The Fox and the Rabbit

ON THE CORBEL of one door arches in St Mary’s Church, Beverley, there’s a medieval carving of a rabbit, possibly a hare to judge by those long ears, waltzing along with a scrip slung over his shoulder and looking rather pleased with himself. The triangular ‘buckle’ on his bag might be a scallop shell; a badge that suggests that he has made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestella.

He looks remarkably like Sir John Tenniel’s illustration of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, but also like the messenger Haigha (the March Hare) in Alice Through the Looking Glass, who carries a similar bag.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), better known by his pen-name of Lewis Carroll, had Yorkshire connections; from the age of 11 his family home was the Rectory at Croft-on-Tees, in the North Riding but he had relatives who lived not so far from Beverley in the East Riding. Because of his family connections with the Church of England it seems likely that Dodgson – who was ordained but who never became a priest – visited St Marys. The local story is that he occasionally preached here.

You can see how the figure of the ‘Pilgrim Hare’, also known as the ‘Jolly Rabbit’, might have inspired him to create the character that Alice follows down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

Fox and Geese

On the misericords (folding seats) in the choir nearby there are carvings of wildmen, dragons, wyverns, monkeys and a surprisingly accurate elephant.

In one scene (right) a woodwose (a wildman) has shot a fox with an arrow.

In another carving two wily foxes are doing their best to give the appearance that they are reformed characters. They’ve apparently taken holy orders as they are dressed in cowls, listening to a friar reading from a scroll. We can imagine that he is advising them that all they need take with them on their journey is a staff. Each fox holds a crozier but they’re not trusting in providence; in the hood of their cowls each has concealed a large goose. The friar hasn’t spotted the deception but in the foliage of the trees above two small dogs have their eyes on the geese.

Above the choir is a painted ceiling dating from the 15th century. It depicts the pre-conquest kings of England.

Reynaert and the Wild Man

I’m here in Beverley for the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference and there couldn’t be a more appropriate venue for the two opening speakers than here in the nave of St Marys.

Professor Lorraine Stock of the University of Houston is talking about The Transformation of the Medieval Wild Man and Robin Hood on the 1598 London Stage and Professor Paul Wackers of the University of Utrecht is delivering a paper on Reynaert and Society: An Uncertain Relationship.

Seeing the carvings, then learning something about the way these appealing characters have been depicted on the page and on stage brings them to life. I feel that they’re part of a storytelling tradition that extends from medieval folktales back to Aesop’s fables and on to Disney and Tom and Jerry.

Professor Wackers suggests that the ‘Pilgrim Hare’ might represent Cuwaert the hare, one of the characters in the Reynaert the Fox stories.

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