Killer Rabbits: The Dark Side of Medieval Manuscripts

In the early medieval period, fluffy white rabbits, bunnies, and hares symbolized innocence, venerability, and purity. Over time, their representation evolved to include fertility. However, a fascinating twist occurred as these creatures took on a darker role as horrifically murderous Killer Rabbits in medieval manuscripts.

Journey into the Magical Inverse World

In the 14th century, Folio 23r of Manuscript 121, housed in the Sorbonne Library, Paris, France. ( Source )

Fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail may recall the infamous killer bunny that attacked King Arthur and his knights. Surprisingly, this farcical scene finds its roots in real-world medieval manuscripts. Monks in 11th-century monasteries crafted hand-written animal skin books, with some featuring mythological creatures called ‘drolleries’ in their margins. These illuminated texts, prevalent from 1250 AD to the 15th century, portrayed rabbits as sadistic, cruel, and unpredictably violent beings.

Art historian Margaret Rickert, in her 1954 book ‘Painting in Britain: The Middle Ages,’ notes that medieval scribes depicted surreal scenes, including rabbits with armor committing gruesome acts. Dr. Jorn Gunther suggests that the concept of an inverse world, dating back to antiquity, served as a ritualistic battle against perceived evils.

A 2022 article in ‘Art Magazine Daily’ proposes that in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the culture of laughter aimed to make the world more bearable, emphasizing the ambivalence of reality.

Rabbit Courts and Beheaded Human Hunters

A murderous Killer Rabbits depicted in the medieval manuscript Breviary of Renaud de Bar (1302-1304), Folio 89r-89r. ( Source )

During the Harley Cataloguing Project, researchers found an early killer bunny in the ‘Arnstein Passional,’ created around the 1170s in Germany. This decorated letter ‘T’ serves as a gallows, with two rabbits hanging a human hunter. In this topsy-turvy world, rabbits administer justice to human hunters, punishing them for harming rabbits.

The ‘Smithfield Decretals’ from the 1340s, currently housed in the British Library, depict giant overweight rabbits engaging in hyper-violence against a human hunter and his hound. The rabbits play the roles of archers, judges, and executioners, beheading the guilty with joyous fervor.

The Impossible World of Medieval Upside Down

The killer rabbit motif in medieval manuscripts holds multiple interpretations, all converging on a reversal of morals in the upside-down world. The term ‘upside down’ in the sixteenth century referred to abnormal or unnatural occurrences, creating a world returned to primaeval chaos.

Vincent Robert-Nicoud’s 2018 book, ‘Introduction The Sixteenth-Century World Upside Down,’ explores this rhetorical device. Hundreds of texts, poems, paintings, and adages describe a place where natural impossibilities are everyday occurrences.

Conclusion

The killer rabbit motif, once considered a medieval joke, reveals a complex reflection of the upside-down world’s morality. The inverted nature of this world challenges conventional norms, providing a unique lens into the medieval mindset.

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