Killer Rabbits Terrorized the Pages of Medieval Manuscripts
In early medieval art and literature fluffy white rabbits, bunnies, and hares were typically motifs of innocence, venerability, and purity. However, more in sync with these animals’ rate of reproduction they later came to represent fertility. But as well as these classic archetypes of world mythology the rabbit was sometimes portrayed as a horrifically murderous killer.
Entering the Medieval Magical Inverse World
Fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will recall the vicious killer bunny that attacked King Arthur and his valiant knights, however, only a few will know that this farcical scene has its origins in real-world medieval manuscripts. Hand-written animal skin books were first created by monks in 11th century monasteries and those with illustrations in gold and silver decorations are known as ‘Illuminated.’ A research article in a 2016 ‘ Daily Art Magazine’ explains that the ‘marginalia’ or margins of some illuminated texts feature a range of mythological creatures known as ‘the drolleries,’ the painting of which peaked between 1250 AD to the 15th century.
While rabbits began their symbolic journey in this world as markers of purity and helplessness the mythological dimension of drolleries was inverted, therefore, in illuminated texts rabbits were often depicted as armor-wearing sadistic, cruel, and unpredictably violent creatures which murdered animals and people in the most awful ways.
14th century, Ms. 121, fol. 23r, Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne, Paris, France. Detail. ( CC BY-NC 3.0 )
According to art historian Margaret Rickert’s 1954 book ‘ Painting in Britain: The Middle Ages ,’ medieval scribes painted ‘cocks with human heads, dogs carrying human masks, archers winding out of a fish's mouth and bird-like dragons with an elephant's head on the back.’ Dr. Jorn Gunther says the idea of an inverse world in which everything is upside down ‘reaches back to antiquity’ when people ritually fought the perceived evils of winter.
A more recent 2022 article in ‘ Art Magazine Daily’ suggests that in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance ‘the culture of laughter was trying to make the regular world full of mysticism, dogmatism, and seriousness more bearable.’ Furthermore, carnival celebrations and jokes ‘dramatized the comic and relative side of absolute truths and supreme authorities highlighted the ambivalence of reality, coming to represent the power of both absolute liberty and farce.’ This would suggest killer rabbits were simply medieval jokes and mirrors of culture at that time, but they are much, much more.
A killer rabbit in the medieval manuscript Bréviaire de Renaud de Bar (1302-1304). Ms 107, fol.-89r-89r. Source: Bibliothèque de Verdun/ CC BY-NC 3.0
Rabbit Courts and Beheaded Human Hunters
An entry on ‘ Mediaeval Manuscripts Blog ‘ says that during the Harley Cataloguing Project , while re-cataloguing the ‘ Arnstein Passional ’ that was made at Arnstein Abbey in Germany around the 1170s, researchers spotted a particularly early killer bunny. Regarded as the earliest killer rabbit ever discovered, a decorated letter ‘T’ doubles as a gallows on which two rabbits have hung a human hunter. The killers in this instance are standing on their hindlegs pointing and jeering with their front paws at the murdered man.
To interpret this apparently awful scene we must think in reverse, so as to better suit the topsy-turvy environment of the magical inverse world. Rabbits in this world are fluffy and innocent prey animals so it makes perfect sense that they would become violent administrators of justice, punishing human hunters who killed rabbits, in the upside-down world.
This is certainly the case in the ‘ Smithfield Decretals’ that were illuminated in London in the 1340s AD and are currently kept at the British Library in London.
The marginal scenes in these illuminated texts depict a group of giant overweight rabbits waging hyper-violence on a human hunter and his hound. The first rabbit is an archer and it shoots the hunter in his spine before the other rabbits tie him up and haul him before a rabbit judge. After an inevitable guilty verdict, the gang of rabbits haul the hunter away and joyously behead him.
But this was only the beginning of the rabbit's bloodlust, which after murdering the hunter set about catching his dog which was the number one enemy of rabbits in this world and a perfect motif for the violence of rabbits in the upside down world. The dog met a similar fate to its master and was beheaded after being found guilty in a rigged rabbit court.
All That is Impossible Here, Happens There
It can be concluded that the killer rabbit motif has many possible interpretations, but they all unite in that they reflect a reversal of morals in the medieval upside down world. But what exactly did ‘upside down’ and ‘inverted’ mean in the sixteenth century?
According to Vincent Robert-Nicoud ’s 2018 book ‘ Introduction The Sixteenth-Century World Upside Down’ the words ‘upside down’ and ‘inverse’ were used in the same way we might use the words ‘weird’ or ‘freaky,’ most often to describe abnormal or unnatural objects or occurrences. ‘The topos of the world upside down,’ wrote Robert-Nicoud, ‘brings to mind a world returned to its initial state of primaeval chaos, in which everything is inside-out, topsy-turvy and out of bounds.’
Now that you are aware of it, keep an eye out for this medieval ‘world upside down’ rhetorical device for it appears in hundreds of texts, poems, paintings, and adages which collectively describe a place where natural impossibilities in this world, or dimension, are everyday occurrences.
Top Image: Killer rabbit in the Smithfield Decretals, c. 1300, British Library, London, UK. Detail. (British Library/ CC BY 4.0 )
By Ashley Cowie
K, Sierzputowski. (May 31, 2016). Violent Rabbit Illustrations Found in the Margins of Medieval Manuscripts. Art Daily Magazine. Read online here: https://www.thisiscolossal.com/2016/05/violent-rabbit-illustrations-found-in-the-margins-of-medieval-manuscripts/
Rickert, M. (1954). Painting in Britain: The Middle Ages , Penguin History of Art. Yale
Dr Gunther, J. (January 2018). Upside Down World. These Fooling Things . Read online here. https://guenther-rarebooks.com/blog/31/
Stanska, Z. (4 April 2022). The Unbelievable Story of Killer Rabbits in Medieval Manuscripts. Read online here. https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/killer-rabbits-in-medieval-manuscripts/
Illuminated Letter from the Arnstein Passional. Birmingham Museums. View online here https://www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/explore-art/items/1906P1028/illuminated-letter-a-copied-from-the-arnstein-passional-harley-ms2800-red-letter-a-surrounded-by-curled-foliage-with-blue-and-green-colouring-an?search_terms%5Bsubject%5D%5B%5D=Pre-Raphaelite
Smithfield Decretals. View online here. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-smithfield-decretals
V, Robert-Nicoud . (2018). Introduction The Sixteenth-Century World Upside Down. In: The World Upside Down in 16th-Century French Literature and Visual Culture . Read online here. https://brill.com/view/book/9789004381827/BP000009.xml