Debunked: The Strange Tale of Pope Gregory and the Rabbits

www.nytimes.com | 2/13/2018 | By JAMES GORMAN
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I did ask some with expertise, just to be sure. Charlie Camosy, a theologian at Fordham University who writes about ethics and animals, read the paper and supplementary material from Dr. Larson’s article in Trends in Ecology & Evolution. “Nothing about this is familiar to me,” he emailed back. He did say that misconceptions about religious ideas on animals were common.

But Dr. Larson and others took the story for granted, and the debunking started out as something else entirely. Dr. Larson researches the origins of domestic animals like dogs and pigs. He asked a graduate student in his Oxford University laboratory, Evan K. Irving-Pease, to use the well-accepted date of rabbit domestication, 600, as a basis for checking the accuracy of a tool that helps researchers use modern DNA to look back in time and estimate when different species diverged.

Mr - Irving-Pease - Bit - Housekeeping - Edict

Mr. Irving-Pease first did a bit of historical housekeeping and searched for the papal edict. “He comes back,” Dr. Larson said, “and says, ‘Small problem. It doesn’t exist.”

That was only the beginning. With a tug on that one thread, the whole story unraveled.

Mr - Irving-Pease - Kind - Telephone - Game

Mr. Irving-Pease went on to document a kind of historical telephone game, with an initial error embellished and extended by one writer after another.

The problem began, he said, in 1936 when a German geneticist, Hans Nachtsheim, writing about domestication, said that Saint Gregory of Tours (not Pope Gregory, a different person altogether) had written that fetal rabbits were popular during Lent.

Saint - Gregory - Person - Rabbits - Lent

Actually, Saint Gregory merely described one person consuming fetal rabbits during Lent, and that person was sick, died shortly thereafter, and may not even have been a Christian.

Nonetheless, in 1963, another writer, Frederick E. Zeuner, in another book on domestication, added to the mistake and said the fetal rabbits were not considered meat.

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