Killer rabbits were not an idea introduced by Monty Python. Rather, they were such a common medieval trope that even minstrels of the time worked it into their performances.
By Walter S. Bracket III
If you're reading this article, you're probably familiar with the 1975 comedy film classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In fact, I’d bet you have some of the dialogue memorized, perhaps from the scene involving the terrifying Knights Who Say Ni or from Arthur’s confrontation with the Black Knight. Or perhaps it's dialogue from the scene during the knight's confrontation with the deadly Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog.
A murderous rabbit seems so ridiculous, it could only have come from the feverish imaginations of the Monty Python comedians, right?
Actually, it turns out that “killer rabbits” were a common trope during the medieval era, carved into the stone walls of cathedrals and worked into the decorated initials and marginalia of medieval illuminated manuscripts.
The 14th-century Smithfield Decretals (below) contains a series of marginal illustrations that act like a comic book and tell the story of rabbits who seek revenge on hunters by shooting a hunter with an arrow, taking him to a rabbit judge who sentences him to death, and then dragging him off to be beheaded by a rabbit “headsman” (headsrabbit?).
Now more evidence of the killer rabbit trope has been discovered by Cambridge University academic Dr. James Wade in a 15th-century manuscript written by scribe Richard Heege.
Heege was a household cleric and tutor to a wealthy family in Derbyshire, and it is believed that the manuscript is his record of a performance by a traveling minstrel. Since the stories told during such performances were part of an oral tradition, there is little written evidence of these performances.
Wade believes this manuscript may have been a transcript written at the time of the performance or soon after, based on a note scrawled at the bottom of one page which reads:
“By me, Richard Heege, because I was at that feast and did not have a drink.”
The note implies that Heege attended a feast at which a minstrel performed and was sober enough to take good notes, or at least remember the performance well enough to transcribe it afterwards. Another possibility is that the manuscript was based on the minstrel’s own written notes to which Heege had access.
A Case for Minstrelsy
Wade notes that his case for minstrelsy as a source for the texts is circumstantial, but he believes it to be strong given the lack of classical references in the texts, the lack of evidence of duplication from existing written sources, their originality, their use of local settings, and their references to cup passing, which indicates they were written for live performance.
Wade focused on three texts from the Heege manuscript. The first is a poem called “The Battle of Brackonwet,” an alliterative nonsense verse that contains fragments of popular drinking songs and references to Robin Hood.
The second is a mock prose sermon that pokes fun at the aristocracy.
And then there is the “Hunting of the Hare,” a satirical story about a group of peasants who go off to hunt a hare with their dogs and end up being the hunted instead, with a killer rabbit hard at their heels. As it starts:
Jack Wade was never so sad As when the hare trod on his head / In case she would have ripped out his throat
The rabbit’s bout of violence concludes with the villagers’ wives carting off the dead in wheelbarrows.
“It’s a crude, bawdy, slapstick comedy with jokes about incontinence and plenty of pointless violence,” according to Wade. (Sounds just like a Monty Python sketch, doesn’t it?)
Medieval minstrel performances—like performances by today’s improvisational sketch comedians—were designed to be performed in front of a live audience so were never meant to be preserved. For that reason, it is unlikely we will ever discover a manuscript we can definitively say was written by a medieval minstrel. However, Wade’s discovery allows us a glimpse, if only second hand, of what their performances may have been like.
More importantly, we get a glimpse of what medieval life was actually like: not the depressing and dispiriting Dark Ages of myth but a life that was full of fun, humor, and silliness… and killer hares.
As Wade eloquently puts it, “What we find in these texts is a vestige of medieval life lived vibrantly: the good times being as good as they ever have been and probably ever will.”
To watch a video on the topic, click here.