Fur was an integral part of clothing the body in the 14th and 15th centuries. To ignore it is to willingly reject a sizable portion of knowledge about medieval historical clothing. The fur trade was a major contributor to both work-a-day and high fashion in medieval culture.
When studying historical clothing of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, we frequently consult visual examples to bolster our understanding of the textiles and tailoring used. Being able to discern the difference between fabric and fur in the figural illustrations from that time period is a useful analytical skill. Recognizing the visual clues that signify fur deepens your ability to contextually “read” illuminations and other figural art.
The purpose of this article aside from educating you about the furs in use, is to train your eye to recognize fur when it is depicted as part of clothing and hats in late 14th and early 15th century manuscripts. To fully understand the clothing as depicted, you should have a good idea when a garment is fur-lined, when you are seeing purfelles rather than a textile trim, and when you are seeing fur and not cloth in a lining. I have not covered every single fur below, but enough of them to give you a solid foundation. For some readers this will be old information. For many others though, may it be a useful introduction to the topic.
Fur’s Role in Clothing—a Rather Short, Simplified Overview
Fur’s most common role was as a lining on the inside of garments. In that time of cold, when home heating was only as effective as the fire stoked, people opted to build insulation directly into their clothing so that they were, in effect, wearing cold-weather coats all day long. It did not hurt that the result was sumptuous to the touch and beautiful to behold.
Fur also served as a decorative edging, called a purfelle. This was a strip of fur used to line the neckline, cuffs, hems, and the fitchets (slits in a gown through which hands could be passed to reach a purse hanging on a belt underneath or simply to warm the hands). Sometimes the fur lining peeked out enough from within to qualify as a subtle purfelle.
Sometimes even the outside of garments was adorned with fur. Examples of that include ermine mantles worn by kings, or the plackets of fancy open-sided surcoats seen on queens and other noble ladies.
Fur was also used in hat making, where it featured as a decorative element or served as the base material for creating rigid shapes out of felt. Both approaches also provided intense warmth.
Records from courts, accounts, wills, and other documents show that the use of fur in clothing was widespread, from lowest classes to the highest. What varied most between the classes were:
- The types of fur which could be afforded or were allowed through sumptuary laws,
- The quality of the fur—time of year when the skin was taken; skin’s geographic origin; used versus new; bedraggled versus pristine.
- The quantities owned.
For a more detailed and fascinating read on the ubiquitous nature of fur in clothing in the later middle ages in Europe (concentrated mostly on England), pick up Elspeth Veale’s The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages. Good information is also found in Fur in Dress by Elizabeth Ewing. See the end of this article for a list of suggested reading to make yourself an expert on fur in 14th and 15th century clothing.
Squirrel Fur and Its Most Costly Varieties
Probably the most popular fur in 14th and early 15th century Europe came from the Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). It’s a different species than the Eastern gray squirrel (or “city squirrel”, as I like to think of it; Sciurus carolinensis). In the late 14th century, intrepid merchants such as those in the Hanseatic League did a booming business importing red squirrel skins to England and the Continent from Scandinavia and Russia. This Baltic squirrel was prized for its lush but short coat, which made an exceptionally fine lining to clothing of all kinds. Of highest value was the belly portion, which became a delicate snowy white during winter—the most desirable season by far for the fur trade. The coats of animals are always at their thickest and silkiest at that time.
Let’s take a look at the most popular forms of squirrel fur by the names used in the Anglo-French world.
Gris (also called Bis or Bys)
Gris (pronounced “gree”) simply means “gray”. Bis appears to mean the same, though there’s reference to it meaning the entire skin, not just the gray portion. If this was the case, then I would imagine it looked something like vair (see below). Gris consisted of the back of the northern squirrel (not the belly), and at its most prized, came from the winter-harvested skin. In that time it was a light gray with an almost bluish cast to it.
Gris was a solid color, no pattern, whereby the backs of the gray squirrel were sewn together to form one uniform field of lightest, bluish gray. Gris was probably one of the most common of the high-end furs to be found in clothing in the latter half of the 14th century, based on extant records of the numbers of skins imported to England during that time.
