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Heraldic vair Blason de la ville de Hellemmes (59) Nord-France.svg
Heraldic vair
A unit of the heraldic fur vair, pointing downwards, VairUnit svg element.svg
A unit of the heraldic fur vair, pointing downwards,

Vair ( /vɛər/ ; from Latin varius "variegated") is a fur, and a set of patterns in heraldry. It represents a kind of fur common in the Middle Ages, made from the greyish-blue backs of squirrels sewn together with the animals' white underbellies. Vair is the second-most common fur in heraldry, after ermine.

Latin Indo-European language of the Italic family

Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.

Heraldry profession, study, or art of creating, granting, and blazoning arms and ruling on questions of rank or protocol

Heraldry is a broad term, encompassing the design, display, and study of armorial bearings, as well as related disciplines, such as vexillology, together with the study of ceremony, rank, and pedigree. Armory, the best-known branch of heraldry, concerns the design and transmission of the heraldic achievement. The achievement, or armorial bearings usually includes a coat of arms on an shield, helmet, and crest, together with any accompanying devices, such as supporters, badges, heraldic banners, and mottoes.

Squirrel family of mammals

Squirrels are members of the family Sciuridae, a family that includes small or medium-size rodents. The squirrel family includes tree squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, marmots, flying squirrels, and prairie dogs amongst other rodents. Squirrels are indigenous to the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa, and were introduced by humans to Australia. The earliest known squirrels date from the Eocene period and are most closely related to the mountain beaver and to the dormouse among other living rodent families.



Vair fur Russian squirrel belly skins.jpg
Vair fur

The word vair, with its variant forms veir and vairé, was brought into Middle English from Old French, from Latin varius "variegated", [1] and has been alternatively termed variorum opus (Latin, meaning "variegated work"). [2]

Middle English Stage of the English language from about the 12th through 15th centuries

Middle English was a form of the English language, spoken after the Norman conquest (1066) until the late 15th century. English underwent distinct variations and developments following the Old English period. Scholarly opinion varies, but the Oxford English Dictionary specifies the period when Middle English was spoken as being from 1150 to 1500. This stage of the development of the English language roughly followed the High to the Late Middle Ages.

Old French was the language spoken in Northern France from the 8th century to the 14th century. In the 14th century, these dialects came to be collectively known as the langue d'oïl, contrasting with the langue d'oc or Occitan language in the south of France. The mid-14th century is taken as the transitional period to Middle French, the language of the French Renaissance, specifically based on the dialect of the Île-de-France region.

The squirrel in question is a variety of the Eurasian red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris. In the coldest parts of Northern and Central Europe, especially the Baltic region, the winter coat of this squirrel is blue-grey on the back and white on the belly, and was much used for the lining of cloaks called mantles. It was sewn together in alternating cup-shaped pieces of back and belly fur, resulting in a pattern of grey-blue and grey-white which, when simplified in heraldic drawing and painting, became blue and white in alternating pieces. [2]

Red squirrel species of tree squirrel common throughout Eurasia

The red squirrel or Eurasian red squirrel is a species of tree squirrel in the genus Sciurus common throughout Eurasia. The red squirrel is an arboreal, omnivorous rodent.

Baltic Sea A sea in Northern Europe bounded by the Scandinavian Peninsula, the mainland of Europe, and the Danish islands

The Baltic Sea is a marginal sea of the Atlantic Ocean, enclosed by Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, northeast Germany, Poland, Russia and the North and Central European Plain.

Lining (sewing) inner layer of fabric, fur, or other material

In sewing and tailoring, a lining is an inner layer of fabric, fur, or other material inserted into clothing, hats, luggage, curtains, handbags and similar items.


Barry of six vair and gules, arms of the Lords of Coucy Coucy.png
Barry of six vair and gules, arms of the Lords of Coucy
Vair ancien Coa England Family Beauchamp of Hatch.svg
Vair ancien

In early heraldry, vair was represented by means of straight horizontal lines alternating with wavy lines. Later it mutated into a pattern of bell or pot-like shapes, conventionally known as panes or "vair bells", of argent and azure, arranged in horizontal rows, so that the panes of one tincture form the upper part of the row, while those of the opposite tincture are on the bottom. [lower-roman 1] The early form of the fur is still sometimes found, under the name vair ondé (wavy vair) or vair ancien (ancient vair)(Ger. Wolkenfeh, "cloud vair"). [lower-roman 2] The only mandatory rule concerning the choice of tincture is the respect of the heraldic rule of tincture, that orders the use of a metal and a color. [3]

Rule of tincture rule of color composition

The most basic rule of heraldic design is the rule of tincture: metal should not be put on metal, nor colour on colour. This means that Or and argent may not be placed on each other; nor may any of the colours be placed on another colour. Heraldic furs as well as "proper" are exceptions to the rule of tincture.

