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.
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