Medieval Pillow Mounds, What Are They?

Medieval pillow mounds, also known as rabbit warrens or coneygarths, are a fascinating feature of historical landscapes, particularly in Europe. These artificial earthworks were primarily constructed for the breeding and management of rabbits, which were a valued resource in the medieval period.

The history of pillow mounds is intricately linked with the social, economic, and environmental narratives of the time, offering insights into medieval land use, animal husbandry, and even luxury dining.


Origins and Purpose

The tradition of constructing warrens, designated areas for the breeding and management of rabbits or hares, is deeply rooted in European agricultural and social history.

Although hares are indigenous to Europe and have been hunted for millennia, the systematic rearing of rabbits marks a significant development, particularly following the introduction of the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) from the Iberian Peninsula to various parts of Europe, including England, during the medieval period.

pillow mounds
The yellow line is the ditch from which the mound was built. Would be interesting to dig that to see if any dating evidence could be found.

The domestication and management of rabbits gained momentum by the 12th century, driven by the growing demand for rabbit meat and fur, which were esteemed as luxury products.

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Rabbits were not just valued for their meat—a lean, protein-rich source that could be consumed during fasting periods when red meat was forbidden by the church—but also for their fur, used in the garment industry to trim robes and cloaks, symbolising wealth and status.

Pillow Mounds, a Controlled Enviroment

Warrens were meticulously designed landscapes, a blend of practicality and strategic planning. They served as controlled environments where rabbit populations could be securely bred, sheltered, and harvested.

The primary structures within these warrens, known as pillow mounds or rabbit buries, were essentially artificial earthworks that simulated natural rabbit burrows, facilitating easier management and more efficient harvesting of the rabbits.

The design of these pillow mounds was purposeful: elongated, low-rise mounds of earth that would provide the rabbits with shelter, breeding spaces, and protection from the elements and predators.

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Their construction took into account the need for effective drainage, essential for keeping the burrows dry and habitable, and thus often included underlying channels or were strategically placed on sloping ground.

Pillow mounds by the River Eden, Mallerstang. The rectangular earthworks are easily seen in this view from across the valley on Great Bell.
Pillow mounds by the River Eden, Mallerstang. The rectangular earthworks are easily seen in this view from across the valley on Great Bell.

The controlled environment of the warren not only made it simpler to collect the rabbits but also to protect them from external threats such as poachers and predators.

The enclosures, often comprising ditches, fences, or walls, were not merely physical barriers but symbolized the exclusive rights of the landowner, reflecting the socio-economic stratifications of the time.

Broader Implications of Pillow Mounds

The establishment of warrens is indicative of the medieval period’s evolving landscape management practices, reflecting a shift towards more specialised and intensive forms of animal husbandry.

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It also illustrates the period’s attitudes toward land use, wildlife management, and the stratification of societal privileges, as the exclusive rights to own and operate warrens were typically reserved for the nobility and ecclesiastical institutions.

Moreover, the significance of rabbits within the medieval economy cannot be overstated. They provided a reliable source of meat, particularly valuable during times of scarcity or seasonal shortages, and their fur was a lucrative commodity in the trade markets of medieval Europe, often controlled by powerful monastic orders or feudal lords.

What is a Warren

A warren refers to a designated piece of land used for the cultivation and management of rabbits or hares, primarily aimed at supplying fresh meat and fur.

Despite hares being native, the custom of constructing and utilising warrens began in the 12th century when rabbits were first introduced to England from mainland Europe.

Prehistoric Settlement and Pillow Mounds at Legis Tor, Sheepstor, Devon, England
Prehistoric Settlement and Pillow Mounds at Legis Tor, Sheepstor, Devon, England

Warrens typically comprise several specially constructed breeding sites called pillow mounds or rabbit buries, designed to centralise the rabbit colony and simplify the process of capturing the animals using nets, ferrets, or dogs.

