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Medieval Animal Musicians: Rabbits

Hidden in the decoration of medieval books are many different kinds of illustrations – some of them show people doing everyday things, others show animals doing everyday human things. And then, in some special ones, we see animals playing musical instruments. We’ve found instrument-playing cats, bears, dogs, rabbits, monkeys, cows, boars, donkeys, and all kinds of fantastic animal combinations.

We started with cats as musicians. Let’s continue with the most silent of domestic animals, the rabbit. In many medieval illustrations, rabbits are shown doing the most ferocious things: riding snails into battle with spear and sword, jousting with knights (and winning!), and threatening a sorry-looking king with an axe.

A rabbit battling a dog (Breviary of Renaud de Bar, ca. 1302-1303, (British Library, London,) f. 294r.

A rabbit battling a dog (Breviary of Renaud de Bar, ca. 1302-1303, (British Library, London,) f. 294r.

In the images in the marginalia, these drolleries, or visual jokes, often show the world reversed – killer rabbits or rabbits as horses, the hunters becoming the hunted, etc, when rabbits play musical instruments, though, the silent animal now has a voice or, at least, a sound.

Rabbits playing trumpets seemed to be the opposite combination of animal and instrument – little rabbits and large horns, but that’s how they were pictured.

Rabbit playing the trumpet (MorganLibrary, MS M 1004)

Rabbit playing the trumpet (MorganLibrary, MS M 1004)


Rabbit and a horn (British Library (London) Royal 3 D VI)

Rabbit and a horn (British Library (London) Royal 3 D VI)


Rabbit with hunting horn (Harley MS 6563, f. 20r-v)

Rabbit with hunting horn (Harley MS 6563, f. 20r-v)

In the last image, the rabbits are shown, on the left, going out with their hunting horns to the hunt and on the right, returning.

Henry Bishop: 12 Original English Glees – Foresters, Sound the Cheerful Horn (Pro Cantione Antiqua; Mark Brown, cond.)

Rabbits were also depicted playing bagpipes, often of quite complicated designs that seem to be made of other animals.

Rabbit and bagpipes - (Verdun, Bibl. mun., ms. 0107)

Rabbit and bagpipes – (Verdun, Bibl. mun., ms. 0107)


Rabbit and bagpipe - 'The Rutland Psalter', England ca. 1260 (British Library, Add 62925, fol. 100r)

Rabbit and bagpipe – ‘The Rutland Psalter’, England ca. 1260 (British Library, Add 62925, fol. 100r)


Rabbit and bagpipes (Bodl. Douce 5 roll 208 H)

Rabbit and bagpipes (Bodl. Douce 5 roll 208 H)


Baptiste Romain: Der han (The cock) (after Neidhart) (Baptiste Romain, bagpipe)

As we mentioned in the article on medieval cat musicians, playing the portative organ usually required two people: one to pump the air and one to play the melody. When rabbits take up the organ, they usually seem to get dogs to help.

Rabbit and dog playing a portative organ (Luttrell Psalter)

Rabbit and dog playing a portative organ (Luttrell Psalter)


Rabbit and dog playing a portative organ (The Macclesfield Psalter (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge))

Rabbit and dog playing a portative organ (The Macclesfield Psalter (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge))


Rabbit and dog playing a portative organ - Gorleston Psalter

Rabbit and dog playing a portative organ – Gorleston Psalter

Sometimes, however, the tables get turned and it’s the rabbit who has the hard work to do.

Rabbit and dog playing a portative organ (Add MS 49622 (British Library), f. 106v)

Rabbit and dog playing a portative organ (Add MS 49622 (British Library), f. 106v)


Sybrandus van Noordt: Recorder Sonata in G Minor, Op. 1, No. 4 (Francis Colpron, recorder; Susie Napper, viola da gamba; Hank Knox, portative organ)

We’ve found rabbits playing any number of other instruments, including drums, the harp, a psaltery to amuse a bird, the vielle, and a bell.

Rabbit and drum - [Morgan, MS M1004]

Rabbit and drum – [Morgan, MS M1004]


Rabbit and harp - detail. Eng. c1210-20. Bodl. Ashmole 1525

Rabbit and harp – detail. Eng. c1210-20. Bodl. Ashmole 1525


Rabbit and psaltry (Boulogne-sur-Mer, B. m., ms. 0130, t. I, detail of f. 344.)

Rabbit and psaltry (Boulogne-sur-Mer, B. m., ms. 0130, t. I, detail of f. 344.)


Rabbit and vielle - Les Tablettes rennaises - (Bibliothèque des Champs Libres.)

Rabbit and vielle – Les Tablettes rennaises – (Bibliothèque des Champs Libres.)


Rabbit playing bell - [BL, MS 62925, 13th c]

Rabbit playing bell – [BL, MS 62925, 13th c]


Anonymous: Quinte Estampie real (Ensemble Unicorn; Oni Wytars Ensemble)

They are also shown playing lots of horns, sometimes with a human as their transport and their own hunting dogs. The hunted indeed becomes the hunter!

Rabbit and horn (Douce 6 (Oxford, Bodleian))

Rabbit and horn (Douce 6 (Oxford, Bodleian))


Rabbit with horn (Ms. Codex 724 (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, Rare Book & Manuscript Library), fol. 280v)

Rabbit with horn (Ms. Codex 724 (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania,
Rare Book & Manuscript Library), fol. 280v)


Rabbit and horn with human horse – (Breviary of Renaud (Verdun, Bibliothèque municipal), ms. 107, fol. 105r)

Rabbit and horn with human horse – (Breviary of Renaud (Verdun, Bibliothèque municipal), ms. 107, fol. 105r)


Rabbit and horn and hunting dogs (Lat. liturg. (Oxford, Bodleian))

Rabbit and horn and hunting dogs (Lat. liturg. (Oxford, Bodleian))


Johann Friedrich Fibiger: Jagtsuite (Hunting Suite) (Kristian Buhl-Mortensen, baroque guitar; Mogens Rasmussen, viola da gamba; Monica Westheimer, harpsichord)

The world upside down – the silent with a sound – the hunted as hunter – all these metaphors are illustrated in the marginalia of medieval manuscripts!

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