Over the centuries we East Anglians have had quite a bit of fun with rabbits. When did they arrive in England? I always thought that were introduced by the Normans, but a recent archaeological dig– in Norfolk of course- suggests that rabbits were being eaten as early as 50 BC. Certainly the rabbit was big business in the middle ages. Even more important than the meat, which in days before refrigeration could not travel very far, was the fur.
Warrens covered large tracts of land. Thetford Warren had a substantial flint built Lodge, the ruins of which still survive. Warrens continued in Breckland until the First World War, when the growing of timber superseded the production of fur as the crop of choice for that sandy soil. My great grandfather was a warrener from Lakenheath before moving to Trowse to be Mr Colman’s warrener. His father was also a warrener, and with generations of warreners behind me I think rabbits must be in my blood.
There is plenty to say about the economic benefits of the rabbit, but my main interest is in the anthropomorphic use of the rabbit in literature and art. We are all familiar with Bugs Bunny. He goes back just over 70 years. He is the most popular anthropomorphic character in film with far more appearances than Mickey Mouse.
Considerably older, and unlike the American Bugs Bunny a less brash and more complex character is Peter Rabbit. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was first published in 1902, and Peter has now sold over 150 million copies worldwide. Slightly less famous but still immensely popular is Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit. The rabbits of Watership Down are unaccountably popular, but they do have a memorable song in Bright Eyes, written by Mike Batt and sung by Art Garfunkel.
Going back into the nineteenth century we have the very competent White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That book was published in 1865. This was before Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus Stories (B’rer Rabbit) were published in 1881, although the Tar Baby was been printed in a collection of Cherokee stories in 1845. The tradition of anthropomorphic animal stories is rather sparse before that date, although there is portrayal of rabbits where they are described in anthropomorphic terms as early as the seventeenth century. Here the gathering of rabbits is described as a republic, with them all cooperating in their appointed tasks.
The literary side of rabbits rather dries up about three hundred years ago, but in art we can trace the anthropomorphic rabbit hundreds of years back before that. We are back in East Anglia and in a number of manuscripts rabbits are seen engaged in human activities. They are seen blowing a hunting horn, wearing a sword or conducting the funeral of a deceased fellow rabbit. The Macclesfield Psalter has become the best known. Despite the name it has no connection with the town of Macclesfield. It spent many years at the Earl of Macclesfield’s home in Oxfordshire, which is how it got its name, but its original home was Gorleston. Other manuscipts originated from the same source like the Lutterel Psalter, and all include anthromorphic rabbits.
It is eight centuries ago, but the monks who drew the pictures in their psalters would understand Peter Rabbit perfectly!