Here at Quirk Books we are of the opinion that medieval manuscripts are among the most amazing works of book art there are. We especially like the manuscripts where weird things happen in the margins. And especially when sweet, innocent animals, such as rabbits, turn into lean, mean killing machines. Who knew that Thumper could be so vicious?
Images in the margins of medieval manuscripts began appearing in north-western Europe in the thirteenth century. Many of the world’s most brilliant minds have tried to figure out why these images appeared, what was the purpose of them, and most important of all: what do they mean?
Some themes of marginalia are commonly occurring. One of these themes is rabbits. Most often these rabbits do perfectly normal, rabbity things, such as jumping around in tall grass with other bunnies or being hunted by humans and dogs.
But rabbits also appear in images where the roles are reversed.
Here it is the rabbit riding the dog as if it were a horse.
Here rabbits take on the role of the humans and go to war wielding swords, lances, and battle-axes.
The medieval symbolism of the rabbit is grounded in the Bible. Rabbits were seen as the animal representing the God-fearing man who put his trust in God and not in other people. Rabbits were also seen as innocent and vulnerable and are often found in images of Christ.
When rabbits are depicted participating in human activities these images are called "drolleries" or "grotesque." The most typical form of drollery is the mixed-species beast, such as a fish with a cow's head or a dog with a dragon tail.
The drollery containing images of rabbits is called "The World Upside Down," which was a common theme in medieval culture. When the rabbit perform acts of violence against a human being or dominate the hunting dog this is to be seen as a symbol for cowardice on behalf of the victim of the rabbit's actions.
The medieval theme of “The World Upside Down” lives on today, for example in the Carnival on Mardi Gras, most famously celebrated in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. It also lives on in your perfectly normal fancy-dress party. Although I’m not sure I would be so happy if I went to a party and saw a bunch of people dressed up as rabbits.
Oh, hi there! Is that a battle-ax in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?