The medieval English rabbit: A rare (and sometimes dangerous) beast

This week I’m delighted to welcome Cara Hogarth to the blog. Her new book, The Minstrel and Her Knight, set in 1367, was published on Wednesday. You’ll have to read it to find out if there are any rabbits in it.

Petrus Comestor, Historia scholastica, England ca. 1283-1300 (British Library, Royal 3 D VI, fol. 234r)

Q: When is a rabbit not a rabbit?

A: When it lived in the Middle Ages.

According to the source of all wisdom that is the Oxford English Dictionary, the only thing a medieval English-speaker would identify as a ‘rabbit’ was a baby rabbit. An adult rabbit was a ‘coney’. As John Trevisa wrote in 1398: ‘Conynges … bringen forþ many rabettes & multiplien ful swiþe.’

As John’s spelling indicates, the medieval ‘coney’ could appear in all sorts of spelling guises, including: conyn, conyne, cunin, conig, and konyn. But basically, a medieval English speaker called a rabbit a coney. This aligns nicely with other medieval European terms for the little furry beast:

  • classical Latin cuniculus
  • Old French conil
  • Anglo-Norman coni, conie, conig, coniz, conys, conynge, coning, coninge, couning (in the days before standardised spelling)
  • Italian coniglio
  • Spanish conejo
  • Welsh cwning
  • Irish coinnín
  • Scottish Gaelic coinean

Hilariously, it seems that ‘coney’ rhymed with ‘honey’ and ‘money’ for the first few centuries of its English life. The long ‘o’ sound seems to have been introduced in the 19th century, quite probably to avoid salacious associations.

So, given that English is at base a Germanic language, why is the medieval word for rabbit so French? Because we can blame the French (or at least the Normans) for introducing rabbits to Britain in the first place. I’ve listed so many variants on the Anglo-Norman term for ‘rabbit’ so you can see for yourself how the ‘coney’ came to be. Yes, the Normans reintroduced rabbits to Britain. (The first record of them is in 1176 in the Scilly Isles.) The Welsh, Irish and Gaelic terms for rabbit are all derived from the Anglo-Norman.

It seems that rabbits did hang out in the British Isles during a previous interglacial but since then found the climate inconducive and died out. The current strain of British rabbit seems to have originated in Spain. The Phoenicians spread the Spanish bunny about the Mediterranean somewhat, and the Romans followed suit, initiating a long tradition of rabbit farming.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, medieval monks continued the grand tradition of rabbit farming, generally housing them in specially-constructed ‘warrens’. The monks were doubtless encouraged by their persuasion that baby rabbit was, by ‘a quirk of early-medieval canonical interpretation’, considered aquatic and could therefore be eaten on fast days.

Possibly following monkly example, the French nobility developed a fondness for rabbit (unfortunately for their meat and fur rather than their more endearing qualities) from the 900s on, which led in turn to taking them over the Channel to Britain. Rabbit warrens seem to have been established on islands first (the Scilly Isles and Lundy Island are the first attested warren sites), and later light coastal soils such as in Breckland and coastal East Anglia. This was partly because medieval rabbits really didn’t care for the British climate and did best in light sandy soils and drier regions (which were more reminiscent of Spain, perhaps). It also made sense to make use of unproductive agricultural land by farming rabbits on it.

But, to quote historian Mark Bailey: ‘The rabbit was a rare beast in medieval England’. It seems to have been even rarer in Scotland, not appearing in the wild there until 1792. Essentially, most medieval English rabbits and all medieval Scottish rabbits were farmed rabbits. (Sorry, ‘coneys’ I mean.) Some of the furry blighters inevitably escaped from their warrens – rabbits are good at digging, after all – but until the mid-1700s, wild rabbits were not common in Britain.

In fact, the rabbit was not particularly common throughout medieval Europe – which makes its appearance in manuscript marginalia all the more curious. Remember Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Well, Monty Python turn out to be surprisingly well-informed in the most peculiar of instances. In this case: killer rabbits.

