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Vair (from Latin varius "variegated") is the heraldic representation of patches of squirrel fur in an alternating pattern of blue and white. As a tincture, vair is considered a fur and is therefore exempted from the Rule of tincture (i.e. it can be placed upon a metal, a colour, or both). Variations of vair are laid out in different patterns, each with their own name. Vair may also be differently coloured, but this is blazoned as "Vairy of [tincture] and [tincture]", where one tincture must be a metal and the other a colour.
The word vair, with its variant forms veir and vairé, was brought into Middle English from Old French, from Latin varius "variegated", and has been alternatively termed variorum opus (Latin, meaning "variegated work").
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.
Vair-lined mantles in the 14th century Codex Manesse
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In the oldest records, vair is represented by means of straight horizontal lines alternating with wavy or nebuly lines (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 vair-like pattern of tinctures other than argent and azure is referred to as vairy (or vairé) of [metal] and [colour]. Other differently tinctured patterns are called counter-vairy, potenty or counter-potenty of [metal] and [colour], though these are rare. A few instances can be found of vairy of four tinctures, but this is very rare.
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 cognate of 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, similar in shape to the pieces of vair. Later, it was used for a watchtower, and then for any tower where a bell was hung. Vair of two rows, called gros-vair, is also 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.
It is widely believed that Perrault's version of the fairytale "Cinderella" was mistranslated into English. The story says that the original French had the slippers made of vair (fur), which was misread as the homophonous verre (glass). This story has been disputed.
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This article incorporates text from A. C. Fox-Davies' 1914 edition of Charles Boutell's