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How ferrets became the ultimate Renaissance art accessory

How ferrets became the ultimate Renaissance art accessory

We trace the surprising history of the ferret, from Ancient Egyptian pet to Renaissance art icon (plus an infamous appearance on Yorkshire TV news)

The Latin name for the ferret (mustela putorius furo) means “mouse-catching smelly thief.” In many ways that sums up mankind’s relationship with one of our oldest household animals.

To fans, ferrets are clever, attractive and tough. To detractors, they are stinking, vicious and so bad-tempered they could start a fight in an empty house. The ferret is the marmite of the animal kingdom.

Ancient origins

Our relationship with the animal the Romans knew as furritis (“the little fur thief”) goes back a very long way.

A member of the weasel family, the ferret is a descendant of the polecat. It is believed it was first domesticated (the term is relative) by the Ancient Egyptians to keep rodents away from grain stores.

By the time of the Romans, the ferret was also being used to hunt rabbits, a task for which it is still used in Britain today.

Rabbit hunter

Medieval tapestry design showing peasants hunting rabbits with ferrets from Burrell collectionCredit: dun_deagh, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Tapestry in the Burrell Collection, Peasants Hunting Rabbits with Ferrets

Rabbits were introduced into England by the Normans and the ferret seems to have followed soon afterwards.

By 1281, the court of King Edward I included on its rolls a “ferreter”, while King Richard III controlled the use of ferrets for hunting by issuing royal warrants to give permission.

Symbol of chastity and fertility

Elizabeth I strokes white ermine in portraitWilliam Segar, The Ermine Portrait of Elizabeth I of England

In Renaissance Europe the sharp-toothed little animal became something of a fashion accessory.

Leonardo da Vinci painted Cecilia Gallerani fondling a white ferret, while a similar, if smaller, specimen is seen crawling up Elizabeth I's dress in the famous “Ermine Portrait” which hangs in the Courtauld Gallery.

Given its reputation as a savage, not to say evil-smelling animal (when agitated the ferret, like other members of the weasel family, releases pungent odours from its anal glands), the ferret might seem an unlikely accessory for the well-to-do lady.

"It was believed ferrets could give birth to dozens of baby ferrets while still remaining virginal"

However, in the 15th century the ferret was seen as a symbol of both chastity and fertility.

This may appear a contradiction to us, but it stemmed from a commonly held belief at the time that female ferrets (known as jills, males are hobs) conceived through their ears.

Therefore, it was believed they could give birth to dozens of baby ferrets (known as kits) while still remaining virginal.

Working animal

The ferret remains a useful, working animal. In the Victorian era, tens of thousands were imported into the US to protect the great grain towers of the Midwest from rodents.

In the 20th century, the ferret’s ability to carry cords or wires through narrow tunnels or pipes made it valuable to the telephone, aviation and oil industries.

Cultural depiction

Culturally, however, the ferret began to keep company that was rather more suited to its Latin name.

Ferrets turn up amongst the Wild Wooders who invade Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows.

They are the great companions of archetypal "smelly Herbert" Compo in long-running BBC sitcom Last of the Summer Wine.

"On a Yorkshire TV news programme Calendar in 1977, one bit the finger of well-loved presenter, Richard Whiteley"

Eddie Grundy of radio soap opera The Archers loves his ferrets so much he even wrote a country and western song about them.

Undoubtedly the ferret’s most celebrated media appearance came on a Yorkshire TV news programme Calendar in 1977, when one bit the finger of well-loved presenter, Richard Whiteley.

Clips of this extremely funny incident were shown so often on TV over the following decades that Whiteley joked that the newspaper headlines when he passed away would read “Ferret Man Dies”.

American affection

Madonna playing piano and singingCredit: Karamertoz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Modern day Renaissance woman Madonna has been known to keep ferrets as pets

It is said that Britain and the US are countries separated by a common language. It might also be said that the two nations are divided by a common animal, the ferret, or at least by their attitudes to the only domesticated member of the weasel family.

It is hard to imagine anybody in Britain feeling the overwhelming urge to pamper a ferret with presents. But such is the case in the US, where ferrets are regarded as just the cutest little things.

Mimicking the great ladies of the Renaissance, both Madonna and Paris Hilton have kept them as pets.

Online stores offer the transatlantic ferret-owner the opportunity to purchase all kinds of gifts, from a plush hammock known as The Marshall Designer Fleece Leisure Lounge, to an extensive range of deodorant sprays. There even exists a range of ferret-size hats, including a straw Stetson.

Darker side

There is a darker side to the US ferret scene. Sadly, while their fellow American ferrets cavort around in specially constructed indoor ferret freeways, others live as fugitives from justice.

It is entirely illegal to own a ferret in the state of California. An organisation called Californians for Ferret Legalization (CFL) has been campaigning vigorously to have the ban lifted.

According to CFL, there could be as many as 500,000 ferrets living underground, as it were, in the Sunshine State.

"There could be as many as 500,000 ferrets living underground in the Sunshine State"

In 1998, 50 members of another group of Californian ferret fans, Ferrets Anonymous, held a rally in San Diego. They marched through a local park, defiantly displaying their pets.

Sadly, the day ended in tragedy for one outlaw ferret, Rocky, who took exception to media intrusion and bit a cameraman. Rocky was immediately seized by law officers and summarily put down.

"California Executes Freedom-March Ferret" read the headline on the Independent Ferret News Service website.

You have to wonder what the late Richard Whiteley would have made of that.

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