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The killer rabbits of the Middle Ages

Why are there evil rabbits in medieval manuscripts?

In the world of medieval manuscripts, among the pages of sacred texts and literary works, a curious and unexpected marginal actor is hidden: the killer rabbit . These harmless animals, innocent at first sight, transform into ruthless hunters, warriors and executioners, wielding spears, axes and swords with the dexterity of true knights. But what drives miniaturists to depict such violent rabbits? And what other particular symbols and representations populate the margins of these ancient manuscripts?

Depictions of killer rabbits in medieval manuscripts are an example of Drôlerie , or grotesque figures drawn by miniaturists in marginal notes. These rabbits, apparently defenseless, transform into real killers by carrying out acts of Revenge and Violence . In the manuscripts, vengeful rabbits beat farmers to death, kidnap women and children to drag them into the forest and commit brutal and bloody acts, a sort of retaliation for the wrongs suffered by real rabbits at the hands of humans in medieval daily life.

But the image of the rabbits' revenge often also serves to show the cowardice or stupidity of the people illustrated, tied up, tortured and imprisoned by such a weak animal in real life. Even today the English nickname “Stickhare” (literally “impaling hare”) is aimed at cowards.

Other Symbols and Representations

In addition to murderous rabbits, medieval manuscripts are full of other particular symbols and figures:

  1. Marginalia : The margins of manuscripts are often populated by fantastic creatures, monsters, anthropomorphic animals and scenes of everyday life. These illustrations add a touch of mystery and humor to the written pages. Marginalia were often created by the authors themselves or by subsequent owners of the books. Some miniaturists inserted them to explain difficult to understand points within the text, while others used them to embellish the pages. These notes can range from random drawings and scribbles to detailed illustrations, most notably the drôlerie . The killer rabbits we talked about earlier are an example of these unusual creatures. But they are not the only ones: we also find monsters, fantastic animals and scenes of everyday life.

  2. Medieval Bestiaries : Bestiaries are texts that describe mythical and real creatures. In the manuscripts, we find representations of unicorns, griffins, dragons and other fantastic creatures. They are richly illustrated literary works in which animals are cataloged and described in their specific characteristics. These animals can be both real (like deer, lions and bears) and fantastic (like dragons and mermaids). However, the authors of these works were not interested in a rigorous description from a zoological point of view. Rather, they focused on the character and moral peculiarities of animals. The bestiaries did not follow modern scientific thought, but were inspired by ancient literary models, such as Pliny the Elder's Naturalis historia or the Physiologus , a 1st century encyclopedic work that described stones, plants and animals in an allegorical and symbolic key. We will delve deeper into this fascinating topic in one of the next articles!

  3. Religious Symbols : Religious images, such as saints, angels, and demons, are often present in manuscripts. These illustrations serve to emphasize spiritual and moral themes by conveying profound meanings and connecting the earthly world with the divine.

  4. Allegories : Allegories represent abstract concepts through concrete images. For example, the personification of Death or Virtue.

Curiosities and Anecdotes:

  • Monty Python's Rabbit : in the famous film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", a killer rabbit defends Caerbannog Cave. Despite its harmless appearance, the rabbit proves lethal, decapitating knights with a single bite. This homage to medieval folklore is an example of how the theme of killer rabbits is still present in popular culture.

  • The Legend of the Caerbannog Rabbit : According to legend, the Caerbannog Rabbit was a monster feared by the knights of the Round Table. Its fur was so soft that anyone who touched it died instantly. Only with the help of the Holy Grail and the Grenade of Antioch did the knights manage to defeat him.

Killer rabbits in medieval manuscripts remind us that art and creativity know no limits. Every page of these ancient texts hides bizarre stories and paradoxical worldviews. So, the next time you leaf through a medieval manuscript, keep your eyes open for secrets hidden between the lines and in the margins.

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