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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

A Brief History of Food: Hares


For some time we, at Tastes Of History, believed the hare was a native species in Britain belonging to the genus Lepus [1]. A recent post on social media, however, advocated the Brown Hare was introduced during Roman times and that the Mountain Hare was the only native subgenus. We were surprised so had to investigate further.


The Brown Hare, more correctly called the European Hare (Lepus europaeus), is native to much of continental Europe and part of Asia, ranging from northern Spain to southern Scandinavia, eastern Europe, and northern parts of Western and Central Asia. However, it seems the European Hare has never been native to Great Britain. In fact, there is a distinct lack of evidence for them in the archaeological record before the arrival of ancient Rome’s legions. This does indeed strongly suggest that European hares, like rabbits, may have been introduced to this island by the Romans some 2000 years ago (Corbet, 1986, 105–110). Since then, however, Europeans have been instrumental in introducing hares, mostly as a game animal, ever more widely across the globe to both North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand.


The question then arose as to why we thought hares were a native species unlike rabbits which we were content were later arrivals. The answer may well have been attributed to more recent populist historians, internet pundits and neopagan commentators claiming hares were native to Britain and also sacred to a local goddess, Andraste. On reflection, however, it seems this connection has been taken solely from the Roman historian Lucius Cassius Dio’s [2] account of the events of AD 60, which form part of his wider narrative on the emperor Nero, concerning the Roman province of Britannia. It is in paragraph 6 of his description (reproduced here) of the revolt of the Britons led by Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe that Cassius Dio introduces his readers to Andraste. He names her as one of the Briton’s deities and yet, rather annoyingly, all we know about this goddess is derived solely from Cassius Dio. Moreover, while not explicitly mentioning that Andraste was the Briton’s (or at the very least the Iceni tribe’s) goddess of war, many modern commentators now assert she was a warrior goddess. As is often the case, such claims are rarely supported with any evidence, referenced texts or corroborating sources probably because there are none. The lack of supporting evidence leaves one suspecting these assertions are merely fanciful invention. Once again, the historicity all seems a bit nebulous, but continued examination of this topic deviates from the one at hand.


The Roman connection So, where does the link between hares and Britain seemingly come from? As stated, Queen Boudica’s rebellion is covered in twelve paragraphs of Book LXII of Cassius Dio’s ‘Roman Histories’. It is in paragraph 6 that Dio drops the bombshell:


‘6. When she [Boudica] had finished speaking, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure…’


The obvious problem is that if hares are not native to Britain, being introduced by the Romans, how did one end up in the folds of Boudica’s dress? The Boudican uprising of AD 60 is roughly 17 years after the initial Roman occupation of Britannia. So, if the Romans were indeed responsible for importing hares from Europe, how likely is it that the animals were introduced almost immediately to Britain, that is very shortly after AD 43? And is it equally likely that, less than two decades later, hares had become naturalised and thriving? The inconvenient truth is that, with the information currently available, we cannot be certain exactly when hares were introduced during nearly 300 years of Roman rule. Moreover, on the balance of probability, in so short a time (between AD 43 and AD 60) it seems unlikely that hares would have become ‘sacred’ to the Britons and thus included in some form of divination ritual. It is much more likely that Dio had cannily determined his readers would be familiar with the European hare, an animal many people believed had such a high libido that they were held as sacred to the god and goddess of love, Eros and Aphrodite respectively. In other words, Dio is adding detail for his audience to identify and connect with, but which may have had no basis in fact. We therefore cannot be at all certain hares were ‘scared’ to the ancient Britons, nor whether they were used in any form of augury [3].


So, if not Cassius Dio, who else might have recorded hares being present in Britain? A much earlier Roman connection may well be attributed to a line in Chapter 12 of Book 5 of ‘Commentarii de bello Gallica’, Gaius Iulius Caesar’s account of his wars in Gaul, which reads:


“Leporem et gallinam et anserem gustare fas non putant; haec tamen alunt animi voluptatisque causa.”


They account it wrong to eat of hares, fowl, and goose [4]; but these they keep for pastime or pleasure.


The above quote is from Caesar’s account of his second expedition to Britain in 54 BC, where ‘Leporum’ is the genitive plural of Lepus, the Latin for hare. The question remains, however, as to whether this one sentence can be taken as truly reliable. Caesar may well have been familiar with hares as they were native to continental Europe but if, as we have seen, the European Hare was not native to Britain, how could it be included in his list of ‘taboo’ animals? Moreover, why would Britons not eat wild fowl and geese? No explanation is given so apart from Caesar’s one line there is once again, as far as we are aware, no corroborating evidence for a dietary taboo or similar restriction existing in ancient Britain. Of course, the obvious explanation for this absence is the lack of a written history for Iron Age Britain before the Romans arrive. In other words, we only have the accounts of Roman authors to rely upon. Unfortunately, these same authors may not have been contemporary eyewitnesses to the things they describe, may have depended on earlier sources whose reliability is unknown, may have misunderstood the culture nuances or significance of what they had witnessed or read and thus recorded, or deliberately misrepresented facts to satisfy their readers’ biases. Regardless, it seems that the evidence for hares in Britain relies solely on a single line in Caesar’s self-promotional writing and a single reference in Cassius Dio’s account of the Boudican uprising written over one hundred years after the event.


