Medieval Rabbits: Ancient Symbolism, English Migration, and Manuscript Marginalia

From its earliest recordings in African, Indian, and Egyptian cultures, the hare, which later became interchangeable with the rabbit, has been recognized as a symbol of generative powers.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, the hare symbolized fertility, as well as love and lust. The hare was the favored sacrifice to the gods of love, Aphrodite and Eros.[1] Consumption of the animal’s flesh was thought to enhance the beauty in the eater for several days. The animal’s body was also incorporated into medicines meant to cure conditions connected with sex.

Roman mosaic depicting a hare, dated to the 4th century and discovered in Cirencester, England. The mosaic was excavated in 1971 and is housed at the Corinium Museum. Photo credit: Isobel Wilkes, “Hares in Roman Art”.

Hares and rabbits were known as prolific breeders, but the classical world often exaggerated the creature’s capacity for reproduction. Aristotle, for example, believed the rabbit was capable of superfetation – that is, he thought a pregnant rabbit could become pregnant again, thereby gestating multiple litters at once. These ideas persisted into the Middle Ages, passed down by Aristotle and other philosophers such as Herodotus, as well as Pliny the Elder.

In his Naturalis historia, written during the first century, Pliny the Elder characterizes hares and rabbits as the only animals that superfetate, “rearing one leveret while at the same time carrying in the womb another clothed with hair and another bald and another still an embryo.” He also discusses how wild rabbits laid waste to Spain. Describing their fertility as “beyond counting,” he says that “they bring famine to the Balearic Islands by ravaging the crops.”[2]

England, however, did not share Spain’s poor experience with rabbits. Although hares are indigenous to the British Isles, rabbits are not. They were introduced to England by the Normans in the 13th century and were raised for their meat and fur.[3] They were also kept as pets and were a particular favorite of nuns.[4]

Woman flushes a rabbit from its warren using a ferret or a small dog in the Taymouth Hours, England, c. 1260, British Library, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 70v.

Rabbits did not initially thrive in the British climate, and they required careful tending by their owners, who constructed warrens for them. As Mark Bailey explains, “In modern usage the rabbit-warren refers to a piece of waste ground on which wild rabbits burrow, but in the Middle Ages it specifically meant an area of land preserved for the domestic or commercial rearing of game.”[5] These artificial burrows called “pillow-mounds” protected domestic rabbits from the elements and provided a dry, earthen enclosure that supported both survival and breeding.  

Rabbit warren depicted in the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1320-40, Lincolnshire, England, British Library, Add MS 42130, f. 176v.

Despite their modern reputation as pests, rabbit populations were primarily confined to privately owned warrens in medieval England. They were not considered vermin but, rather, valuable commodities, and they were protected by law. Poachers were a problem, as were the rabbit’s natural predators, which included the fox, stoat, weasel, polecat, and wildcat.

Hunter approaches a rabbit warren with his dog in the Rutland Psalter, c. 1260, England, British Library, Add MS 62925, f. 57v.

Yet in medieval English literature, rabbits retain their symbolic association with reproduction, as exemplified by Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, a Middle English poem dated to the mid-14th century. Set in a garden during springtime, the poem centers a congregation of birds that meets to select their mates and explores themes related to love and marriage, as well as breeding.

Rabbits, or “conyes,” are depicted at play amidst the gathering of birds:  

On every bough the briddes herde I singe,
With voys of aungel in hir armonye,
Som besyed hem hir briddes forth to bringe;
The litel conyes to hir pley gonne hye. (Chaucer 190-93)[6]

I heard the birds on every branch singing
Like the voice of an angel in their harmony,
Some had their young beside them;
The little rabbits were busy at their play. (my translation)

Now virtually obsolete, the term coney was used in medieval England to differentiate an adult rabbit from a younger one. Deriving from the pun made possible by the Latin word for rabbit, cuniculus, and the Latin word for the female genitalia, cunnus, the term was also used as sexual slang in the medieval period and well beyond.[7] Essentially, coney, or cunny, was a crass term that referred to the vulva or vagina, to a woman or women, or to sexual intercourse.[8]

Bestiary rabbit catalogued under the Latin name cuniculus in the Liber de natura rerum, c. 13th century, France, Bibliothèque Municipale de Valenciennes, MS 320, f. 58r.

