Killer Rabbits: A Medieval Meme
Medieval rabbits weren't fluffy friends, they were murderous meme material!
In modern Western society, rabbits are viewed as ranging from gentle companion animals, to benevolent mythical creatures associated with Easter deliveries. Many might be surprised to learn that during medieval times, Europeans frequently portrayed rabbits as vicious creatures. These medieval depictions showed rabbits engaging in a range of malevolent acts, like lynching and torturing.
Depictions of killer rabbits permeated the medieval people’s consciousness, appearing in everything from town hall minstrel performances, to popular literature of the time, making them a sort of viral meme being shared amongst medieval town folks.
Illustrations of killer rabbit memes can primarily be seen in illuminated manuscripts. These are hand-copied books adorned with decorative margins, which was the popular publishing standard of the time, prior to the invention of the printing press circa 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg.
Named for the gold and silver pigments used in their creation, illuminated manuscripts were predominantly a Western European Christian tradition (between c. 500 – c. 1600), undertaken by monks in abbeys to disseminate their gospel far and wide. As demand for the written word grew and the public’s appetite for it became evident, the technique quickly became commercialized. Secular bookmakers began producing illuminated manuscripts in large quantities as an artisanal craft. Patrons could commission whatever they desired, leading to the popularity of illustrations featuring killer rabbits.
Killer rabbits graced everything from full-page, to half-page, to marginal illustrations. They were part of a cultural trend called drolleries, medieval memes that showcased a mix of the whimsical and the eerie: monsters, beasts, animals, and all manner of hybrids—akin to the fantastical scenes found in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch from the same era.
Drolleries served as humorous little comic strips in an otherwise dogmatic society overseen by the Church. They used what was called “topsy turvy world humor”, the upside-down world where real life things were fictionalized to be the opposite of their nature.
Their purpose was to dramatize and mock the absolute truths being promoted by the medieval ruling class, echoing today’s shock value of political memes. Other examples of topsy turvy humor include fools making fun of kings or women beating their husbands — these were humorous strips that stood out for their slapstick subversion.
Amid the assortment of drolleries were, naturally, the killer rabbits, circulating among people and hopping from one locale to another. Since social media wasn’t a thing back then, killer rabbit memes depended on alternative methods of dissemination. This often meant relying on traveling minstrels who journeyed from town to town, replenishing their fresh cache of memes.
Performing in baronial halls, taverns, and fairs, minstrels were the stand up comedians of their time — elusive figures that despite being widely recorded in medieval fiction, only have few surviving non-fiction written accounts. While doing research in the National Library of Scotland, James Wade of Cambridge University discovered a 15th century manuscript which recorded one such instance.
The manuscript was written by one Richard Heege, a household cleric and tutor to the Sherbrooke family of Derbyshire. Heege wrote down accounts of popular medieval entertainments, including the rarely recorded real-life minstrels. Though Wade doesn’t claim that the manuscript itself was written by a medieval minstrel. He believes it is either a transcript of a live minstrel performance or at least a copy of one, perhaps performed by a close acquaintance of Mr Heege whose jokes he was particularly fond of.
The Heege accounts include a tail-rhyme romance called, “The Hunting of the Hare,” which as its title suggests, contains references to killer rabbits, or more fittingly, killer hares. “The Hunting of the Hare” follows a group of peasants who decide to go on a hare hunt, but instead find themselves fighting with each other and their dogs. A crude slapstick comedy, kind of like a medieval Tom & Jerry.
The earliest recorded entry of a killer rabbit meme is said to have been found in the “Arnsteini Passional” a manuscript made at the Arnstein Abbey in Germany (c. 1170) that show a decorated letter ‘T’. Doubling as a gallow, the letter is being used by two rabbits to hang a hunter. These killer rabbits are pointing and laughing at the poor man, behaving unlike their fluffy and innocent real-life counterparts.
In the Old Testament, rabbits and hares were considered unclean animals, symbols of unbridled sexuality, but despite the Church’s heavy influence on the Middle Ages, society at-large saw them as docile, positive creatures, and even as symbols of chastity and purity. One particular medieval Christian iconography, the Hasenfenster (hare windows) even shows them as a representation of the Holy Trinity. Depicting three hares with their three ears joined together to form a triangle between them.
However, the case of killer rabbit memes tells a different tale. Consider, for instance, the Killer Rabbit comic strip “Smithfield Decretals,” an illuminated manuscript from 1340s London (now housed at the British Library). This series of marginal illustrations spans several pages. Within its folios, gargantuan rabbits exact revenge on a human hunter, shooting him in the back with arrows before binding him and bringing him in for trial. True to the medieval slapstick ethos, they swiftly declare him guilty and drag the unfortunate hunter off to his untimely demise.
And The Killer Rabbits of the “Smithfield Decretals” didn’t stop there. After executing the hunter, they set off to capture his dog with arrows and rope. Ensuring that he met a similar gruesome fate — beheaded before, a most likely, corrupt rabbit court.
Even the most famous of illuminated manuscripts, the “Book of Hours,” a book containing hourly Christian prayers, wasn’t free of the killer rabbit memes. One “Book of Hours” published in 1320s England showed rabbits holding up a full quiver of arrows and blowing on a hunting horn, before returning on another page later, triumphant after the hunt with a hound strung up at the end of his bow.
The “Breviary of Renaud de Bar,” a gothic manuscript (1302-1303) written by the Pontifical of Renaud de Bar, who’s known for some pretty funky illuminations— such as combatants carrying off their own beheaded heads, also contains killer rabbits. Within its pages, the killer rabbits took up arms, by carrying lances, swords, and shields into battle. One rabbit even rode on the back of what appears to be a man-snail, facing off against a hound that’s riding on the back of another very confused rabbit. According to the British Library, where the manuscript is stored, the hare being ridden by a hound “looks like he’s just noticed with some puzzlement that he’s fighting on the wrong side.”
These Killer Rabbits wielded axes, taking on knights and just about anyone who dares to cross their path. One particular rabbit is even seen baking his own pie. He might seem to be the most inconspicuous of them all, but given the nature of his friends’ misadventures, you could easily imagine the pies being made from human meat.
The medieval meme of the Killer Rabbits has found its way into pop culture, having a critical role in the Monty Python movie: Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the Rabbit of Caerbannog. In the movie, the fluffy white rabbit appears harmless at first but is actually a vicious protector of its namesake cave, capable of leaping at least eight feet up in the air and taking a bite out of a person’s neck.
The fictional Rabbit of Caerbannog killed three of King Arthur’s knights before it was finally killed off from a distance by the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, a visual satire of the Sovereign’s Orb of the United Kingdom. Impressive for a ball of white fluff that was portrayed by both a real rabbit and a puppet.
The filmmakers have stated that they drew their inspiration from the facade of the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, where a depiction of cowardice shows a knight fleeing from a rabbit… and now we know that it was definitely no ordinary rabbit!