In folklore, literature, and art It seems hares are a relative newcomer to Britain, but in Europe they have symbolised sex and fertility since the ancient Greeks associated hares with the gods Dionysus (Bacchus), Aphrodite (Venus), Eros and Artemis (Diana) (as well as with satyrs and cupids). As already mentioned, it was believed that hares were highly lascivious so it seems understandable why they would have been sacred to the deities of love, sex and orgies [5].



The Tortoise and the Hare Despite their apparently salacious connections, hares also feature more benignly in some fables, most famously Aesop’s ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’:


‘The hare laughed at the tortoise's feet but the tortoise declared, 'I will beat you in a race!' The hare replied, 'Those are just words. Race with me, and you'll see! Who will mark out the track and serve as our umpire?' 'The fox,' replied the tortoise, 'since she is honest and highly intelligent.' When the time for the race had been decided upon, the tortoise did not delay, but immediately took off down the racecourse. The hare, however, lay down to take a nap, confident in the speed of his feet. Then, when the hare eventually made his way to the finish line, he found that the tortoise had already won. The story shows that many people have good natural abilities which are ruined by idleness; on the other hand, sobriety, zeal and perseverance can prevail over indolence.’


Translated by Laura Gibbs, (2002), ‘Aesop’s Fables’, Oxford: Oxford University Press (World's Classics).


Connection to Easter Hares In Northern Europe, Easter imagery often involves hares or rabbits. In 1890 work ‘Origins of English History’, Charles Isaac Elton proposed a possible connection between the Easter folk customs he observed in the English county of Leicestershire and the worship of a Germanic goddess of Spring named Ēostre. Two years later, Charles James Billson, who had also studied the hare in folk custom and mythology, recorded numerous incidents of folk customs involving hares around the Easter season in Northern Europe. Billson notes that Ēostre is mentioned by the English monk, scholar and author, Bede, as giving her name to the great Christian festival. His 8th century work De temporum ratione (‘The Reckoning of Time’) is the most likely source for the belief Ēostre was brought to Britain by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes et al. But the existence of this goddess is attested solely by Bede, and as Billson notes ‘by him only in one passage to explain the name Esturmonath given to April by the early English’ (Billson, 1892, 447). Billson links the Old English Ēosturmōnaþ with the German name ‘Ostermoneth’ for the same period when pagan Anglo-Saxons had held feasts to honour the goddess, but then notes that no trace of Ēostre’s existence survives among other Teutonic peoples.



Contrary to Billson’s conclusion, however, Adolf Holtzmann establishes Ēostre as a Germanic goddess of the Dawn in his ‘Deutsche Mythologie’ (pp. 137-141). He also writes that ‘…probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara [Ēostre]’ yet oddly finds the idea of the Easter Hare ‘unintelligible’. As no further evidence is offered of the connection, we are left wondering, like Billson, whether there was a goddess named Ēostre at all, and whether hares can be linked with the rituals of British or Anglo-Saxon worship (Billson, 1892, 448). In summary, it seems doubtful at best, and it is probably fair to conclude that hares were not associated with any Easter rituals in prehistoric Britain. Indeed, hares could not be ‘sacred’ or taboo to Britons until after they were introduced from Europe to these islands (probably) by the Romans.


From field to table In more recent times hares have largely fallen out of favour as a source of food and are not the easiest animal to come by today. For those encouraged to recreate historical dishes, hares should be ordered in advance from game dealers or butchers. They can be rather bloody to prepare so you might consider buying them ready-jointed. If choosing this option, ask your butcher to save the blood as it is used to enrichen a stew or sauce, and is an essential ingredient in the old English favourite, ‘Jugged Hare’. Compared to rabbits, hares have darker, richer and more flavoursome meat but this can be prepared in the same manner as rabbit, commonly for roasting or parted for breading and frying. For roasting, hares are best eaten young - a 'leveret' is a hare under one year old. Older than this and they benefit from slow-cooking, with the legs generally suited to slow-cooking recipes even in a young animal.


‘Jugged Hare’ is one method of cooking an animal when there is doubt about its age. By this slow-cooking method an old hare, which would be otherwise inedible, may be turned into an agreeable dish. Known as civet de lièvre in France, the whole hare is typically cut into pieces, marinated, and cooked with red wine and juniper berries in a tall jug that stands in a pan of water. It is traditionally served with the hare's blood (or the blood is added right at the end of the cooking process) and port wine. A well-established English recipe for jugged hare is described in Hannah Glasse’s ‘The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy’, a highly influential 18th-century cookbook. Interestingly, a myth arose in the 19th-century that Glasse's recipe began with the words "First, catch your hare" but, as reproduced below, it clearly does not:


A Jugged Hare


Cut it into little pieces, lard them here and there with little flips of bacon, feafon them with a very little - pepper and falt, put them into an earthen jugg, with a blade of mace, an onion ftuck with cloves, and a bundle of fweet-herbs; cover the jugg or jar you do it in fo clofe that nothing can get in, then fet it in a pot of boiling water, keep the water boiling, and three hours will do it; then turn it out into the difh, and take out the onion and fweet-herbs, and fend it to table hot. If you don’t like it larded, leave it out.