These mounds vary in structure but are often encircled by ditches, featuring underlying channels or positioned on inclines to aid in drainage, and their interiors might be fitted with stone slab nests or excavations in the subsoil or bedrock.

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Pillow Mound, a Status Symbol

Additional structures related to warrens might include traps for predators, typically a dead-fall mechanism within a tunnel, and occasionally, traps for the rabbits themselves, allowing for selective removal without harm.

More extensive warrens could also provide accommodations for the warrener, the person responsible for overseeing the warren, which might come with a garden and additional buildings.

Rabbits were seen as powerful in medieval manuscripts

Initially, warrens were a symbol of elite societal status, but they became widespread, featuring on numerous manors and estates by the 16th and 17th centuries. Their use persisted into the modern era, waning only with shifts in agricultural methods and the advent of myxomatosis in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Found across England, with the oldest situated in the south, there are roughly 1,000 to 2,000 known examples, especially prevalent in uplands, heathlands, and coastal areas. The financial yields from a well-managed warren could be significant, often justifying the allocation of valuable lowland agricultural land for this purpose.

Warrens, while relatively widespread, hold significant historical value for their links to various types of ancient monuments, encompassing settlements, deer parks, field systems, and fishponds, reflecting the economic landscape of both secular and religious domains. Consequently, all well-preserved medieval warrens are deemed important for conservation, alongside a selection of well-maintained later examples.

Construction and Features

Pillow mounds, the primary structures within rabbit warrens, were carefully engineered to replicate the natural habitat of rabbits, thereby optimizing the conditions for their breeding and habitation. These elongated earthworks were constructed with a keen understanding of the environmental needs of rabbits, providing a safe and controlled setting conducive to their proliferation.

Pillow Mound at Trowlesworthy, Sheepstor, Devon, England
Pillow Mound at Trowlesworthy, Sheepstor, Devon, England

The mounds typically consisted of a core made from a mix of soil, stones, and organic materials, which was then covered with a layer of earth to create a raised platform that could vary in length and width but was generally consistent in height, rarely exceeding 3 feet.

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The location and orientation of pillow mounds were strategically chosen to ensure optimal living conditions for the rabbits and ease of access for management. Placement on sloping ground was common, utilising natural gradients to facilitate drainage and prevent water accumulation, which could lead to damp conditions harmful to the rabbits.

The surrounding ditches not only served as physical barriers deterring predators but also played a crucial role in drainage, helping maintain the dryness and stability of the mound structure.

Internally, the mounds were intricately structured to include tunnels and chambers, mimicking the burrows that rabbits naturally create.

These spaces allowed for the sheltering of rabbits, enabling them to breed and rear their young in relative safety. The construction often incorporated stone slabs or utilised the bedrock to create durable nesting sites resistant to collapse and capable of withstanding environmental stresses.


Managing a warren required regular access to the rabbits, whether for culling, monitoring, or protection. Therefore, the mounds were engineered to allow warreners to control rabbit populations effectively. Access points were strategically placed to enable the warrener to introduce or remove rabbits with minimal disruption to the colony.

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The incorporation of vermin traps and protective enclosures reflected the need to safeguard the valuable rabbit stock from predators and poachers, illustrating a blend of utility and security in the mound’s design.

The warrens were built from soil dug from a ditched and heaped. The red line is the length of warren with Sarcen Stone in the middle. The warren is in medieval landscape, which you would expect. The blue line would have been the original track used by the medieval peasants to reach the open field system on top of the hill. Still in use a thousand years later by the current farmer.

In larger warrens, the complexity of the pillow mound structures could be quite advanced, featuring interconnected burrow systems and multiple entry and exit points.

This complexity allowed for effective colony management and facilitated the selective harvesting of the rabbits, ensuring a sustainable population while meeting the economic demands for rabbit products.

