Medieval Warrens

When I was a child, we used to eat rabbit quite a bit, as it was cheap, being plentiful. Rabbits were so abundant that they were considered a pest and, in the 1950s, they were culled with myxomatosis. Not only did this make rabbits unfit for human consumption, but it also wiped out 99% of the rabbit population in England. They’ve made a comeback and rabbit meat, so I’m told, is trendy. I’m a vegetarian now, so I don’t know.

Until fairly recently, I assumed that rabbits had always been in England, but it turns out that, like many other things, they were introduced by the Normans and have been here less than a thousand years.

Rabbits, known as coneys or conyngs, were reared in warrens. In the Middle Ages this just meant land set aside for rearing small game. It was only later that it only referred to rabbits.

As with other game, only a small number of people had the right to hunt rabbits. Free warren was the right to hunt small game (which included rabbits and hares) and it could only be awarded by the king. Having a warren on your land was a privilege and also indicated to people around you that you were important. Status was everything in fourteenth-century England.

As well as providing food, rabbits were bred for their fur. Both could be very profitable to a lord of the manor who had the right to breed them. Free warren usually belonged to the person on whose land the warren was, but it could also be leased out to other people, which could cause problems, as we shall see later.

Rabbits didn’t do well in England to start with. They didn’t spread beyond the managed warrens for centuries, but when they did breed in the wild, they became a pest, hence the myxomatosis. They were despised as an animal to be hunted, but peasants hunted them anyway, since meat was meat. The most common technique was to send a ferret into the warren to chase the rabbits out into nets held by the hunters. The ferrets were muzzled so that they didn’t eat the rabbits themselves. In some parts of the country, ferrets were hired out to poachers of rabbits.

Ferreting wasn’t the only method used to catch rabbits. Smoke was also popular. What can only be described as a smoke bomb was made of yellow arsenic, sulphur and myrrh. It was set alight and dropped into the burrow. The escaping rabbits ran into the waiting nets. A less sophisticated method involved lighting a fire at a main entrance to the burrow. Spaniels were also used to chase rabbits into the nets.

Many lords of the manor employed warreners, who were very well paid, to look after the rabbits. Poaching them became so lucrative that organised gangs got involved A warrener’s life was a dangerous one. Warrens were usually far from any villages on the manor, so the warrener was on his own.

The gangs were mostly led by members of the gentry. The Coterell brothers and the Folvilles were involved in poaching. The poaching itself was probably carried out under their direction by peasants, possibly because they were poor or had a grudge against the owner of the warren. Some of the men caught poaching claimed that they were the ones who really had the right to hunt there and that might often have been true, as warrens were sometimes leased out, and who had the right to do what could sometimes be obscure.

The fourteenth century was a time of social mobility and rabbit fur was very popular among people who wanted to climb higher. The white belly-fur of a rabbit could be taken, at a distance, for ermine, used by those at the top of the ladder. It was known as miniver, although the term included any non-specific white fur. You can see why having a rabbit warren could be very lucrative and why gangs of poachers might be interested in them. In an attempt to ensure that everyone knew their place, a series of sumptuary laws were made in the second half of the fourteenth century. The one in 1363 said that wives and daughters of esquires could wear miniver if the squire had an income of more than 200 marks (£133 6s 8d).

Rabbits could be hunted all year round. My favourite writer about hunting, John Cummins, writes dismissively, “The warren falls more into the field of livestock husbandry than hunting” and I think I agree with him. Worse, rabbits could also be a distraction to hunting dogs, causing them to chase after the rabbit rather than continue following the scent of the animal they were tracking.

Rather shamefully, I’d almost got to the end of this post before I remembered that there’s a part of Southampton not far from where I live called Shirley Warren. Sure enough, it turned out that this used to be the free warren of the lords of Shirley manor. It’s a long, thin strip of land with a stream in a narrow valley with fairly steep sides. These days it’s full of houses, a hospital and a cemetery. For my UK readers, Benny Hill is buried in the cemetery.

Sources:
Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
The English Manor by Mark Bailey
Medieval Hunting by Richard Almond
Hawk and Hound by John Cummins

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

Amazon

16 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Food, Medieval Hunting, Medieval Life

16 responses to “Medieval Warrens

  1. This is fantastic April. As a fan of Watership Down I thought I knew everything about rabbits but Adams, though he was good on the life of the rabbit, didn’t go into this history. In that book he describes a warren kept by a farmer which seemed unusual or sinister but I guess now the implication was it was a holdover from the past. I’ve never eaten rabbit. I’ve seen a couple of rabbits with ‘mixy’ and it’s so awful, poor things. ..anyway, thanks for this, great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Many years ago I lived in the village of Barton-le-Clay. Our house wasn’t far from the Sharpenhoe Clappers which was a medieval warren on the site of an Iron Age fort. I have fond memories of evening walks there after a day working in London.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I’d always thought rabbits were native, they seem so British. I’ve never had one for dinner and don’t think I ever will. Great post April. (Could not stand Benny Hill, got my vote for most unfunny comedian ever).

    Liked by 3 people

  4. We’re hares native? This is all new territory for me and fascinating. A friend once gave Mom a dressed and jointed rabbit and she fried it. Tasted somewhat like chicken but I couldn’t stomach the weird shape of the pieces. In the end our pets got an appreciated treat.

    Later had a bunny as a pet and that put paid to any attempt at trying rabbit dishes! Once a pet, never anything else!

    One morning as I left home for work, in the dim light, I heard a loud “thunk!”. A headless rabbit landed almost at my feet! It was extremely unnerving and I could only assume a hawk had lost it’s prey, midflight. I ran back into the house and hollared to my husband to get rid of it. Needless to say neither of us have great memories of that day!

    Ah, rabbits! 😱

    Like

  5. We’re hares native? This is all new territory for me and fascinating. A friend once gave Mom a dressed and jointed rabbit and she fried it. Tasted somewhat like chicken but I couldn’t stomach the weird shape of the pieces. In the end our pets got an appreciated treat.

    Later had a bunny as a pet and that put paid to any attempt at trying rabbit dishes! Once a pet, never anything else!

    One morning as I left home for work, in the dim light, I heard a loud “thunk!”. A headless rabbit landed almost at my feet! It was extremely unnerving and I could only assume a hawk had lost it’s prey, midflight. I ran back into the house and hollared to my husband to get rid of it. Needless to say neither of us have great memories of that day!

    Ah, rabbits! 😱

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know about hares, but probably not. Coney seems to have been used for both hares and rabbits.

      Although I’m a vegetarian now, as a teenager I caught and gutted fish, and gutted and plucked pigeons and geese. I was very aware of where the meat on my plate came from. I’m a lot more squeamish now and it’s never easy dealing with the body when one of my chickens dies.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great stuff. Very interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Great post April, and I was so glad you added the bit about Shirley Warren as that was going through my mind as I started reading. Your post has made sense of a place name I have wondered about for years, thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I didn’t know a virus was used to wipe out 99% of the rabbit population in England. I wish they had used a more humane method, especially one that didn’t wipe them out completely!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Ermine | A Writer's Perspective

  10. Pingback: The medieval English rabbit: A rare (and sometimes dangerous) beast | A Writer's Perspective

Please join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s