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The Romans raised rabbits as livestock in Spain in the 2nd century BC and later brought them to Britain. French monks are believed to have domesticated them in the 5th century AD for their meat and fur. According to the Wikipedia article Medieval Cuisine,

Rabbits remained a rare and highly prized commodity. In Britain, they were deliberately introduced by the 13th century and their colonies were carefully protected. Further south, domesticated rabbits were commonly raised and bred both for their meat and fur.

By ‘further south’, the article presumably means France and Spain (among others). This History of Rabbits article, on the other hand, says:

Rabbits were introduced to Britain during the 12th Century, and during the Middle Ages, the breeding and farming of rabbits for meat and fur became widespread throughout Europe.

Also, The Daily Telegraph, in an article which cites Christopher Lever’s The Naturalized Animals of the British Isles, says rabbits were “established” in the wild by the late 12th century. Given that “experts tend to agree that one pair of rabbits can be responsible for up to 1000 new rabbits within a 12 month period.” and that, these days at least,

Raising rabbits is simple and economical. Two does and one buck should produce 180 pounds of meat per year.

it would seem that breeding rabbits would be ideal for the poor (though getting hold of wild ones to get started may have been made difficult by Forest Laws). However, I can find little mention of this until (I think - the time reference isn't clear) the Early Modern period:

Rabbits were typically kept as part of the household livestock by peasants and villagers throughout Europe. Husbandry of the rabbits, including collecting weeds and grasses for fodder, typically fell to the children of the household or farmstead.

Was the consumption of rabbit meat largely restricted to monks and the aristocracy in Medieval and Early Modern Britain?

If so, why didn't the poor - who could not afford much meat in their diet - take advantage of the fact that rabbits are easy to breed, feed and maintain? Are some the sources above misleading, or perhaps the ones on breeding / raising rabbits not applicable to earlier times?

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Near Thetford in Norfolk, there is a place called Thetford Warren. The remains of Thetford Warren Lodge is still standing, and is managed by English Heritage. The lodge was used by the warren keeper.

There is a write-up on their website:

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/thetford-warren-lodge/history/rabbits-warreners/

The following quote is from the website:

In the Middle Ages, if you wanted to invest in a luxury business, rabbits were a safe bet. Rabbit warrens or farms were an excellent way of gaining an income from poor, sandy or heath land.

Rabbits are not native to Britain. Their bones have been discovered on Roman sites in southern and eastern England, and we know that the Romans valued rabbits for both their fur and their meat. But they seem to have died out here after the Romans left – there is no Old English word for rabbit.

It was the Normans who reintroduced them in the late 11th or 12th century. Ill-adapted to the English climate and easy prey for native predators, rabbits (or coneys, as mature rabbits were then known) had to be kept in special areas or warrens – often walled or fenced to prevent them from escaping. Their rarity meant that their meat was prized as a delicacy, while their fur was used for trimming clothes. In the 13th century one rabbit was worth more than a workman’s daily wage.

I don't know how accurate this is - presumably it comes from an English Heritage historian - but it does suggest that they were certainly not food for the poor.

  • This does seem indicate consumption was not widespread in the middle ages. I'm still curious, though, why the poor didn't breed them. Perhaps it wasn't as easy as some make out...? – Lars Bosteen Oct 26 '18 at 0:48
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First, this commonly repeated statement is refuted here as myth.

Pope Gregory stated in a Papal Edict of the year 600 AD that fetal rabbits were permissible to eat during the Lenten fast, greatly enhancing their popularity, ....

There is no agreement on when rabbits were first domesticated, in the sense of being bred for desirable characteristics, except that it occurred sometime between 600 C.E. and 1800 C.E.

However rabbits (along with ferrets) had been introduced to Britain by the Romans in the first century C.E. Prior to their domestication they were both hunted with ferrets and kept in courts (simple earth pits) or warrens (more extensive walled or hedged enclosures).

  • Can you precise if the quoted sentence about pope Gregory is true or if it is the statement "refuted as a myth" in the source ? – Evargalo Aug 16 '18 at 9:42
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    I promise I was trying to write understandable English - sorry if I failed. My question, put simply, was: which "commonly repeated statement" exactly is "refuted" in your source ? – Evargalo Aug 16 '18 at 11:22
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    @Evargalo: No need to apologize - if I don't let you know that your question is unclear, you will only be left wondering why I didn't answer. The pale yellow highlighted text above is (a paraphrase of) Gregory's commonly repeated edict. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 16 '18 at 11:37

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