Medieval Rabbits: A Violent History

Fierce, unrelenting, and shockingly violent—yes, we’re referring to none other than medieval rabbits.

While rabbits often grace the decorated borders or illuminations of medieval manuscripts with their innocent frolicking, there are occasions, for reasons yet undisclosed, when these charmingly fluffy creatures morph into ruthless killers.

The darkly comedic depictions of medieval killer rabbits continue to resonate with contemporary audiences, consistently gaining attention on social media and perpetuated by Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s infamous Beast of Caerbannog, described as “the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on!”



Within the realm of traditional medieval symbolism, rabbits typically embodied traits of goodness or innocence. They symbolized purity and vulnerability, often intertwined with depictions of Christ.

Occasionally, they were also associated with cowardice, owing to their inclination to flee at the earliest hint of danger.

Medieval Rabbits playing musical instruments
A golden rabbit blows a trumpet in a medieval manuscript from Toulouse. He is part of a scene illustrating the “Annonce fait aux bergers,” the annunciation of Christ’s birth made to the shepherds.

Additionally, rabbits were emblematic of fertility—a parallel can be drawn to how a rooster might signify a male anatomical part; during the medieval era, the Anglo-French and Spanish languages adapted their term for rabbit to connote a female anatomical part. Presumably, this metaphorical association arose from the prolific breeding habits of rabbits.

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However, within the free-spirited margins of manuscripts, where artistic creativity knew no bounds, rabbits frequently underwent a startling transformation into aggressive, even murderous beings (and trust us, the depictions could get quite vivid!).

Medieval Rabbits playing musical instruments
I wonder what tune he’s playing. Petrus Comestor, Historia scholastica (‘Ashridge Petrus Comestor’), England ca. 1283-1300

What prompted this shift? Unlike the diverse interpretations of snails, there appears to be a greater consensus regarding the symbolism of rabbits, yet we shall explore several theories (accompanied by ample illustrations).

Depiction of Medieval Rabbits

Undoubtedly, the prevailing explanation for the depiction of rabbits in these marginalia is rooted in a common medieval trope of role reversal employed for comedic effect. Across these whimsical doodles, both animals and humans are frequently portrayed in scenarios where the natural order seems inverted—hunters pursued by their prey and valiant knights fighting snails.

Snail Fight! Book of hours, Metz c. 1295 Metz, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 1588, fol. 139v

Given that rabbits were a significant source of sustenance and fur for medieval Europeans, the irony lies in witnessing these creatures reciprocate in kind within the illustrations.

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At times, this reversal of roles manifests in charming scenes, such as rabbits engaging in typically human activities—participating in a funeral procession or making music.

Medieval Rabbits Funeral
Gorleston Psalter, 14th century, f. 164r: detail of a marginal scene of rabbits conducting a funeral procession.
Medieval Rabbits procession
A procession of bunnies. Gorleston Psalter, England 14th century (BL, Add 49622, fol. 133r)

However, frequently, the tone takes a darker turn, as evidenced by the emergence of the murderous rabbits. No longer are rabbits the prey, but rather the predators, relentlessly pursuing revenge on humans. As previously mentioned, the outcome of these encounters often veers towards the gruesome.

Ruthless Medieval Rabbits

The portrayal of rabbits in the marginalia served primarily as a comedic device, facilitating a topsy-turvy world where the seemingly innocent creatures could take revenge by hunting humans, dogs, or other predators.

Medieval Rabbits Violent
Rabbits hang a hunter from a decorated letter ‘T’. The Arnstein Passional, Arnstein, Germany, c. 1170s

The Smithfield Decretals, a mid 14th century manuscript, details some scenes where rabbits enact their revenge on the humans who blocked up their warrens, skinned them and ate them.