Vair (Varium Opus)
The full backs and bellies of squirrels sewn together in a checkered pattern became known as vair. This term originally came from the concept of “variation” or “variegation”. The colors of the backs ranged from lightest bluish-gray to darker gray, almost black (Central European origin), to gray with red streaks (in spring and autumn in the Baltic region; throughout the year in Central Europe). The term “vair” also appears as a heraldic tincture, typically represented as a blue and white interchanging pattern. The tincture probably derived its color from the blue cast of the back fur. This pattern as a lining in clothing seems to have been more popular in the earlier 14th century than the later, when other squirrel pelt patterns rose to the heights of fashion, such as gris (described above) and minever (described below).
This was a popular pattern of fur dominated by the white belly of the northern squirrel, likely harvested in winter, when the coat was whitest. Each squirrel belly skin was cut into rectangles in which the darker gray of the surrounding fur would frame the white, rounded belly portion. Note, if you see a more checkered pattern where the darker fur appears at least as often as the whiter fur, you’re not looking at minever, but rather vair. Sometimes the depiction of minever shows a great deal of the surrounding darker fur. It is fair to say that there is a continuum between vair and minever, pattern-wise.
Artists of the time typically depicted the belly fur as rounded on the lower end and with three bumps at the top end. The three bumps are formed by the white fur that trails down the front legs and up the throat of the animal. The rounded portion is the bottom of the belly. The belly pelts are typically oriented so the throat and leg extensions face upward, and the rounded bottom of the belly faces downward. This is because the animal’s fur naturally slants towards the bottom of its body. This means the fur on clothing would typically slant from top to bottom, which is the sleekest, most sensible configuration.
Pured Minever (Pure DeVeire, Menuvair Puratus)
This is the white fur of squirrel bellies with all or almost all of the gray around the edges trimmed away. The resulting fur is solid white or very near to that. Pured minever was more costly than regular minever, though you would not have been a chump if you could “only” afford regular minever in your clothing. Note, many tippets—streamers hanging from short sleeves—were either lined in or made entirely of white fur, which was probably pured minever. This is one reason why you see so many white tippets in illuminated manuscripts. The thin size of this decorative addition lent itself well to the shape and size of squirrel bellies. If you haven’t read Robin Netherton’s excellent argument for these decorate sleeve endings being made from fur, check out the suggested reading list at the end of this page.
When looking at figural illuminations, you will see plenty of evidence of white linings, collars, and cuffs. This invariably represents fur, not white textile. While silk was also used as a lining and it is possible that white silk in particular was used, wardrobe accounts make it clear that fur was quite common as a lining. Squirrel in particular was imported into Europe in staggering sums on a yearly basis, so there is no reason to assume illuminators were portraying white silk linings on fine gowns when a more conspicuous and documented material is at hand—fur. Besides, silk alone will not allow your gown to drape like the gown portrayed below. Fur will get that job done better than any other material.
White Furs Other Than Squirrel
To continue my thought above, white linings are ubiquitous in manuscript illuminations of clothed figures. This was not just due to an artistic choice or convention. It was a portrayal of actual clothing, which was frequently lined in white furs. Aside from squirrel bellies, two of the most prized and rich white furs were ermine and lettice.
The animal from which ermine comes is a form of mustelid (Mustela erminea) otherwise known as the short-tailed weasel, or stoat. In northern climes in wintertime, the stoat’s fur molts from brown to snowy white. The coat grows whiter as the days grow shorter (and colder), with the well-known exception of a black tip on its tail. The fur trade term ermine applies only to this winter coat.
Scientists have posited that the black tip on the tail serves as a deflector for predatory birds, since they are drawn to the spot of black against a snowy background. Birds will aim their talons at the tip of the long tail instead of the body, which allows the stoat a chance of escape. Ironically, the tail on the weasel is long, not short, though it’s called the “short-tailed weasel”. Even more ironic is that the black-tipped tail is what makes this particular weasel so desirable to humans, and has led to its relentless capture.