Despite its long-standing sexual symbolism, the rabbit was simultaneously imparted with sacred symbolism in the Middle Ages. In England, the rabbit became a symbol of purity when portrayed alongside the Virgin Mary. The animal also functioned as a symbol of salvation. As David Stocker and Margarita Stocker explain, “their sacred meaning is not as divorced from their profane meaning (libidinousness) as may at first appear. One the one hand, their symbolism of lust and fertility refers to the carnal body; on the other, their symbolism of salvation and resurrection refers to the ‘body of this death’ from which the soul is saved.”[9]

Indeed, the theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine, writing between 397 and 400 CE, connects the rabbit with Christianity, further attesting to how the animal’s sexual and spiritual symbolism culturally coexisted. Discussing the rabbit in relation to salvation, Saint Augustine renders the creature a symbol of cowardice. He describes the rabbit as “a small and weak animal” that is “cowardly” and then draws a parallel between the rabbit and the fearful man: “In that which he fears, man is a rabbit.”[10] Later in the Middle Ages, the rabbit “denoted a soldier who burrowed underground or someone who fled from his pursuers.”[11]

Perhaps the rabbit’s connection with cowardice, then, provides some insight into the images depicting bunnies as antagonistic and often murderous beasts in the margins of medieval manuscripts. Immortalized on screen by Monty Python’s Rabbit of Caerbannog and more recently popularized on social media, the rabbit adopts many forms and runs rampant across the pages of manuscripts from England and Europe.

Rabbit strikes a knight with a lance in the Breviary of Renaud, c. 1302-05, France, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 107, f. 141v.

Rabbits spar with knights, wield axes at kings, and lay siege to castles. They ride snails with human faces and carry hounds on their shoulders into battle. They beat, they behead, they hang, they flay. Ranging from delightfully strange to strangely sadistic, the images of rabbits enacting violence reveal a world turned topsy-turvy through their reversal of expectations.

Rabbit beheads a man with a sword—the final image in a series of five that features rabbits hunting, capturing, and killing a man—in the Smithfield Decretals, c. 1340s, London, England, British Library, MS 10 E IV, f. 61v.

But medieval bunnies are not all bad. In bestiaries, they pose timidly in their portraits or express fear as they flee from hunting dogs. They frequently adorn decorative borders sans weapons and sometimes appear surprisingly realistic, as in the stunning illumination from the Cocharelli Codex below.

Pair of hares in the Cocharelli Codex, c. 1330-40, Genoa, Italy, British Library, Add MS 28841, f. 6v.

Although the killer coney and the cowardly knight have become a familiar motif, it is not a reflection of the rabbit population ransacking the English countryside, as some might be inclined to suspect. After all, wild rabbits did not become abundant until centuries later. But whether turning the world upside down or nestled benignly within a manuscript border, rabbits in medieval marginalia undoubtedly showcase their multifacetednous as a cultural symbol.

Emily McLemore
Ph.D. in English

[1] Claude K. Abraham, “Myth and Symbol: The Rabbit in Medieval France,” Studies in Philology, vol. 60, no. 4 (1963), pp. 589-597, at 589.

[2] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Loeb Classical Library, at 153.

[3] Mark Bailey, “The Rabbit and the Medieval East Anglian Economy,” The Agricultural History Review, vol. 36, no. 1 (1988), pp. 1-20, at 1.

[4] Kathleen Walker-Meikle, Medieval Pets, Boydell Press (2012), pp. 14.

[5] Bailey, 2.

[6] Geoffrey Chaucer, Parliament of Fowls,

[7] Beryl Rowland, Animals with Human Faces: A Guide to Animal Symbolism, University of Tennessee Press (1973), pp. 135.

[8] cunny, n. Oxford English Dictionary.

