Do you know what’s one subject you don’t want to take at GCSE if you’re not very good at it?
Unfortunately for 15 year old me, all my friends wanted to do art and I wasn’t very good at the alternative option either (Design Technology – I think the exam had something to do with birdhouses, or ashtrays, or ashtrays for birdhouses?) so art it was.
Big mistake. In French I could mumble my way through the verbs I’d spent my weekend not revising. I could play with enough enthusiasm during music lessons that my teachers didn’t mind that most of the notes were wrong. But art? Each week I’d have to pin my feeble attempts at fruit bowls on my easel for all to see. And worse still, everyone else’s attempts (which were also pinned up at the end of each lesson) were always so much better.
“You have a very medieval way of drawing people”, my teacher told me once.
“Is that good?” I asked hopefully.
“It’s certainly… distinctive.”
I dropped art as soon as I could, but my teacher’s comments stayed with me and a couple of years later I applied to study medieval history at university, citing the moment I realised I had a “medieval” style of drawing as the moment I realised I was interested in medieval history.
What has this got to do with Easter?
Today’s post is basically just a way for me to prove my art teacher wrong by making my shoddy drawings the star of the show. But I’ve cunningly disguised that fact by pretending it’s all about the festive topic of the Easter bunny.
The Easter bunny’s origins are a bit vague. A commonly held belief is that as abundantly fertile animals, rabbits represent new life which ties in nicely with the religious message of Easter, but it’s really not as simple as that.
Our modern bunny is a commercial creature with his soft floppy ears and non-threatening, chocolate-loving persona. This creation is, unsurprisingly, thanks to America. When German Lutherans arrived in America during the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought the tradition of the “Osterhase” with them. This tradition stated that children would be judged every Eastertime by a hare. If they had been good, they would be rewarded with a treat. Over time the tradition grew and developed until it became the sugar-fuelled, garden-destroying day we all know now.
Some people argue that the Easter bunny’s origins date back even further to the pagan festival Ēostre which used the hare as a symbol of renewed life. However, this might be wishful thinking; A Dictionary of English Folklore states there’s little evidence of any links between Ēostre and hares – and even if there were, these links would have been unlikely to have survived the subsequent centuries of invasion and Christianisation of Britain.
Despite the ambiguity, it’s likely that hares originally had more to do with Easter than rabbits. In Leicestershire there was an annual hare hunt held every Easter Monday, the first recording of which was in 1668. The 1620 Calendar of State Papers recorded that “…huntsmen say that those who have not had a hare against Easter must eat a red herring.” And in Warwickshire the parson supposedly offered a groat, a calf’s head and one hundred eggs to the man who presented him with a hare before 10:00am on Easter Monday.
A many-anused beast…
But people were interested in hares long before the 17th century.
“Hares are seldom tamed…”, wrote Pliny the Elder in The Natural History. “In the hare, the number of cavernous receptacles in the body for the excrements always equals that of its years.” Basically, hares were not pets you’d want to keep indoors without protecting your soft furnishings from their many “cavernous receptacles for excrement.”
By the middle ages, hares and rabbits were relatively luxurious commodities. Manorial lords would have an automatic “right to warren” on land they owned and would often grant tenants leases to maintain their warrens for them.
Sometimes the lords would complain about the abundance of rabbits or hares outside their warrens, as in the case at Freckenham in 1551 when rabbits were condemned for “increasing and multiplying on the common land” and the lessee of the warren was ordered to block up all the rabbit holes on the common land.
Hare was also a popular dish for the rich; as far as I can see there are two separate recipes for hare in the 14th century English cookbook Forme of Cury and about seven or eight from the contemporaneous French text Le Menagier de Paris.
In addition to food, rabbits and hares were seen as good gifts and in 1345, the Prior of Ely sent sixty rabbits to Edward III – an enormous display of wealth. In fact, by the 14th century rabbits were seen as such a status symbol that during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the rebels explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt “hares in the field.”
Despite this, hares and rabbits were seen negatively in some circles. In medieval art and literature hares were sometimes seen as symbols of promiscuity. Even more concerningly, some thought hares were linked to the occult; the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century German text on witchcraft, commented that witches had the ability to transform themselves into hares.
Later, when the witch-crazes swept Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, a Scottish woman called Isobel Gowdie confessed to turning herself into a hare by chanting:
I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again.
Having confessed to the crime of witchcraft, the law stated that she be executed, but there’s no firm evidence whether this happened to Isobel or whether she was acquitted. Perhaps she really did turn herself into a hare and hopped away?
Whether witches in disguise or the real deal, you messed with hares at your peril.
The Smithfield Decretals, a mid 14th century manuscript, details some scenes where hares enact their revenge on the humans who blocked up their warrens, skinned them and ate them.
In this highly decorated manuscript there are numerous drolleries – fanciful drawings meant to titillate and amuse the reader.
Often these images depict imaginary mash-ups of animals; snails with human torsos or birds with elephant heads. As well as the more usual ones, the ones in the Smithfield Decretals also depict what can only be described as killer hares enacting revenge on the humans who would destroy them.
In one image two hares flay a bound man alive, starting at his feet. Rather than watching the unfortunate victim, the hares’ unfeeling, bulbous eyes are askew – an artist’s comment on nature’s detachment from human suffering or, (like my own arty shortcomings) an inability to draw perspective? You be the judge.
In another, a hare carries a trussed up man on a stick while another triumphantly blasts a tune on a hunting horn. In yet another, a hare is seen with a ridiculously long sword, beheading a man. It’s probably worth noting that medieval people didn’t do realism in their art (in case you’d not worked it out.) This included realistic facial expressions – so rather than screaming in agony, the man being beheaded is just frowning sadly, as if the whole thing is slightly inconvenient (take a look at the images at the end to see what I mean.)
Rather than being a crafty design to get people to go vegetarian by forcing them to confront the reality of their hare-hunting ways, these images represented the idea of the world turned upside down; the hunted becomes the hunter. Just think on that while you’re searching for your eggs on Easter Sunday.
Who wants a biscuit?
I could have written a post about hot cross buns or tried making another Simnel Cake. But I didn’t fancy any of that. Instead, I wanted to draw some art and I wanted art that celebrated the mighty Easter bunny in all its glory. And I wanted it to be delicious.
So this Easter, in addition to my foil wrapped egg(s), I’ll also be tucking into some very special Easter biscuits depicting the more unusual aspects of the human/
Easter bunny relationship. The images are taken from a variety of texts so even though the recipe isn’t medieval the artwork, according to my teacher at least, sure is.