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The construction of pillow mounds was an early form of environmental adaptation. By mimicking natural rabbit habitats, these structures provided a sustainable method of rabbit farming that could be continuously used with minimal ecological disruption.

The integration of the mounds into the landscape was carried out with an awareness of the surrounding ecosystem, often maintaining the balance between productive warrening and the preservation of local flora and fauna.

Social and Economic Significance

In medieval society, the ownership and control of warrens were significant status symbols. Given the high value of rabbit fur and meat, these facilities were predominantly under the domain of the nobility and ecclesiastical institutions.

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Exclusive warren rights were emblematic of social prestige and economic power, often leading to legal disputes over hunting and warrening privileges, which were sometimes settled in manorial courts. The monopoly over such a lucrative resource underscored the societal hierarchies and power dynamics of the period.

Low Mound (Rabbit Warren) Hollybush Hill, Malvern Hills. Inside the Midsummer Hill Iron Age hill fort this rectangular feature is still described on OS maps as a “Pillow Mound”,

The economic implications of rabbit warrening were substantial. Rabbit meat was a sought-after source of protein, particularly valued during times like Lent when the consumption of red meat was forbidden.

Additionally, rabbit fur was a luxury commodity, widely used in the clothing industry for garments and accessories, fueling a profitable trade sector.

The operation of warrens contributed significantly to the local and regional economies, creating jobs for warreners, trappers, and traders, and generating revenue through the sale of meat and fur in local markets and further afield.

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The integration of warrens into the medieval landscape had notable agricultural and environmental ramifications. While they provided a controlled environment for rabbit breeding, their presence could lead to overgrasing and crop damage, resulting in conflicts with local farmers.

The management of these warrens required a delicate balance to prevent ecological degradation while maximising economic yield. This dynamic reflects the broader challenges of medieval land use and resource management, where the benefits of economic exploitation were weighed against the risks of environmental harm.

Cultural and Culinary Influences

Rabbit meat, valued for its delicate flavor and nutritional qualities, held a place of prestige in medieval cuisine, especially among the aristocracy and wealthy classes. It was often featured in elaborate dishes at banquets, symbolising both affluence and the culinary sophistication of the host.

Medieval kitchen fireplace – one of the fireplaces in Gainsborough Old Hall medieval kitchen with a fire cooking garlic broth in a cauldron.

Medieval cookbooks and dietary treatises frequently included rabbit recipes, which were considered suitable for the most prestigious occasions, reflecting the animal’s status as a luxury food item.

The preparation and consumption of rabbit dishes were imbued with cultural significance, embodying a fusion of gastronomic innovation and tradition.

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The methods of cooking, which ranged from roasting and stewing to being included in pies and pâtés, were indicative of the culinary skills and resources available to cooks of the time. The inclusion of rabbit meat in feasts and celebrations highlighted its role in the social rituals that were central to medieval communal life.

Symbolism and Artistic Representation

Rabbits and hares in medieval iconography were laden with symbolic meanings, often representing purity, fertility, and occasionally, cunning or abundance.

They appeared in various forms of art, including illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, and paintings, reflecting their importance in the cultural and imaginative landscape of the period.

The frequent depiction of these animals in hunting scenes or as part of the natural background illustrated their ubiquity and significance in medieval life.

Rabbit Pie

In literature, rabbits were sometimes used as allegorical devices or featured in fables and stories, embodying different virtues or vices, further embedding them in the cultural consciousness of medieval society.

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Their portrayal in these contexts was not merely decorative but served to communicate moral, religious, or philosophical messages to the audience.

Pillow Mounds Influence on Social Customs and Traditions

The rearing and hunting of rabbits were activities that often had ceremonial elements attached to them, reflecting broader social customs and traditions.

The warren itself, as a managed landscape, was a space where social hierarchies were enacted and reinforced, with exclusive hunting parties or feasting events serving as displays of wealth and power.

The practices surrounding rabbit hunting and feasting were imbued with ritualistic significance, often intertwined with the social codes and etiquettes of the time.