Bon appétit!

 

References:


Billson, C.J., (1892), ‘The Easter Hare’, in Folklore, Volume III, Number IV, Available online (accessed January 30th, 2024).


Corbet, G.B., (1986), ‘Relationships and origins of the European lagomorphs’, Mammal Review 16 (3–4), pp. 105–110.


Glasse, H., (1747), ‘The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy: Jugged Hare’, Internet Archive, p. 71, Available online (accessed February 11th, 2024).


Endnotes:


1. The Wikipedia entry defines Genus as a taxonomic rank used in the biological classification of living and fossil organisms as well as viruses. In the hierarchy of biological classification, genus comes above species and below family. In binomial nomenclature, the genus name forms the first part of the binomial species name for each species within the genus:


Panthera leo (lion) and Panthera onca (jaguar) are two species within the genus Panthera. Panthera is a genus within the family Felidae, the group of mammals in the order Carnivora colloquially referred to as cats.


Leporids are the family of rabbits and hares (lepus), containing over 70 species of extant mammals in all. The Latin word Leporidae means ‘those that resemble lepus’ (hare).


2. Lucius Cassius Dio is our second source, after Publius Cornelius Tacitus, for the story behind the Boudican Rebellion of AD 60, which appears in part of Book LXII of his ‘Roman Histories’. Also known as Dio Cassius, he was a Roman historian and senator of maternal Greek origin who lived from c.  AD 155 to c.  AD 235. During his lifetime he published some 80 volumes on the history of ancient Rome beginning with the arrival in Italy of the Trojan hero Aeneas. The volumes documented the subsequent founding of Rome (753 BC), the formation of the Republic (509 BC), and the creation of the Empire (27 BC) up until AD 229. Written in ancient Greek over a period of 22 years, many of Cassius Dio's 80 books have survived, either intact or as fragments, providing modern scholars with a detailed perspective on nearly 1,000 years of Roman history.


3. The online Encyclopaedia Britannica defines Augury as the “prophetic divining of the future by observation of natural phenomena - particularly the behaviour of birds and animals and the examination of their entrails and other parts, but also by scrutiny of man-made objects and situations. The term derives from the official Roman augurs, whose constitutional function was not to foretell the future but to discover whether or not the gods approved of a proposed course of action, especially political or military. Two types of divinatory sign, or omen, were recognized: the most important was that deliberately watched for, such as lightning, thunder, flights and cries of birds, or the pecking behaviour of sacred chickens; of less moment was that which occurred casually, such as the unexpected appearance of animals sacred to the gods - the bear (Artemis), wolf (Apollo), eagle (Zeus), serpent (Asclepius), and owl (Minerva), for instance - or such other mundane signs as the accidental spilling of salt, sneezing, stumbling, or the creaking of furniture.”


4. In Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia, the original domesticated geese are derived from the greylag goose (Anser anser). The archaeological evidence for the domestic goose in northern Europe suggests it was probably introduced into Scandinavia during the Early Iron Age (400 BC – AD 550). As a ‘minor’ domesticate, however, geese are rarely mentioned or discussed in historical documents and consequently they remain one of the few animals whose evolutionary and domestication history is still largely unknown. The historical record does inform us that geese were fattened for the table, and force-feeding to enlarge the liver has been known since Egyptian times. The Romans farmed geese extensively for their eggs and meat, and also practiced force-feeding. The feathers of geese were plucked by Romans to be used in cushions and upholstery, and goose feather quills were used for writing from the 5th century AD.


5. Orgies - that thought you’re having…so wrong! In ancient Greek religion, orgion (ὄργιον, plural orgia) was an ecstatic form of worship characteristic of some mystery cults. For example, orgion was integral to the cult ceremony of Dionysus, or Bacchus as the Roman god of wine was known. Celebrations - Bacchanalia - featured ‘unrestrained’ masked dances by torchlight and animal sacrifices. The rites spread to Rome from the Greek colonies in Southern Italy; here they were secret and only attended by women. Later, admission to the rites was extended to men, with celebrations often taking place five times a month. The Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus (59 BC - AD 17) - known as Livy in English - writes of the rapid spread of the cult, which he claimed indulged in all kinds of crimes and political conspiracies at its nocturnal meetings. Earlier in 186 BC, the Senate prohibited Bacchanalia throughout all Italy except in certain specially approved cases. Although threatened with severe punishments for those found in violation of the Senate’s decree, Bacchanalia survived in Southern Italy long past the repression. So, orgies were once a form of religious worship, not necessarily a wild party!

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