Back to the reign of another long-reigning queen, Elizabeth I. For my summer graduate course, I’ve been immersed in the pamphlet literature of the 1590s, including those relating the exploits of London rogues, vagabonds, pickpockets, card-sharks and coney-catchers, to use the language of the day. In the contemporary vernacular, coneys (alternatively spelled conys, connys, connies) were domesticated rabbits (as opposed to wild hares), bred for the table and easy prey. Consequently coney-catchers were those who preyed on similarly-vulnerable human targets in the streets of London: in today’s language, con-men.
The term seems to have been crafted by playwright, poet and pamphleteer Robert Greene (1560-1592), one of the “university wits” of late Elizabethan London, and an author who definitely wrote more for the public than the court. Before his untimely death in 1592, Greene waged a war in print on those who had taken advantage of him while he was down and out, in the streets (quite a common state for him due to his profligate lifestyle). The pamphlets were popular, and the term caught on. Its meaning, fool-taking or-making was easily grasped by everyone, and satirical responses kept the rabbits in print, as did Greene, by publishing under pseudonyms like “Cuthbert Conny-catcher”.
Greene’s conies between the covers.
All of these rabbits (coneys) remind me of those that magicians (conjurers) pull out of a hat: there must be a connection. The John Derian decoupage tray on my mantle, called “the magician’s apprentice”, is making me think so too.
June 22nd, 2012 at 6:06 am
Nice post. I really enjoyed this. I don’t know if you’ve read Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle Earth. In that book, he discusses the etymology of the word rabbits and show that no one really knows where it (and the animal) originated. A different word for it is used in almost every European language: lapin, kaninchen, etc. I live in Catalunya and in the local language Catalan, a rabbit is a conill, which sounds a lot like coney.
June 22nd, 2012 at 7:34 am
Thanks for sharing your grad classes with us. This is interesting stuff!
June 23rd, 2012 at 8:41 pm
Fascinating post. Makes me want to know more. Thank you!
June 24th, 2012 at 1:37 pm
Love the illustrations you pulled out of that hat!!
July 17th, 2012 at 11:49 pm
Gorgeous images! Makes me want to draw some bunnies:)