When ermine skins were sewn together, the tails were either left in place or removed and powdered on the skins at regular intervals. Powdering is the process of cutting a slit in the skin, inserted the tail through it, and sewing it in place. A somewhat down-market version of this was the use of leg fur of black lambs, or tavelons of budge, instead of actual ermine tails.
Since weasels with black-tipped tails are more of a novelty to the human eye than all-white ones, it’s understandable that ermine was dear in cost and thus used as an expression of the highest levels of wealth. It was traditionally worn by royals and their family, which is why we often see it adorning kings and queens so that they may be identified more easily in manuscript illuminations.
Lettice (Letus, Letuse, Lettews, and Laitice)
More commonly called the snow weasel or the least weasel (Mustela nivalis), it does not have the black tip at the end of its tail, probably because its tail is shorter. The talons of an attacking bird would be more likely to grab the weasel’s rump when reaching for the black spot, which negates the value of a contrasting tail tip. Like ermine, lettice comes from a weasel’s winter coat at its whitest. The purest white coats could only be found in the most rugged, northerly locales and were the most prized. Its value ranked higher than minever but less than ermine.
When looking at manuscript illuminations it can be hard-to-impossible to tell the difference between the portrayal of lettice and pured minever. Weasel skins used for lettice ranged in length from 5 to 10 inches, while squirrel bellies used for pured minever ranged in length from 4 to 7 inches. Thus, it took far more squirrel pelts to cover a given area than it did weasel pelts. However, import records from late 14th-century England make clear that squirrel was by far the most commonly imported fur.
Sometimes illuminators took care to show the individual shape of each pelt sewn into a plate of fur, and those uniform sizes usually indicate squirrel, based on size. In the end, we cannot always tell whether the illuminators gave thought to whether they were portraying squirrel or weasel, but the statistical chances are in squirrel’s favor. However, when you see a white fur in which no individual pelts are portrayed, it’s certainly possible that you are seeing lettice.
Known as the pine marten (Martes martes), a mustelid, it is larger and plumper than the weasels described in the section on white furs above. Since the animal is larger, the fur is a bit longer than that of its smaller, whiter cousins, the short-tailed and least weasels. Unlike those weasels, the pine marten’s fur does not turn white during winter. The fur ranges from light to dark brown with black mixed in, with a yellowish cast to its throat. As with white weasels, the winter coat was likely more prized than the summer coat, because it was at its most lush and silky at that time.
Known as the beech or stone marten (Martes foina), it is a close relative to the pine marten. Its fur is generally lighter brown than the pine marten’s. Its throat is white, which is usually the most obvious feature distinguishing it from the pine marten. As with the pine marten, the winter coat was the ideal one for use in clothing. Also, like the pine marten, the coat does not turn white in winter.
Beaver is one of the largest rodents (Castor fiber) in existence today. Beaver pelts were quite popular in the making of clothing and hats in the 14thc century. The fur was longer and thicker than furs from the mustelid family, and served as linings only in the most sumptuous surcoats and cloaks, which had the body to support such chunky fur. Perhaps most popular though was the use of beaver in hat-making.
Chaucer mentions a “Flaundryssh bever hat” in the description of the merchant in The Canterbury Tales. Were these hats simply furred with beaver, or where they smoother hats made from felted beaver fur, like hats from later centuries, such as the top hat? I suspect both versions existed. Felted beaver fur could be dyed as well, and there are a number of textual descriptions of beaver hats in colors such as black or white.
The French term for a beaver hat was chapeau/chapel de bièvre.
The sable, yet another marten, Martes zibellina, was prized for its luxurious dark brown or black fur. It most closely resembles the pine marten in appearance, though some populations have black fur, which sets the sable apart. Like its brethren, it lives in the far northern reaches of Scandinavia, Russia, and the Baltic area of Europe. While its fur was in use throughout the 14th century, its popularity grew tremendously in the 15th century, when darker fabrics and furs became fashionable among the wealthiest.
