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A rabbit funeral in the Gorleston Psalter

Psalters were books of psalms, often including musical notation, that were written for wealthy people to take to church in medieval times. They were often richly illuminated, with initial letters in particular providing opportunities for artists to express themselves with abstract patterns and illustrations of biblical characters, angels and saints. There was also plenty of room at the top and bottom of pages, and down the margins, for self-expression. One can imagine a parent reading the psalms to a child who would appreciate seeing the pictures at the same time.

Occasionally, an artist would take illustration to a level that was beyond devotional. An excellent example of this was the Gorleston Psalter that was written and illustrated around 1320. It is known to have been used at St Andrew’s Church, Gorleston, Norfolk, between 1322 and 1324. 

The most remarkable feature of this psalter is the use by the artist of animal illustrations. These are not merely pictures of animals, but humorous depictions of animals behaving like humans. For example, a cat dressed as a bishop preaches to a group of ducks. However, oddest of all is a parade of rabbits conducting a funeral.

This is a caricature of the priestly processions that the artist must have witnessed many times. The rabbits seem to be behaving with all due decorum, apart from the one who is riding on top of the bier playing a trumpet. The rabbit at the front of the procession, carrying two bells, has turned round to see why everyone else has stopped, although the cross-bearer and candle-bearers are too well trained to do anything other than stand to attention. Two priests are the essence of dignity – a portly one has an aspergillum for sprinkling holy water and a thinner one carries a thurible. They look back at the two dogs who are collapsing under the extra weight of the coffin caused by the trumpet-playing rabbit who is on top.

The humour of this illustration is inescapable, and not what one expects to see in a document of this kind. One can only suppose that it was designed for the dual purpose of allowing a parent to sing the psalms and keep the children amused during the boring bits of the service!

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