Nicola here. Today I’m blogging about rabbits and their relationships with humans. Perhaps it’s the second UK lockdown and the approach of winter that’s making me think about things that are warm and cuddly, or the fact that I was chatting on Facebook with some friends and one of them sent me a picture of her adorable house rabbits. So rabbits and their history it is.
First of all, where did the rabbit come from? Well, the European wild rabbit evolved about 4000
years ago in Spain. Two thousand years later, the Romans were the first to farm them, keeping them in wooden enclosures. The spread of the Roman Empire and the ability of the rabbit to tunnel under a wooden fence was largely responsible for spreading the wild European rabbit across the globe. Oddly, though, the rabbit appears to have died out in England after the Romans left; there is no Old English word for rabbit as far as we know, and the species was not re-introduced to the UK until the 12th century.
Meanwhile in France in the 5th century, monks were busy inventing the rabbit cage or hutch and the habit of keeping rabbits for food and fur became widespread, reaching England once again/ There are a lot of place names in England with the word “warren” after them that take their name from the medieval practise of keeping a rabbit warren on a manorial estate. We know, for example, that there was a warren at Ashdown House in the middle ages and the bumps in the ground that indicate the system of burrows are still visible today – and still inhabited by the descendants of those original rabbits!
Medieval warrens were big business as one rabbit was worth more than a workman’s daily wage in the 13th century. Often there would be a lodge near the warren where the warrener and his family lived. One rare surviving example is Thetford Warren in Norfolk, (pictured on the left) which these days is in the care of English Heritage. It’s an isolated spot and the lodge is a semi-fortified little building like a small castle. The warrener and his family lived on the top floor whilst the ground floor was used for all the paraphernalia of his work. His job was to protect the warren from animal predators and human poachers as well as to breed and raise the rabbits. The picture below and to the right shows a medieval warrener at work; the rabbits seem to be getting the better of him, as they are almost as big as dogs and are ignoring the nets set up to trap them!
By the 18th century, rabbits were once again running wild in the countryside and became a food item for the poor. During the two World Wars of the 20th century the government in the UK encouraged people to keep rabbits for food; my father-in-law completely refused to eat rabbit as an adult because he had eaten so much of it as an evacuee during the Second World War and these days it’s rarely eaten in this country for meat.
Which moves us on to nicer things – rabbits as pets. Sources suggest that the keeping of rabbits as pets began as early as the middle ages when ladies kept rabbits in much the same way they kept lapdogs.
Breeding programmes developed early on, which resulted in the many and various different breeds that you find today. Paintings from the 15th century show rabbits in a variety of different colours, even with white “Dutch” markings. The Flemish Giant was being bred in Ghent as early as the 16th century and 17th century writings refer to “silver” rabbits imported into England from India and China. The Lapin de Nicard was a forerunner of the dwarf breeds – it weighed only 3 and a half pounds like the tiny rabbit in the picture! In contrast, the giants are the size of a large dog. The English Lop rabbit, which became a famous breed, was first developed in the 18th century. There was a positive explosion of rabbit breeds up to the 19th century when the keeping of rabbits as pets and for show became very widespread. The rabbit fitted perfectly the ideal of a happy Victorian household – benign in temperament, fluffy and cute to look at.
According to Beeton’s Dictionary of Natural History, published in 1871, there were four different types of rabbit: “The warreners, parkers, hedgehogs and sweethearts. The first makes their burrows in open ground or warrens, the hedgehogs are found in thick hedgerows and wood covers (it’s not clear whether this was a rabbit or an actual hedgehog he was describing!) the parkers live on uplands and in gentlemen’s parks and pleasure grounds and the Sweethearts are the tame varieties.”
Rabbits pop up a lot in art and literature. The rabbit in art has a number of symbolic meanings, as a sign of both sensuality and of innocence. It appears with the Madonna in religious images but also on Playboy magazine. The white rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a representation of stress and fear in a hostile world – just reading about him dashing about makes me feel anxious! Bugs Bunny is a wise-guy type of rabbit, and Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny in Beatrix Potter’s stories are mischievous. There is another side to rabbits as well – I hadn’t realised until I saw the film Fisherman’s Friends recently that the rabbit is considered unlucky to fishermen!
The rabbits in Beatrix Potter and in Watership Down have magical powers – they can talk. These days they possess this sort of dual identity as both cosy and magical creatures.
I was going to post a picture of my favourite toy rabbit here but unfortunately the puppy got to it and now it needs re-stuffing. It was Peter Rabbit who was, in fact, the first soft toy to be patented!
There are other superstitions about rabbits as well – a rabbit or hare seen running down a street means that a fire is imminent; Carrying a rabbit’s foot is a cure for rheumatism; saying “White rabbits” on the first day of the month is good luck. And finally there is the wise Romanian proverb: “With money one can even buy rabbit-cheese.”
Do you have a favourite literary rabbit or a rabbit superstition? To finish, here's a picture of a boy with a Regency Rabbit, painted by Henry Raeburn in 1814.