[9] David Stocker and Margarita Stocker, “Sacred Profanity: The Theology of Rabbit Breeding and the Symbolic Landscape of the Warren,” World Archaeology, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 265-72, at 270.

[10] Stocker and Stocker, 271.

[11] Rowland, 135.

Learning about Learned Medieval Women with Dr. Megan J. Hall

This week, we’re looking back at an earlier episode of “Meeting in the Middle Ages.” In late 2022, we chatted with Dr. Megan J. Hall, Assistant Director of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame. We spoke with her about women’s literacy and learning in medieval England, the trials and tribulations of writing an academic article, and why impromptu bell-ringing can reveal the true value of scholarship.

Studying history can show us the bigger picture. It can help to explain why nation states behave as they do, why complex geopolitical situations emerge, and how entire landscapes have been shaped over time. But it also allows us to connect with the past on a local level. It can show us where we come from. Speaking with Dr. Hall, we were reminded several times that through historical research, people can identify with those who came before. Moments of identity like that can drastically reshape our relationship with the past. Dr. Hall’s meeting with a group of bellringers in rural England is a perfect example. During this surprise encounter, she was able to share her own work with the group and participate in a tradition of bell ringing which has centuries of history. Her work prompted one of the group to ask ‘so, could women read in the Middle Ages?’ Dr. Hall was able to correct a common misconception of women and the possibilities open to them in medieval England. Yes, some women could read! Some books were written specifically for women! This revelation changed the questioner’s view of medieval women, and was a triumphant ‘I knew we could!’ she experienced a moment of solidarity with them.

Dr. Hall’s story, as has been the case for so many of the conversations we’ve had on Meeting on the Middle Ages, is also a reminder of the privilege that medievalists have. We are able to visit museums, archives, libraries, and go beyond the public spaces. We can consult ancient materials. We don’t have to rely on facsimiles (well, sometimes we do). We can work with the original, turning it over in our hands and connecting with its creator. In doing so, we become another link in a chain that has been forged over centuries. With the Ancrenne Wisse it begins with the object’s creator, perhaps the scribe or composer of a manuscript. It binds together dozens of men and women who received the text and used it in their lives. Dr. Hall is part of that chain. And in telling her story, we all become a part of it too.

Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.

Will Beattie & Ben Pykare
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

The Anti-Latin Polemic of Metropolitan Ephraim of Kiev

While I think it is true, as I have argued before, that the Greek church never considered the events of 1054 as marking any kind of definitive break with the Latin West, this does not mean that the theological writers at the time ignored the sudden and dramatic juxtaposition of Eastern and Western liturgical, ritual, and cultural practices. Indeed, almost the reverse is true: the decades following 1054 witnessed a flourishing of a genre that has been termed the “Byzantine lists,” essentially short treatises outlining a series of objectionable practices that were common (or were believed by the authors to be common) among Latin Christians. Typically inspired by the letter of Michael Cerularius to Peter of Antioch, which added several complaints about the Latins to a list of issues that were under more active discussion between the two sides in 1054, these lists commonly discussed issues that pertained to liturgical or ritual practice. Greek Christians regularly complained that their Latin confrères did not celebrate baptism correctly, did not fast from the correct foods or with sufficient rigor, and did not sing the word “alleluia” during church services at the correct times of the year, among other problems.

St. Peter of Antioch, detail of the mosaic in the Basilica of San VitaleRavenna, 6th century.

The primary study of the genre as a whole remains Tia Kolbaba’s monograph The Byzantine Lists: Errors of the Latins, published in 2000 [1]. Kolbaba maintains that the composition of these lists was fundamentally a project of Byzantine cultural consciousness, a way of emphasizing (or constructing) the unity, antiquity, and correctness of Eastern Roman practice by way of comparison to the “other,” in this case, the Latins. These lists were intended as emotional appeals to a broad Greek audience, and were somewhat low-brow in both style and content: theologically difficult issues like the filioque are presented side-by-side with complaints that Latin bishops wear silk rather than woolen robes, with no effort to rank the comparative importance of the various complaints.

