Last week, in a post about warrens, I wrote that the white belly-fur of a rabbit was prized because it looked like ermine from a distance. What, though, apart from being a fur used by royalty and nobles to trim their clothes, was ermine?

It comes from the stoat, whose fur changes colour over the course of the year from reddish-brown in summer to white (save for the black tip of the tail) in winter. In England its use was restricted by law to royalty and nobility, hence the frequent use of the much less expensive rabbit fur. The black tips of the tails were arranged at regular intervals to make a pattern.

Stoats are not very big, so you needed a lot to make even a piece of trimming. In 1347 Pope Clement VI ordered 430 ermine skins for a cape for himself, 310 skins for a mantle (a sleeveless cape usually worn by women) and 362 for five hoods. That’s over a thousand stoats for one man in one year.

The furs came from northern and eastern Russia, via the Black Sea, and they were packed in barrels for the voyage. Since the furs weren’t prepared beforehand, they must have been terribly smelly when the lids were taken off.

Ermine was also an heraldic term. It meant black spots in any pattern on a white background, as in the arms of the dukes of Brittany in the photograph at the top of the post.

In art it was a symbol of chastity, particularly when used in the depiction of virgin saints. It can be seen in this sixteenth-century portrait of St. Ursula. According to many of the legends about her, she had the right to wear it on two counts, being both a daughter of the duke of Brittany and a virgin saint.

By Jean Bourdichon XVIe –, Public Domain,

Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Medieval Hunting by Richard Almond
Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art by James Hall
Power and Profit by Peter Spofford

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:




Filed under Medieval Clothing

21 responses to “Ermine

  1. I wonder if modern royal regalia will use real first?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What the dickens is going on in the picture?? Why are all the ladies being murdered?

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Always interesting April. I wouldn’t want to be there when those skins were unpacked! Poor St Ursula and her holy virgins. What really happened there, and why, I wonder?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Good question! Gonna have to Google that after the family leaves.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A blessed Easter, Passover and Ramadan to all observers.

    May you celebrate in peace and love.


    Liked by 3 people

  6. Funny how many things can be killed/skinned/made an example of, over time/history, over and over, to ‘add to the glory’ of those in charge of the killing – sigh – sorry – your post reminded me of the near wiping out of North American continent of Beavers – cuz Beaver skin hats were promoted/marketed/lauded, ‘as the smart fashion choice for those who know what’s what, this season AND can afford to pay for it/demand it” – – all against one dark of the night, camping trip to western Canada, nearly 4 decades ago, when my Dad and Uncle, touched me and my cousins shoulders, and said, in quiet whispers, “Shh….be quiet….the beavers are working on their house – be quiet, walk slow and let your eyes adjust to the night – you need to see how a Beaver builds it’s house and winter shelter, but if you shout or make a lot of noise, you’ll miss out and you may never have a chance to see this again….”

    Liked by 2 people

    • We’re seeing a resurgence of beaver dams in Indiana – yay! Many places are letting them stay. Farmers are realizing that lowlands are too iffy to farm, and beavers are indicative of a healing ecosystem. ♥

      Liked by 2 people

      • Awesome! everything has it’s place and when one thing wiped out to protect another in dominance? Bad things happen, one way or another – I read, a few years ago, that after re-introduction of wolves to yellowstone, the Beaver population quickly rebounded..sooner than any biologist, environmentalist, etc., thought they would… why? Last I read was the wolves kept the elk/deer moving and herds that loved to eat seedlings near the bank, from decimating the plants beavers need – that’s the latest hypothesis on ‘why’ I’ve followed/read – sigh – just now? I’m following closely the stories of ranchers in Colorado areas who are implementing changes in generations old ways of ranching, to avoid breaking the law if they protect their herds/livlihood – including return to more rolling range herd riding of the cowboy traditions of yore, livestock guardian dogs and/or rescue wild donkeys additions to herds – on all fronts? I personally, find myself in ‘reading both sides, and holding my breath in wait and see’ mode to see what works for all involved and what doesn’t – fingers crossed -for all ecosystems and those who survive within them, best as they know how or are willing to try – set I – right now – 😀

        Liked by 2 people

        • Interesting indeed! Maybe the increase of coyotes, as well as the hunting and collisions with autos is keeping our deer population in check here in Hoosierland. May be assisting our beavers. We may see a resurgence of wolverines if the beaver increase. Every creature eats and is eaten, no matter how large.

          A nice subject to consider with April being the month of Earth Day! ♥

          Liked by 1 person

          • Here on the eastern plains, I haven’t heard for quite some time, the coyote den that used to serenade me to sleep through my bedroom window, from their ‘home’ located about 2 miles north of me (I live at very edge of town) – The wild turkeys, that were often seen, before, along the mostly dry creekbed north of me, have slowly but surely migrated into town, and fewer coyotes and more turkeys have happened the past 3 years – not certain why, exactly – – The year of 2020, saw a cyclical resurgence of a disease that routinely decimates both wild and domestic rabbit populations (it really hit the news/social media in spades, due to that summer of 2020 being so covered in fear from COVID and the discovery of 4-h/Fair rabbits for show, testing positive – in fall of 2020, at regular vet visit, I asked my vet, and she said, “It’s not anything new – this happens to the rabbit population, given weather/season variables, about every 7-10 years.” –

            So, I can only wonder, while I rejoice over the facts my spring tulips in open range, dry garden areas, are actually surviving/thriving the past two years! All while I wonder (um, no good rabbit or diseased rabbits – – is that why the coyotes are gone? Or have they moved to where natural stands of water are more available than we’ve had here for awhile) Since I’m not an expert, I do not know – but I notice such things, just as you do – in your neck of the woods.


            • Disappearing coyotes is very worrisome. Here in north-central Indiana they’re increasing. Thanks for the heads up.

              I do recall the rabbit issue. Our 4Hers were also unable to bring their animals to the fair. I don’t remember if they were judged separately in a different locale or just not shown at all.

              Apparently nature deals with overpopulation if we leave things alone.

              Liked by 1 person

              • I whine about the lack of spring/August monsoon rains we used to get, before the drought years, but, on the plus side? Fewer tumbleweeds to clean up each fall/winter/spring! 😀 Learned how to look for the spring seedlings in at my place, the first spring after a wet previous spring/summer – ahhh- so much to learn – so little time to learn it all! I just try to log in my journal/memory when these little gems of ‘wisdom’ are given to me by those who are experts in their chosen speciality – 😀

                Liked by 1 person

    • Beavers did become extinct here, but are being reintroduced. I don’t know how successful it is.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. 1,000 skins for one man in a year? I wonder if Pope Clement VI ever received him, as I can’t help but notice that was the year (1347) the plague entered Europe. But it didn’t take hold in Britain until 1348, so perhaps he received them before things got crazy. I look forward to next week’s post about St. Ursula!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a good point. The skins wouild have travelled in the same direction as the Black Death, from east to west, so possibly not. It’s more likely that he did, as I suspect my source is quoting from the pope’s accounts which would have recorded a payment.

      Liked by 2 people

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