Other Assorted Furs
Budge (Budetum, Bougie, and Bugee) and Lamb
Budge was a black lambskin originally imported to Europe from Béjaïa in modern-day Algeria which was known as Bougie, a Moorish kingdom during the Middle Ages. It initially provided a cheaper alternative to skins from the Baltic area and over time, the budge supply concentrated in Spain. The colors came in black, but also white, which was apparently less valuable than the black version. Budge was a popular fur for lining hoods. Young lambs’ fur is softer and silkier than a grown sheep’s wool fleece, and so other varieties of lamb fur was also in popular use.
Coney (Rabbit) and Hare
Coney is the term that was used to describe rabbits in Europe during the time covered. Hares are not the same animal, though similar in appearance. Hares are typically larger, and are far more common in Europe than rabbits. Rabbit fur tends to be quite silky in texture, but easily falls out, so was not as highly valued for use in clothes as other, more stable furs. Hare fur tends to mat, and as such made a better material for hatters than for clothiers, who used it to make stiff felt hat forms. These furs were not as luxurious as furs from weasels and squirrels, and consequently were more commonly found in the working classes’ clothing.
Fitch (Fichew, Ficheux)
This is mustelid more commonly known as the polecat (Mustela putorius). Like the civet cat, it’s not really a cat, being instead a close cousin to weasels. In fact, domesticated ferrets were originally bred from polecats. This fur grew in popularity once the Baltic trade in squirrels began to decline at the turn of the 15th century. Polecats were more plentiful throughout the continent of Europe. There was no need to rely on a supply from northern traders. Colors ranged from pale champagne to dark brown, and the furs were often variegated—fading from dark to light and then dark again.
Fox (Gupil, Gulonus, Vulpes, Vossiten Werk)
Fur trappers sought red, black, gray, and white varieties, especially their winter coats. This fur was typically quite thick and long, and was perhaps the one fur with the most variety in color options.
Genette (Jonette, Jehanettes, Gianetta)
This was a term for a member of the viverrid family called Genetta genetta, otherwise known as a common civet. People have historically used the term “civet cat”, though cats are from a different family—the felids. Genette has dark grey and black, lush fur, often with beautiful patterns. The blacker the fur, the more valuable it was. This animal came to the Iberian peninsula at least 1000 years ago, and still survives there today.
The lynx fur used in clothing may have come from two different varieties: the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) and the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx). The former has a shorter, smoother coat, while the latter tends to have a thicker coat, being from more northerly climes. Both varieties sport spots, and their coloring ranges from tan to gray to red to brown.
Otter pelts were a deep, rich brown, and tended to have a more solid, unvaried color than martens. It’s quite hard to look at 14th or 15th century clothing portrayals with dark brown fur and know whether one is seeing marten, sable or otter.
While this article does not covered every single fur in use in the 14th and 15th centuries, it has covered the common ones, and hopefully with enough detail and accompanying visuals to give you a solid foundation for recognizing fur in clothing in period manuscripts and other figural imagery.
Incorporating real fur into your present-day recreations can be challenging, though quite a learning experience, from what I have heard. I have yet to try it. Many people prefer to use recycled furs, for both ethical and cost reasons. You can certainly try synthetic fur products as well. If you do try it, beware the loft of the fur. Many recycled furs come from coats where the fur is worn on the outside, and such fur is often selected for its puffiness. Lining furs tended to be shorter and less puffy as a rule.
Keep in mind that fur linings were indeed ubiquitous and even the lowest classes made use of them. Sometimes that sumptuous drape you are looking for in a houpelande can’t be had with anything other than a fur lining.
Bachrach, Max. Fur: A Practical Treatise. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1949.
Ewing, Elizabeth. Fur in Dress. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1981.
Netherton, Robin. “The Tippet: Accessory After the Fact?” Medieval Clothing and Textiles, vol 1, 2005, pp. 115–132.
Newton, Stella Mary. Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1980.
Owen-Crocker, Gale, et al. Encyclopaedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c.450–1450. Leiden: Brill, 2012.
Veale, Elspeth. The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.