By Danièle Cybulskie
Hard as it may be to imagine in today’s rabbit-happy world, medieval rabbits weren’t freely running around multiplying as a widespread nuisance (heavily armed or not) in what is now the United Kingdom, but were deliberately imported and farmed for their fur and meat.
According to Paul Murphy in his article “Medieval Rabbit Farming and Bannow Island” in Medieval Wexford: Essays in Memory of Billy Colfer, rabbits were brought to Britain by the Normans following their conquest, with rabbit farming becoming established in Ireland by the late twelfth century. Rabbit fur, being soft, durable, and warm, was a desirable material for lining clothing, and their meat was elite eating, as well.
Rabbit farming, then, was a lucrative business. Murphy writes, “a single rabbit in the thirteenth century was worth 3 1/2d. and another 1d. for its fur, far more than a craftsman’s daily wage, maybe five times the price of a chicken and was the equivalent in price of a suckling pig.”
Because rabbits provided both luxury food and clothing, it was a symbol of status not only to have rabbits on your table and on your back, but also to be able to afford to farm your own, given the space necessary to establish a warren. According to Murphy, lords who had the wealth and status to own deer parks might also have warrens on their property, with this privilege coming within the reach of lower nobles as time passed. But it was monastic houses which were particularly fond of farming rabbits. As Murphy points out, rabbit farming was likened to shepherding, a familiar biblical allusion, but rabbits were also closely associated with the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, rabbits are still closely associated with the resurrection in many Western cultures today, as the tradition of the Easter Bunny bears out.
A good rabbit farm required plenty of space to build a warren, many of which had tunnels built artificially by the warreners, Murphy writes. Some medieval warrens can still be spotted as noticeable mounds in places like Bannow Island, the focus of Murphy’s study. The warrens, themselves, were not small, either. The smallest Murphy cites is “less than 9m [29.5’] long”, while the largest is “no less than 234m [767.7’] in length”.
Rabbit farms often had lodges for the warrener to live in, so that he might stay close to his charges. Murphy notes that these lodges could also be used for people coming to hunt rabbits, and that some lodges were akin to small towers, speaking once again to the wealth and status associated with rabbit farming.
Beyond building the rabbits (and the warrener) a warm and comfortable home, it was also necessary to keep the rabbits protected from predators, as they were tempting morsels for the carnivorous creatures of the forest, many of which were more plentiful in medieval Europe than they are today (wolves and bears, for example, having been hunted until they vanished completely in some places). For this reason, warrens were often established on nearby islands, which afforded both protection, and the sandy soil that makes burrowing easy on bunnies (as well as the farmers who were digging artificial tunnels), according to Murphy. For warrens established on the mainland, people used the same techniques they used to protect themselves from enemies: walls, fences, and even moats. This perhaps brings to mind those manuscript images of rabbits defending castles, and the comparison isn’t all that far-fetched: the warren Murphy studied on Bannow Island was once thought to have been a motte for a small tower.
Since rabbit warrens are not the type of structure which leave behind much in the way of archaeological remains, Murphy has used an understated, but effective, method to find out where to start looking: place names. As medieval people were pretty literal in how they named both places and people (take the name “Warren”, for example), Murphy uses place names to give him clues as to where a rabbit farm might have been established. Names such as “Coneygarth” and “Coniger” point to warrens, as well as sites called “Clapper”, which Murphy explains “is derived from the French word clapier, which means a rabbit burrow or hutch.” Other names which indicate the presence of rabbit farming are both familiar and so obvious as to easily escape our notice, like Coney Island.
Far from being the rural pest that they are today in the United Kingdom, medieval rabbits were cherished creatures, valued for their meat, fur, and the status that went along with them. Given their lordly status as animals, and the castle-like defensive structures built to house and protect them, it’s no wonder they seem to think so highly of themselves in medieval marginalia, lording themselves over other creatures like dogs, snails, and even people.
For much more on medieval rabbit farming, check out Paul Murphy’s article “Medieval Rabbit Farming and Bannow Island” in Medieval Wexford: Essays in Memory of Billy Colfer.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: British Library MS Additional 42130 fol. 176v