Image Source: https://nationalpost.com/news/penis-monsters-and-killer-rabbits-the-naughty-600-year-old-drawings-hidden-in-medieval-manuscripts

Marginalia are images painted on the margins of manuscripts. Sometimes they appear irreverent and/or grotesque, yet appear alongside deeply serious religious texts. There are all sorts of theories concerning their purpose (parody, allegory, simple scribal boredom), but we don’t really know why medieval people sometimes painted killer rabbits next to their prayers.

Here is a wonderful YouTube introduction to the killer rabbit of medieval manuscripts.

Kabir suggests that: ‘The role reversal of these rabbits in the marginalia was mainly used for humor. The world turned upside-down was portrayed where the innocent rabbits could take revenge from humans and other powerful animals who hunted, skinned, and ate them.’ Perhaps, but rabbits were also considered symbols of cowardice and the furry beasties here depicted are most definitely not acting like cowards! Role reversal, maybe – but remember the Easter bunny? The Easter rabbit is used to symbolise resurrection (rabbits live underground in tomb-like spaces and have a legendary ability for rebirth, i.e. reproduction). By the same token, it is also a symbol of unbridled sexuality. Which makes me wonder how much of a coincidence it is that ‘coney’ used to rhyme with ‘honey’. But evidently the humble coney is a complicated character. It can mean many things. But one thing it wasn’t in medieval Britain: a ubiquitous pest. No, the medieval coney was a rare and valued beast (and it had huge sharp teeth).

References:

Bailey, M., ‘The rabbit and the medieval East Anglian economy’, The Agricultural History Review, vol. 36, no. 1, 1988, pp. 1 – 20.

Dickenson, V., Rabbit, Reaktion Books, 2013.

Kabir, ‘The portrayal of violent rabbits in medieval marginalia’, The Collector, 18th Sept 2020.

Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., 2014, https://www.oed.com/

Veale, E., ‘The rabbit in England’, The Agricultural History Review, vol. 5, no. 2, 1957, pp. 85 – 90.

About the Author:

Cara Hogarth writes historical romance set in the Middle Ages. Her novel The Minstrel and Her Knight explores the disreputable profession of medieval minstrelsy, and her novella ‘To Kiss an Outlaw’, flirts with Robin Hood. Neither book contains killer rabbits, but Cara loves to dive down a rabbit hole of history.

Find out more by visiting https://www.carahogarth.net/

Definitely not a rabbit

20 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Guest Post, Medieval Life

20 responses to “The medieval English rabbit: A rare (and sometimes dangerous) beast

  1. Wow, I have never known about these killer rabbits! Wow, that’s incredible! Thanks a lot for this post, April!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. The YouTube link seems to have dug its way out of the warren and gone off to live elsewhere. In other words, it’s missing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Video works for me (currently South East England). Excellent guest post by Cara, hadn’t realised rabbits today are immigrants!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Cara Hogarth

    Thanks so much for hosting me, April! I’ve been reading your blog for ages and it’s lovely to join the conversation.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. This is wonderful…thanks April and Cara. Thought I knew all about rabbits from Richard Adams but I didn’t know most of this. I had never made the bunny connection to Easter either. We have an explosion of rabbits here currently, I suppose we can blame the Normans for that. Hilarious too re the pronunciation of coney….now I am trying to construct a pun about the arrival of rabbits (coneys) in Ireland, the normans (the flight of?) and our national airline (aer lingus)…I may be some time…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Soooo, is that why we say “bunny” instead of “coney”? ☺
    Hope you give us more quirky history of English! ♥

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Now I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of hilarious medieval marginalia—thanks to the killer rabbit image source link. Such scandal! Lol. Thanks for this awesome guest post, Cara, and congrats on your book release! I’m excited to check out The Minstrel and Her Knight!

    Liked by 2 people

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