Hopping into 2023

Woodcut of rabbit

According to the Chinese zodiac 2023 is the year of the rabbit (specifically the Moon rabbit). To mark Chinese New Year we hopped over to the Old Library to see what we could unearth on rabbits from our collections.

The earliest depiction of a rabbit that we have is in the wonderful early 17th century bestiary The Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts (1607) compiled by Topsell [1]. This work features a charming woodcut of a rabbit pictured above.

At this time, ‘rabbit’ only referred to their young, while ‘cony’ or ‘conies’ was the term used for adult rabbits. Topsell’s description shows that rabbits were primarily viewed as a source of meat (“their flesh is very white and sweet, especially of the young ones”) and fur. What might also surprise you is that, so he tells us, there are accounts of some parts of the world where rabbits are green, although they are usually the more familiar brown! The book contains many mythological creatures, so green rabbits would not be the strangest beast inside this book!

Another more scientific work in the Library which contains rabbits is the monumental 18th century work of natural history Histoire Naturelle, Générale Et Particulière (1749–1788) [2] by French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707 –1788). This was published in 36 volumes over a period of 50 years, and translated into many languages. The book contains many accurate engraved copperplate illustrations including five of different kinds of rabbits, together with their skeleton and dissections of their anatomy. The ‘domestic rabbits’ pictured below are Dutch rabbits, which were favoured for rearing for meat because they were larger than other breeds.

Two black and white rabbits in a domestic setting. One is eating lettuc
Domestic rabbit

Unlike Topsell, Buffon ignores outlandish fables in favour of scientific fact. He details experiments that were conducted by others, for example, to see if a rabbit could produce offspring with a hare (they can’t – and the experiments often did not end well!). His main conclusion is that rabbits erm… breed like rabbits.

The final work that we’ll look at concerns a rabbit of the celestial rather than earthly kind. This rabbit is depicted in an illustration of the constellations recorded in a copy of Manilius’ Astronomicon (1739) [3]. Astronomica is a didactic poem in five books about astronomy, but there’s also a few bits and pieces which conform to what we’d consider astrology today. A folded plate contains a celestial chart copied from antiquity which shows fantastic beasts as well as the more mundane rabbit.

Celestial map
Detail of celestial map

The rabbit represents the constellation of Lepus (Latin for hare). It is usually located below the constellation Orion (the hunter), whose hunting dogs (Canis Major and Canis Minor) pursue it. According to legend, Lepus was once a bird who was turned into a hare by Ostara, the Goddess of Spring. Once a year the hare was able to lay eggs. This is thought to be the origin of the Easter Bunny.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this quick hop through our special collections.

May the Year of the Rabbit bring you blessings and success!


[1] Topsell, E. The Historie of Foure-footed Beastes. London: Printed by William Iaggard, 1607.

[2] Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc. Histoire Naturelle, Générale Et Particulière : Avec La Description Du Cabinet Du Roy. Seconde Édition. ed. A Paris: De L’Imprimerie Royale, 1750-82. 36 volumes.

[3] Manilius, Astronomicon. Londini: Typis Henrici Woodfall, Sumptibus