Sunday, February 26, 2006

Early Modern Rabbits!

My last two posts made me think of this rather sprightly broadsheet ballad from 1620, with its woodcut of a small dog in pursuit of a vast and splendidly bewhiskered black rabbit. The ballad seems to have had its own tune, and perhaps the simple woodcuts (there is another, with a hunter winding a horn at the animals) were specially cut: rather a classy job for the broadsheet press. The ballad describes the pleasures of a day of hunting, conducted at its most proletarian level. 'Let your hound/ Range some ground / And swiftly follow him / Hunt the Bunne, take the Bunne / But do not swallow him' goes the refrain. The ballad ends, perhaps rather surprisingly for the period, with a lament for the prey which is no more than half merry: ' So farewell. Yet a knell / I'll ring for bunny / Which was a harmless beast / Poor pretty conney / Ding dong ding, thus I ring / Poor bun is buried / That with so many Doggs / Was at once weried.'
The witchfinder Matthew Hopkins published his The Discovery of Witches in 1647, a pamphlet written in a strange manner for a man who was hanging women as witches on his personal convictions, as it is in the form of a series of cogent objections to his processes (the replies he comes up with are far less compelling). Anyway, the book illustrated witches with their familiars spirits, devils in animal form. One of these is a rabbit, called 'Sacke and Sugar'. Here may be a suggestion of the first owners of pet rabbits. hardly the most demonic of creatures, though it is suitably black. He's at the very top of this posting.
'Bunny' here is another OED antedating, which doesn't record the word applied to a rabbit before a Dictionary of the Canting Crew in 1690. Oddly, they have an earlier use of 'bun' being applied to a squirrel, and 'bunny' as a term of endearment for a woman before any 'bunny'=rabbit citation. The word has no known etymology, but probably evolves in baby talk: 'buns' as a form of cake existed from the middle ages, so then you apply the word to any sweet little creature. Till I looked all this up, I had no notion (never having seen the film), that a 'bunny-boiler' for a jealous older woman stems from 'Fatal Attraction', where the Glen Close character boils a pet rabbit alive as a signal instance of her malignity. Bless the OED, which I can access fully:
~ it does at least offer non-subscribed users a 'word of the day' (and a free 30 day trial!).

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