Ferets-Genets-art - 1/4/98
"White Ferrets, Genets, Virgins And Unicorns" by Pamela Hewitt, the Harper.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
First published in the Shire of Tempio’s newsletter, Dreamspinner.
White Ferrets, Genets, Virgins And Unicorns
by Pamela Hewitt, the Harper (Pamela K. Hughes)
Domesticated ferrets have been with man for a very long time. Pre-historic camp sites have yielded the bones of ferrets. Shards of pottery from ancient Greece depict ferrets and Greek plays mention them. Cats from Egypt began replacing ferrets as household mousers, but ferrets remained superior to cats. Their small size allowed them to enter small spaces and battle with the rodent on their own ground. Rabbit hunting with ferrets and purse nets was the best ways to catch rabbits before the invention of fire arms. Rabbit hunting with ferrets was common in England during World War II due to meat rationing and is experiencing a resurgence. Up until the turn of the 19th century, ferrets remained one of man's best alleys for eradicating rats, mice and rabbits. The use of ferrets declined with the invention of inexpensive baits. Currently, the number of ferrets kept as pets in the United States is not far behind dogs and cats.
Documentation for ferreting during the Middle Ages is spotty and in need of vast improvement. There are many period hunting manuals that deal with hawks, but, at the moment, only Gaston Phoebus' The Hunting Book (14th century) is known to briefly touch on the subject of using ferrets for rabbit hunting. Three tapestries: Rabbit Hunting With Ferrets (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), The Ferret Hunt Tapestry (Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum) and A Peasants' Picnic (Musee du Louvre, Paris) also depict rabbit hunting with ferrets, purse nets and dogs (to catch any rabbit that escaped the nets). This need for further documentation offers the opportunity for extensive original research.
Ferrets are a domesticated species of weasels. Weasels form a rather large Family of animals, the Mustelidae. It's Sub-Family Mustelinae contains 34 species. These include the grisons, martens, mink, polecats and weasels. They are terrestrial hunters of small vertebrates, although some such as the martens are excellent climbers. Active at night, weasels generally hunt alone, capturing rodents, fish, frogs, birds and birds' eggs. Impinging on Man's domain, smaller members of the weasel family earned the French name "Poulechat" which means "chicken (killing) cat." This became Anglicized to Polecat and several members of the weasel family are commonly referred to as polecats. The domestic ferret is related to these polecats and can interbreed with some of them. The ferret's skeletal features most closely resemble the Steppe Polecat, Mustela evermanni and the European polecat, Mustela putorius. The domestic ferret is classified as Mustela putorius furo. A theif in Latin is "furoneum." Ferrets are notorious for stealing and hording small objects and food. The word ferret may also come from this Latin root. The correct word for a group of ferrets is "a business of Ferrets."
Lacking Carolus Linnaeus system of classification for animals (which was not invented until 1735), the Medieval naturalist foundered in a welter of terminology and misinformation. Ferrets were called: fitch, fitchet, poley, stinkmart, stinkmarten, foulmart, foulmartin, foumart, and fulimart. (The latter names refer to the ferrets characteristic musky odor.) To further confuse the issue, a white domestic ferret was developed and was preferred by many for hunting. This was because the white ferret was easier for hawks and hounds to distinguish from its wild cousins, polecats. Ferret fur was sold as fitch. White ferret fur is difficult to distinguish from another species of weasel, the ermine. The ermine is the same animal as the stoat. During the summer, the stoat is brown with a white underside. During the winter, the stoat turns white with a black tip of the tail. Ermine pelts were decorated with the black tails which explains the spotted effect on royal garments. During medieval times it seems likely that white ferret pelts may have been substituted for ermine.
The confusion about what is a white ferret and what is an ermine is apparent when examining works of art. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci's picture of a Lady with an Ermine could just as well be a portrait of a lady with a white ferret. There is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I with an Ermine. Curiously, this ermine wears the same black spots created by the black tails sewn on ermine pelts. Or is it another creature? Margaret Freeman in The Unicorn Tapestries describes a mythological creature called a Genet. The Genet is described as being white and having spots with a black bands on its tail. The genet also appears in the Unicorn Tapestries, at the Cloisters Museum in New York City and is pictured close to the unicorn as it dips it horn into stream from a fountain. The genet also appears in the Lady with the Unicorn Tapestries (Musee de Cluny, Paris) titled: "Sight." A wood cut in the Bible published by Antoine Verard of Paris 1500 also shows a genet at the foot of Eve in the Garden of Eden. The appearance of the genet with Queen Elizabeth, The Lady with the Unicorn and Eve are not a mistake, but an example of artistic metaphor.
According to Freeman, during the Middle Ages, Guillaume Le Clerc and others report that the weasel is a great marvel because "she receives by mouth the seed whereby she conceives," and "by the ear brings forth" her young. In essence, the weasel remains a technical virgin. This mythology explains the presence of a weasel like creature in a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I with an "Ermine." The presence of the weasel iconographicly emphasis her virginity. The presence of the Genet has the same effect for the Lady with the Unicorn and Eve. Unicorns are also symbolic of virginity, because according to legend, only a virgin can capture a Unicorn. White weasels, ferrets or genets often appear in associated with Virgins and Unicorns. One might legitimately ask how the legends of about weasels, genets and unicorns got started. The unicorn, the genet and other mythological creatures are found in the various "natural history" collections dating form the Greeks to Gesner's Historia Animalium (1555). It seems probable that a combination of misinformation and rumor may have been compounded by repeated collection and repetition until the existence of these mythical animals were accepted as fact. Some of the mythical animals may have been based upon distorted reports of real animals. In Exotic Zoology, Willy Ley explains how a real creature, the rhinoceros, may have started the legend of the unicorn. A traveler attempting to describe the rhinoceros, he might say it looked rather like a horse with a horn in the middle of its forehead. Which explains the unicorn's horse like appearance. According to legend a Unicorn's horn could detect poison in a cup of wine. Lacking a real rhinoceros horn, greedy entrepreneurs presented the narwhal's's tusk as the Unicorn horn. Distortion and misinformation created the unicorn.
As for the genet, Freeman may be mistaken about its being a legendary creature. One species of weasel, the North African spotted weasel (Poecilictis libyca) is described as black-and-white spotted and having a stripped tail like the genet. It is described as also having strips on its back and face. Since its species name is "libyca" could this be the creature described by Strabo? Mckay states that a Greek historian and geographer, Strabo, in his book Geographica (about 20AD) writes about an animal in Libya which was bred in captivity for hunting rabbits. It was used to bolt the rabbits like a ferret and could be dragged out of the burrow on a lead still hanging on to the rabbit with its claws since it was muzzled. Perhaps an albino variety of the North African spotted weasel was the creature that started the legend of the genet.
Margaret B. Freeman. The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: E.P. Dutton &
Co., Inc., 1976 (see p. 79)
Willy Ley. Exotic Zoology. New York: Bonanza Books, 1959.
Adrienne Mayor, "Grecian Weasels." Modern Ferret. Issue #15,(See p.
17-21)(Reprinted from 1989 Athenian Magazine, Athens Greece)
James McKay. Complete Guide to Ferrets. Shrewsbury, England: Swan Hill
Press, 1995 (See p. 11, p. 21-23)
Michael Woodford. A Manual Of Falconry. London: Adam and Charles
black, 1960. (See p. 114)
Copyright 1998 by Pamela Hewitt, the Harper, Pamela Keightley Hughes, 3305 Pecan Drive, Temple, TX 76502-2341. e-mail: shughes at vvm.com (2 "v"s not a "w")
Permission granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided
author is credited and receives a copy.