Killer Rabbits: the Topsy-Turvy World of Medieval Manuscripts
Updated: Jan 27, 2019
Violent bunnies are not just from Monty Python--they were a common image in medieval manuscripts.
You may have heard of Reynard the Fox, but you probably are not as familiar with Coward the Hare, the fox’s trembling and (you guessed it) cowardly victim throughout many of his exploits. As the his name suggests, the hare generally embodies the characteristics of real-life rabbits in the Reynardian tradition: he’s timid and nervous, and all too often the prey of the wily fox.
Despite Coward’s cowardly tendencies, in a later branch of the Roman de Renart (the twelfth-century French epic detailing Reynard’s exploits), we see Coward capture a human man, sling his captive over the back of his horse, and drag him to stand trial at Noble the Lion’s court for attempted highway robbery. A hare riding a horse? And capturing a man? It gets crazier: the man, who we learn is a peletier, or a trader of animal pelts, was the one with the weapon; Coward merely thumps him on the head to subdue him.
This is strange behavior for a cowardly rabbit, particularly in the context of the Roman de Renart, wherein Coward usually ends up the worse for every encounter with Reynard. But this motif—prey animals capturing predators—does have precedent in medieval art. Namely, the art that inhabits the margins of medieval manuscripts. If you’re unfamiliar with manuscript marginalia, I highly recommend following some of the medievalist twitter accounts that post images from the wonky world of manuscript marginalia. And you will certainly not regret a google search of “medieval manuscript snail bishop.”
Did you think the killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail came out of nowhere? In fact, marginal images in medieval manuscripts often depict a “world turned upside down” (cue Hamilton soundtrack), or a “Topsy-Turvy” reversal of fortune. Why were these common? It’s hard to say, but likely for the same reason we find a scenario in which a band of allegedly-brave knights encounter a killer rabbit and run away screaming, hilarious.
The episode in which Coward the Hare captures a human peletier was of particular interest to me because in the context of the Roman, we don’t just see a static image of a hare dragging a hunter. Instead, the narrative takes us from the moment Reynard runs into Coward along the road to the trial of the hunter at the court of Noble the Lion. Yep, we actually get to see the trial unfold, complete with witness testimonies.
The trial itself is pretty ridiculous. Coward and Reynard tell the story we’ve been hearing all along: the hunter attempted to attack Coward at sword point, but Coward, being the better fighter and high-born, quickly vanquished him. The hunter does not get to speak until Noble calls him to testify, at which point the hunter requests that his peers be called in as character witnesses. Calling character witnesses to swear oaths that the accused is “good and faithful” is in itself typical (medieval courts, obviously, lacking in the type of forensic technology we would use to establish the “facts” of a case), but the testimony of the hunter’s friends is probably the strangest part of the entire episode:
“Sir,” they said, “you speak truly. If you want to know the truth, in time it will be made known to you. He had won an egg and divided it into thirteen pieces for us to share together: for this it seems to us that he is honorable and faithful.”
They…shared an egg? This gets the hunter acquitted. It’s supposed to be funny, and it really is if you like Monty-Python-esque absurd humor. Like the medieval manuscript images of rabbits with swords, however, it’s a little bit jarring given the modern association of animal characters with children’s stories. Imagine if Peter Rabbit took an ax to Farmer McGregor for kicking him out of the garden. Medieval beast epics were not children’s stories insofar as they depict graphic violence and rape, and were probably read by learned adults as entertainment.
What to make of killer rabbits in the Middle Ages, then? The potency of imagining power reversals between humans and other forms of life has not disappeared from modern literature. Think of all the science fiction films that depict aliens taking over the planet as giant bugs. These fictions remind us that humans may not always been on the top of the food chain. When we think of killer rabbits, the experience is different because we view prey creatures with a mix of sympathy and dismissal: they are cute, but not dangerous. Killer bugs are terrifying, killer rabbits are funny. Looking back at the killer rabbits of the Middle Ages is an opportunity to ask why this is and how the way we view different animals governs our interactions with them. For instance, most people accept that animal testing happens on small rodents, but begin to balk when contemplating that testing on dogs or monkeys.
One thing is certain: Next time you see a skittish bunny, you might think twice—especially if it has an ax.
If you're interested in the original Old French from the passage above, here it is, with a note on differences in editions:
‘Sire,’ font il, ‘vous dites voir.
Se verite voulez savoir,
Par tens vous sera enseignie.
Il avoit un œf gaaignie
Ou il nous fist moiller ensemble
Tous treize, pour ce si nous semble
Qu’il est loiaus et de foi. (249–255)
I have cited Ernest Martin’s edition (3 vols. Strasbourg, 1882–1887) here because it catalogues a small, but significant difference in the passage between manuscripts of the a-group (A, D, E, F, G, and N) and the later g-group (C, M and the n section of N). The France Tosho edition reads: “Il avoit .I. oef gaaignie / Ou voloient moillier ensemble. / En non Dieu, por ce si nos semble / Que il est preudons et de foi” (250–3). Notably, in place of the idea that the skinner divided the egg into thirteen pieces for his companions, they simply invoke the name of God in declaring that the man on trial seems honorable.