When the pattern of vair is used with other colours, the field is termed vairé or vairy [lower-roman 3] of the tinctures used. Normally vairé consists of one metal and one colour, although ermine or one of its variants is sometimes used, with an ermine spot appearing in each pane of that tincture. Vairé of four colours (Ger. Buntfeh, "gay-coloured" or "checked vair") is also known, usually consisting of two metals and two colours. [3] [4]

Traditionally vair was produced in three sizes, and each size came to be depicted in armory. A field consisting of only three rows, representing the largest size, was termed gros vair or beffroi (from the same root as the English word belfry); vair of four rows was simply vair, while if there were six rows, representing the smallest size, it was menu-vair (whence the English word miniver). This distinction is not generally observed in English heraldry, and is not strictly observed in continental heraldry, although in French heraldry it is customary to specify the number of rows if there are more than four. [3] [4]

Arrangement Variants

There are also forms of vair in which the arrangement of the rows is changed. The most familiar is counter-vair (Fr. contre vair), in which succeeding rows are reversed instead of staggered, so that the bases of the panes of each tincture are opposite those of the same tincture in adjoining rows. Less common is vair in pale (Fr. vair en pal or vair appointé, Ger. Pfahlfeh), in which the panes of each tincture are arranged in vertical columns. In German heraldry one finds Stürzpfahlfeh, or reversed vair in pale. Vair in bend (Fr. vair en bande) and vair in bend sinister (Fr. vair en barre), in which the panes are arranged in diagonal rows, is found in continental heraldry. Vair in point (Fr. vair en pointe, Ger. Wogenfeh, "wave vair") is formed by reversing alternate rows, as in counter-vair, and then displacing them by half the width of a pane, forming an undulating pattern across adjoining rows. German heraldry also uses a form called Wechselfeh, or "alternate vair", in which each pane is divided in half along a vertical line, one side being argent and the other azure. [3] [4] . Any of these may be combined with size or color variations, though the variants which changed several aspects are correspondingly rarer.

Potent and other shapes

Potent [lower-roman 4] (Ger. Sturzkrückenfeh, "upside-down crutch vair") is a similar pattern, consisting of T-shapes. In this form, the familiar "vair bell" is replaced by a T-shaped figure, known as a "potent" due to its resemblance to a crutch. The pattern used with tinctures other than argent and azure is termed potenté or potenty of those colours. The appearance of this shape is thought by some authorities to have originated from crude draftsmanship, although others regard it as an old and perfectly acceptable variation. A regularly encountered variation of potent is counter-potent or potent-counter-potent (Ger. Gegensturzkrückenfeh), which is produced in the same fashion as counter-vair; potent in point (Ger. Verschobenes Gegensturzkrückenfeh, "displaced counter-potent") is also found, and there is no reason why one could not, in principle, have potent in bend, potent of four colours, etc. [3] [4]

Three other, rarer furs are also seen in continental heraldry, of unclear derivation but most likely from variations on vair made to imitate other types of animals: in plumeté or plumetty, the panes are depicted as feathers; and in papelonné or papellony they are depicted as scales, resembling those of a butterfly's wings, whence the name is derived. In German heraldry there is a fur known as Kürsch, or "vair bellies", consisting of panes depicted hairy and brown. [3] [4] Here the phrase "vair bellies" may be a misnomer, as the belly of the red squirrel is always white, although its summer coat is indeed reddish brown.

See also

Related Research Articles

In heraldry, gules is the tincture with the colour red. It is one of the class of five dark tinctures called "colours", the others being azure (blue), sable (black), vert (green) and purpure (purple).


In heraldry, mantling or lambrequin is drapery tied to the helmet above the shield. In paper heraldry it is a depiction of the protective cloth covering worn by knights from their helmets to stave off the elements, and, secondarily, to decrease the effects of sword-blows against the helmet in battle, from which it is usually shown tattered or cut to shreds; less often it is shown as an intact drape, principally in those cases where clergy use a helmet and mantling, although this is usually the artist's discretion and done for decorative rather than symbolic reasons.

Tincture (heraldry) colour used to emblazon a coat of arms in heraldy

Tinctures constitute the limited palette of colours and patterns used in heraldry. The need to define, depict, and correctly blazon the various tinctures is one of the most important aspects of heraldic art and design.

Variation of the field heraldic term

In heraldry, variations of the field are any of a number of ways that a field may be covered with a pattern, rather than a flat tincture or a simple division of the field.

Field (heraldry) background of a shield or flag

In heraldry, the background of the shield is called the field. The field is usually composed of one or more tinctures or furs. The field may be divided or may consist of a variegated pattern.