Medieval Rabbits being violent
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a rabbit beheading a man, from the ‘Smithfield Decretals’, British Library, London, UK. Detail. (British Library/CC BY 4.0)

This theme of ‘mean rabbits’ operated on a basic level of an upside down world, akin to jesters mocking kings or women jesting at their husbands, reflecting a subversion of the perceived natural order and thus eliciting amusement.

Medieval Rabbits fighting dogs
Seige of bunny castle! Ms 107, Bréviaire de Renaud de Bar (1302-1304), fol.-89r-137v, Bibliothèque de Verdun
Rabbits beating a man with a stick and skinning him.

Their work often incorporated easily understandable jokes, comments, and sometimes patron-specific imagery, as marginal paintings seldom featured captions and needed to convey their message clearly.

An axe-wielding rabbit approaches a king. The Gorleston Psalter, East Anglia, England, 1310-24

Female Vegeance

Another interpretation suggests that rabbits in medieval imagery symbolized women, which may explain their portrayal causing harm to men.

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In medieval law, a man had the right to chastise a woman as he saw fit, provided he did not inflict serious injury or death, while any act of physical aggression from a woman towards a man was deemed “petty treason” and punishable by execution. Thus, these depictions of rabbits could be interpreted as a metaphorical expression of female vengeance.

A bunny threatens a dog with a stick. Ms 107, Bréviaire de Renaud de Bar (1302-1304), fol.-89r-129r, Bibliothèque de Verdun

Not everyone was impressed by these comic doodles. French Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux, who died in 1153, described those in the Decretals as “ridiculous monstrosities.”

Not content with tormenting humans and hounds, bunnies also went after woodpeckers. Pictured: Ms 107, Bréviaire de Renaud de Bar (1302-1304), fol.-89r-127v, Bibliothèque de Verdun

Rabbits are depicted in a more consistent manner compared to other marginalia, often appearing in scenes where they are attacking or hunting men or dogs. This widespread portrayal suggests a shared interpretation that these rabbit images represent a humorous role reversal, wherein rabbits seek revenge on those who hunt and consume them in reality.

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However, given the diversity of medieval images spanning different regions and centuries, there is unlikely to be a singular interpretation that applies to all instances. Therefore, we can formulate theories and appreciate the playful yet sinister depictions of these murderous, fuzzy creatures for now.

The Artists

Most of these marginalia were drawn by religious men, as they were the main bulk of the literature population. Books of that time were often religious or historical in nature, and the scribes typically lacked the autonomy to determine the content they were transcribing—they were primarily engaged in copying existing texts.

Rufillus a monk in Weissenau Abbey in Ravensburg, Germany, near the end of the 12th century. Fig 3.

The creation of the image above is attributed to Rufillus, a monk hailing from Weissenau Abbey in Ravensburg, Germany, towards the close of the 12th century. In this self-portrait, Rufillus is captured adding the final details to a large letter “R”. Notably, he boldly inscribes his name above his tools, ensuring his identity is unmistakable.

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Rufillus, the artisan, positions himself within a lavish backdrop: depicted above, he is surrounded by pots of pigment and an array of instruments. In doing so, he grants us a coveted glimpse into his monastic workshop.

Rufillus pictured again, this time in the letter D.

Interestingly, Rufillus reappears in another manuscript, this time portraying himself as the scribe responsible for the book’s creation. In an act of vanity, he once again inscribes his name above his likeness, leaving no doubt as to his role in the manuscript’s production.

Lavish Backdrops

ufillus, the artisan, positions himself within a lavish backdrop: depicted in Fig. 3, he is surrounded by pots of pigment and an array of instruments. In doing so, he grants us a coveted glimpse into his monastic workshop.

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Furthermore, akin to the nun Guda, Rufillus appears to have been engaged in both decoration and scribing, a significant detail gleaned from this self-portrait. Yet, what stands out most prominently in light of this discussion is the striking resemblance between the two portraits: in both instances, Rufillus presents himself with vibrant red hair, large eyes, and pronounced wrinkles on his cheeks.