Given Kolbaba’s argument that these lists of complaints are fundamentally inward looking, focused more on the Eastern Romans than the Western ones, it is especially interesting that one of the earliest examples of the genre was not written within the oikoumene at all, but rather under the political authority of the Kievan Rus’. Ephraim, the metropolitan of Kiev from around 1055 to the early 1060s, was an ethnic Greek recently transplanted in the eastern Slavic territory when he authored a list of twenty-eight distinct complaints against the Latin Christians [2]. Most of these complaints concern topics that are familiar to students of the East-West conflict: the filioque, the use of azymes (unleavened bread) in the celebration of the Eucharist, the practice of fasting on the Sabbath (Saturdays). Indeed, the complaints in Ephraim’s treatise echo the issues raised in the 1054 conflict so completely that he either had received a thorough report of the events or was still personally resident in Constantinople during the time of the Humbertine legation.

Miniatures from the Kiev Psalter, 1397CE.

Ephraim, however, was also cognizant of his new cultural context, and Igor Čičurov, who first printed an edition of the text, points out instances where Ephraim used words or referenced topics that would have been far more familiar to a Slavic audience. For example, Ephraim attributes the sacramental use of azymes to the Vandals, noting that this group of people are now called the “Nemitzioi” (“τῶν νῦν Νεμιτζίων καλοθμένων”) a native Slavic term for Germans (i.e., non-Slavs): “немитции” or “немцы” [3]. Furthermore, Ephraim deviated from his literary model, Michael Cerularius, in accusing the Latins of not giving baptizands the names of saints, but instead the names of various animals (lions, bears, leopards, etc.) [4]. This complaint, Čičurov notes, is not made in any list of complaints against the Latins composed within the Eastern Roman Empire itself. Instead, it is only from the Slavic context, where the practice of retaining a non-Christian name after baptism was common, that this issue was raised [5].

This complaint brings us back to Kolbaba’s thesis, that the so-called Byzantine lists had more to do with policing cultural practice and ritual purity within the Eastern Christian world than in correcting behavior in the West. Constantinopolitan authors of similar works, although they surely would have objected to this naming practice, apparently did not see the need to mention it among their complaints. In Ephraim’s case, however, we see an ethnic Greek confronted with the very foreign (to him) practice of retaining a non-Christian name. His attack on the Latin practice would equally have served as a critique of the princely families of the Rus’ by whom he was surrounded. We are left, in the end, with a strengthening of Kolbaba’s central argument: “[…] the intended audience was not Latin. There are anti-Latin works which were intended to convince Latins, but the lists are not among them” [6] Instead, we should see Ephraim’s work, at least in part, the effort of a Greek clergyman to enforce the norms of Constantinopolitan orthodox theology and practice in the Eastern Christian hinterland.

Nick Kamas
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Tia M. Kolbaba, The Byzantine Lists: Errors of the Latins (Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2000). See especially chapter 1, pp. 9-19, for the argument on the purpose and context of the lists.

[2] For some biographical details on Ephraim of Kiev, see Gerhard Podskalsky, Christentum und Theologische Literatur in der Kiever Rus’ (988-1237) (München: C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1982), 285-286. Further details, including a helpful bibliography, are in А. В. Назаренко, “Кое-что о Двух Русских Митрополитах XI в. Ефреме Киевском и Ефреме Переяславском” Древняя Русь: Вопросы Медиевистики 75.1 (2019): 87-90.

[3] “Антилатинский Трактат Киевского Митрополита Ефрема (ок. 1054/55-1061/62 гг.) в Составе Греческого Канонического Сборника Vat. Gr. 828,” Вестник ПСТГУ 19.3 (2007): 127. This publication in Russian is a revision of an earlier German article: I. Čičurov, “Ein antilateinischer Traktat des Kiever Metropoliten Ephraim,” Fontes Minores X (Frankfurt am Main, 1998): 319–356. The edition of the Greek text appears only in the German version.

[4] Traktat 18, in Čičurov, “Ein antilateinischer Traktat,” 344.

[5] Чичуров, “Антилатинский Трактат,” 126.

[6] Kolbaba, Byzantine Lists, 28.