Ordinaries in heraldry are sometimes embellished with stripes of colour alongside them, have lumps added to them, shown with their edges arciform instead of straight, have their peaks and tops chopped off, pushed up and down out of the usual positions, or even broken apart.

Bleu celeste tincture

Bleu celeste is a rarely occurring and non-standard tincture in heraldry. This tincture is sometimes also called ciel or simply celeste. It is depicted in a lighter shade than the range of shades of the more traditional tincture azure, which is the standard blue used in heraldry.

Coat of arms of Yukon

The coat of arms of Yukon is the heraldic symbol representing the Canadian territory of Yukon. The arms was commissioned by the federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and designed by well-known heraldry expert Alan Beddoe in the early 1950s. It was officially approved by Queen Elizabeth II in 1956.

Ordinary (heraldry) basic geometric charge in heraldry

In heraldry, an ordinary is a simple geometrical figure, bounded by straight lines and running from side to side or top to bottom of the shield. There are also some geometric charges known as subordinaries, which have been given lesser status by some heraldic writers, though most have been in use as long as the traditional ordinaries. Diminutives of ordinaries and some subordinaries are charges of the same shape, though thinner. Most of the ordinaries are theoretically said to occupy one-third of the shield; but this is rarely observed in practice, except when the ordinary is the only charge.

Ermine (heraldry) "fur", or varied tincture, in heraldry

Ermine in heraldry is a "fur", a type of tincture, consisting of a white background with a pattern of black shapes representing the winter coat of the stoat. The linings of medieval coronation cloaks and some other garments, usually reserved for use by high-ranking peers and royalty, were made by sewing many ermine furs together to produce a luxurious white fur with patterns of hanging black-tipped tails. Due largely to the association of the ermine fur with the linings of coronation cloaks, crowns and peerage caps, the heraldic tincture of ermine was usually reserved to similar applications in heraldry.

Compone heraldic variation

In heraldry, an ordinary componé, compony, gobony or anciently gobonne is composed of a row of panes of alternating tinctures, most often affecting the bordure.

Blazon art of describing heraldic arms in proper terms

In heraldry and heraldic vexillology, a blazon is a formal description of a coat of arms, flag or similar emblem, from which the reader can reconstruct the appropriate image. The verb to blazon means to create such a description. The visual depiction of a coat of arms or flag has traditionally had considerable latitude in design, but a verbal blazon specifies the essentially distinctive elements. A coat of arms or flag is therefore primarily defined not by a picture but rather by the wording of its blazon. Blazon also refers to the specialized language in which a blazon is written, and, as a verb, to the act of writing such a description. This language has its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax, which becomes essential for comprehension when blazoning a complex coat of arms.


Tricking is a method for indicating the tinctures (colours) used in a coat of arms by means of text abbreviations written directly on the illustration. Tricking and hatching are the two primary methods employed in the system of heraldry to show colour in black and white illustrations.

German heraldry

German heraldry is the tradition and style of heraldic achievements in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, including national and civic arms, noble and burgher arms, ecclesiastical heraldry, heraldic displays and heraldic descriptions. German heraldic style is one of the four major broad traditions within European heraldry and stands in contrast to Gallo-British, Latin and Eastern heraldry, and strongly influenced the styles and customs of heraldry in the Nordic countries, which developed comparatively late. Together, German and Nordic heraldry are often referred to as German-Nordic heraldry.

Crosses in heraldry heraldic figure

A number of cross symbols were developed for the purpose of the emerging system of heraldry, which appeared in western Europe in about 1200. This tradition is partly in the use of the Christian cross an emblem from the 11th century, and increasingly during the age of the Crusades. A large number of cross variants were developed in the classical tradition of heraldry during the late medieval and early modern periods. Heraldic crosses are inherited in modern iconographic traditions and are used in numerous national flags.

Coat of arms of Oxford coat of arms of the city of Oxford

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Roundel (heraldry) heraldry term for a circular charge

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  1. Usage varies as to whether the panes in the upper part of each row should be argent or azure. There is no rule, but following the reasoning that metals are more "honourable" than colours, the leading authorities suggest that argent should come first. This is the usual practice in French heraldry, but in British armory the top row is usually azure.
  2. As with many heraldic terms, the Norman French spelling is commonly used, even in English heraldry; but the Anglicized form, vair ancient, is also found.
  3. Sometimes, in older authorities, varry or verry.
  4. Occasionally, varry cuppy.
  1. "Vair". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. New York:Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.
  2. 1 2 Veale, Elspeth M.: The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages, p. 224.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Woodward and Burnett, A Treatise on Heraldry, pp. 68–71.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry, pp. 79–83.

This article incorporates text from A. C. Fox-Davies' 1914 edition of Charles Boutell's