Ermine

Last revised January 1997

Ermine (French: hermine, German: Hermelin, Dutch: Hermelijn)

Ermine is the fur of an animal also called ermine (Mustela erminea), of the weasel family, commonly found in Northern Eurasia.

The family of Mustelidae, made of carnivorous mammals, comprises three subfamilies:

  1. Lutrinae: otter (Lutra) and sea-otter (Enhydra)
  2. Melinae: badger (Meles), skunk (Mephitis), etc
  3. Mustelinae: wolverine (Gulo) and weasel (Mustelae)

Within the weasel (Mustelae) group, one finds the marten (genus Martes, including the sable or Martes zibellina) and the weasel proper (genus Mustela) including the polecat or Mustela putorius, ferret or Mustela furo, mink or Mustela lutreola, and ermine.

The ermine's fur is brown on top and yellowish white on bottom; but, in winter, it turns white. At all times, the tip of the tail remains black. The fur has long been prized. The animal is fairly small, so that a number of furs would be sown together to form a coat or lining. Usually, the distinctive black-tipped tail would be left on, perhaps as an indication of an authentic ermine, resulting in a white coat with black spots at regular intervals.

This pattern was imitated in heraldry, as early as the second half of the 12th c., and came to be one of the two main furs. Its appearance is a white field with a regular pattern or semy of ermine spots. The shape of the spot varied over time and place, although its standard form nowadays is that of 3 dots arranged in triangle, with a kind of tail extending downward and flaring out. The spot itself is a charge, and can be used on its own, in specified numbers, or to form a design. Fox-Davies cites Llyod, bishop of Worcester 1700-17: Argent a chevron between three crows sable, in each beak an ermine spot.

The coloring scheme of ermine can also be changed. Spots argent on sable is called ermines (Gegenhermelin in German), spots sable on or is called erminois (Goldhermelin in German) and spots or on sable is called pean. French blazon calls ermines contre-hermine. All other variations are described as herminé or semé d'hermines (for example, erminois is d'or herminé de sable).

Examples

The most famous use of ermine is in the arms of Brittany: ermine plain. Originally, Pierre "Mauclerc" de Dreux (died 1250), second son of Robert de Dreux and grandson of Louis VI of France, differenced the arms of his father (chequy or and azure a bordure gules) with a quarter ermine, which was a common mark of cadency until the 14th c. He married Alix, heiress of Brittany; his great-grandson Jean III of Brittany changed his arms to ermine plain in 1316.

Fifteen other French families use ermine plain, including Sainte-Hermine (for whom the arms are obviously canting). Four French families (Laval, Roux, Maublanc, Rousselet) bear ermines plain. Van der Eze (Guelders) and van der Kornmark bear erminois plain. Van Leefvelt bears Gules semy of ermine spots or; Beuville bears Gules semy of ermine spots argent with a fleur-de-lys of the last; Schleiden in Prussia bears Azure semy of ermine spots or, over all a lion argent.

Ermine is most common in Britain, the Low Countries and Western France.


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François Velde

Apr 01, 2000