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Were rabbits really domesticated by monks to eat during Lent?


Jannoon028 I Shutterstock

Zelda Caldwell - published on 02/21/18

An oft-cited “fact” about the origins of the modern bunny turns out to be a myth

Have you heard about how rabbits were domesticated by monks in about 600 A.D.? As the oft-cited story tells it, after Pope Gregory the Great decreed that newborn and fetal rabbits (laurices) did not count as meat, leading French monks to tame wild hares to raise as food to be consumed during Lent.

The only problem with this story, according to an article in The Atlantic, is it’s not true. Greger Larson from the University of Oxford set out to find the source of the tale, and came up empty.

Turns out that that there is no record that Pope Gregory the Great decreed any such thing, despite the many scholars (and even scientists) who have cited the story as fact.

A couple of scholars—who it seems are responsible for the monks-tamed-rabbits myth – started the false story when they mixed up Saint Gregory of Tours with Pope Gregory the Great. Saint Gregory of Tours is on the record for condemning a man for eating young rabbits during Lent, but scholars F. E. Zeuner and H. Nachtsteim misattributed that account to a papal edict from Pope Gregory. There is no record of a papal edict, and furthermore, Pope Gregory was an entirely different person than St. Gregory of Tours.

It’s also a shaky story science-wise. It’s not clear how and when wild hares became docile creatures, but we know it’s not likely to have taken place overnight.

“There is solid genetic evidence that domestic rabbits are closely related to wild rabbits from France, from which they were mostly derived,” geneticist Miguel Carneiro told The Atlantic. “But the timing, initial motivation, and the underlying process remain poorly understood.”

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