Pillow Mound, Ashdown Forest. Artificial warrens constructed for the use of rabbit farming during the medieval period.
Pillow Mound, Ashdown Forest. Artificial warrens constructed for the use of rabbit farming during the medieval period. Image credit: Simon Carey

Feasting on rabbit meat during specific religious or seasonal celebrations was a tradition that underscored the meat’s cultural value and its role in marking the rhythms of the year.

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The consumption of rabbit was particularly noted during Lent, when stricter dietary rules applied, and rabbit meat was one of the foods that could be eaten, aligning culinary practices with religious observance.

Regional Variations and Influences

The culinary significance of rabbits varied across different regions, influenced by local traditions, availability, and tastes. In some areas, rabbit dishes were everyday fare, while in others, they were reserved for special occasions.

The regional recipes and cooking methods reflected the local gastronomy, incorporating indigenous ingredients, and cooking techniques, and contributing to the diverse culinary landscape of medieval Europe.

Legal and Political Frameworks of Pillow Mounds

In medieval Europe, the legal rights to establish and maintain rabbit warrens were often strictly regulated, reflecting the broader feudal system where land and its resources were closely controlled. Ownership of a warren was typically reserved for the nobility, monasteries, or the crown, serving as a clear indicator of status and privilege.

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The right to hunt, breed, and trade rabbits was a significant aspect of land tenure, often explicitly mentioned in legal documents, charters, and grants, underscoring its importance in the medieval legal framework.

The rabbit is no longer seen as noble food

Regulations surrounding warrens were not merely about property rights; they also encompassed detailed management practices, specifying how warrens should be maintained, how rabbits were to be hunted, and how the land could be used to prevent over-exploitation and ensure sustainability.

These laws were a reflection of the economic and ecological understanding of the time, aiming to balance the profitability of rabbit farming with environmental and agricultural concerns.

Economic Regulations and Taxation of Pillow Mounds

The economic significance of rabbits, particularly their fur and meat, made warrens subjects of taxation and economic regulation. Authorities might impose taxes on the profits derived from rabbit sales, or require dues in the form of rabbits or their pelts.

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These regulations were often detailed, specifying the size, quality, and quantity of rabbits or fur that needed to be rendered to the lord or the state, reflecting the commodity’s value in the medieval economy.

Such economic controls also extended to trade restrictions or monopolies, where certain markets or trade routes were designated for rabbit trade, controlling the supply and price of rabbits and their products. This not only regulated the economy but also reinforced the social stratification, as only certain classes could legally trade or consume rabbits.

Disputes and Legal Conflicts

The high value of rabbit warrens often led to legal disputes over ownership, boundaries, poaching rights, and damages caused by rabbits to neighboring lands. These disputes could be complex, involving local courts, manorial courts, or even higher authorities.

The records of such disputes provide insights into the legal principles of the time, the importance of warrens in the medieval economy, and the conflicts between agricultural and warrening interests.

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Legal conflicts often arose from the rabbits’ tendency to stray onto adjacent lands, causing damage to crops and prompting complaints from neighboring landowners. The resolution of these disputes required careful negotiation and legal adjudication, balancing the warren owner’s rights with the broader community’s agricultural interests.

Sociopolitical Implications

The control and management of rabbit warrens were entangled with the sociopolitical fabric of medieval society. They were a microcosm of the broader societal order, reflecting the hierarchies, governance structures, and economic priorities of the time.

The exclusivity of warren ownership mirrored the societal stratification, where the elite controlled significant economic resources and the legal system that governed their use.

Moreover, the management of warrens and the legal frameworks surrounding them were indicative of the medieval understanding of stewardship, property rights, and resource management.

They highlight how legal and political structures were deployed to manage valuable economic resources, maintain social order, and resolve conflicts, providing a window into the complex interplay between law, economy, and society in the medieval period.