­ly rare. That’s because the rab­bits ARE the women, or monas­tic code for women. Conny/Cunny. These images show men “vir­tu­ous­ly” com­bat­ting the “thralls” of women, mul­ti­tudes of whom end­ed up burned at the stake.

  • Jesstifer says:

    That, Pyat, is fas­ci­nat­ing. So in Holy Grail, the killer rab­bit and the women of Cas­tle Anthrax are equiv­a­lent.

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