Tag Archives: Medieval Rabbit

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

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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.

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