This notable similarity strongly suggests that these depictions offer an accurate portrayal of the artisan’s appearance, a notion that sparks fascination.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 104, fol. 52v (dated 1427)

Every so often, we come across a simple pen drawing of a person engaged in copying. However, to our understanding, these depictions are never accompanied by a name or designation such as “scriptor,” leaving us uncertain as to whether the scribe intended to portray themselves or merely drew a generic representation of a scribe. The illustration above exemplifies this ambiguity: it could potentially be a self-portrait, or it might not be.

This repetitive task, coupled with potentially mundane subject matter, led to a desire for creative expression, resulting in the emergence of marginalia as a form of artistic freedom. These illustrations often bore no direct relevance to the textual content of the pages they adorned.

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Marginalia, including depictions of eccentric rabbits, provided an outlet for these religious scribes to explore societal ideas, offering critiques or ridicule in a safe manner by employing fantastical creatures or peculiar scenes.

What is Marginalia?

Medieval marginalia, the handwritten notes, doodles, and decorative elements found in the margins of manuscripts from the Middle Ages, are a rich and diverse treasure trove of historical, cultural, and artistic significance.

Cat in a pond, Book of Hours, Rouen 15th century (BnF, Nouvelle acquisition latine 3134, fol. 18v)

These marginalia offer a unique window into the intellectual and creative world of medieval scribes, readers, and artists, shedding light on their interests, beliefs, and everyday lives.

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One of the most prevalent forms of medieval marginalia is glosses or annotations, which provide explanations, translations, or commentary on the main text. These glosses were essential for aiding comprehension, particularly in manuscripts of religious or scholarly works written in Latin or other languages not commonly understood by the readership.

The Dublin Apocalypse, England c. 1310-1320 (Trinity College Dublin, MS 64, fol. 26v)

By providing clarifications or interpretations, glosses facilitated the study and dissemination of knowledge throughout the medieval period.

Drawings, Doodles and Illustrations

In addition to glosses, medieval marginalia often feature intricate drawings, doodles, and illustrations that range from simple decorative motifs to elaborate scenes depicting everything from biblical narratives to fantastical creatures and everyday life.

A cat churning butter. cat churning butter Rothschild Canticles, Flanders c. 1300 (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS 404, fol. 148r)

These illustrations not only served an aesthetic purpose but also provided visual cues and mnemonic devices to aid in understanding the text. Furthermore, they offer valuable insights into medieval artistic techniques, styles, and iconography, reflecting the broader cultural and artistic trends of the time.

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Symbols and markings are another common feature of medieval marginalia, serving various practical purposes within the manuscript. These symbols could indicate corrections, annotations, or references to other parts of the text, helping readers navigate through the manuscript and locate specific passages or information.

A wild unicorn. Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de natura rerum, France ca. 1290 (Valenciennes, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 320, fol. 71r)

Symbols and Markings

Additionally, symbols and markings were used for organizational purposes, highlighting key points or dividing the text into sections for easier reading and comprehension.

Beyond their practical functions, medieval marginalia often reveal the personal interests, beliefs, and cultural influences of their creators. For example, marginalia may include inscriptions, dedications, or ownership marks that provide valuable insights into the provenance and ownership history of the manuscript.

A marginal peacock. Alphonso Psalter, London ca. 1284 (BL, Add. 24686, fol. 16v)

Furthermore, the content and style of marginalia can vary widely depending on factors such as the region, religious affiliation, or social status of the manuscript’s owner or creator, offering clues about their identity and worldview.

One particularly intriguing aspect of medieval marginalia is the presence of humorous or whimsical elements, such as caricatures, satirical sketches, or playful doodles. These lighthearted additions reflect the creative and sometimes irreverent spirit of medieval scribes and readers, who used marginalia as a means of self-expression, social commentary, or simply as a form of entertainment.

Indeed, the margins of medieval manuscripts often served as a space for experimentation and innovation, where artistic and intellectual ideas could be explored freely.