heraldry, vair is a "fur", a tincture which is simultaneously a two-coloured field treatment. It is found in a variety of colours, and appears in different arrangements, each with its own name.
It goes back, as does ermine, to a fur highly prized in
Middle Ages: squirrel.
The word "vair" is derived from the
Middle Englishforms "veir" and "vairé", ultimately from Latin "variorum opus" meaning "variegated work" (the English equivalent is "greywerk").Veale, Elspeth M.: "The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages", p. 224.]
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 stomach 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.
In the oldest records vair is represented by means of straight horizontal lines alternating with vertical wavy or
nebulylines (sometimes blazoned as "vair ondé" or "vair ancien"); this is seen in the lining of the cloak depicted on the tomb of Geoffrey V of Anjou("see image").
A fur of other colours than argent and azure is referred to as vairy (or vairé) of <metal> and <colour>. Other tinctures may be used, described as vairy, counter-vairy, potenty, or counter-potenty of (say) Or and
gules. In extremely rare circumstances there is vairy of four colours, but apparently vairy is always either of two or four colours.
The height of a row of vair is not strictly specified, but is typically about one-fifth that of the shield. Where there are more than six rows, the term menu-vair may be used. This is the origin of the English word "miniver", which was the general word for the fur lining used for robes of state.
Vair of fewer than four rows is sometimes called beffroi (a French word cognate to belfry), probably from the resemblance of a piece of vair to a church tower. The word derives from Old French berfroi and Old High German bergfrid, "The one who guards the peace". Originally, a beffroi was a wheeled tower which was used for scaling the walls of a besieged city, and which was a similar shape as the pieces of vair. Later, it became used for a watchtower, and then for any tower where a bell was hung.
Vair of two rows, called gros-vair, is occasionally seen.
Potent is a fur in
heraldry. It is like vair, except using a T-shaped item instead of the vair bell. (The word "potent" means crutch; it is thought to derive from badly-drawn vair.) It is subject to all the subvarieties of vair, thus counter-potent and so on.
Perrault's version of the fairytale Cinderella, it was thought for some time that the original intent was that the slippers were made of fur, due to a confusion of the French words "verre" (glass) and "vair" (fur). It is now contested as to whether the glass interpretation was the correct one; current studies suggest it wasFact|date=July 2008.
See also Vair and its variants
* Veale, Elspeth M.: "The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages", 2nd Edition, London Folio Society 2005. ISBN 0900952385
* [http://blog.empyree.org/?2005/09/24/1860-vrac-sur-l-anglais-et-le-franais#c2835 comment about the double translation in "Cinderella"]
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