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Tinctures constitute the limited palette of colours and patterns used in
The use of these tinctures dates back to the formative period of European heraldry, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but the range of tinctures and the manner of depicting and describing them has evolved over time, as new variations and practices have developed.
The basic scheme and rules of applying the heraldic tinctures dates to the formative period of heraldry, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. By the time of the earliest coloured heraldic illustrations, in the mid-thirteenth century, the use of two metals, five colours, and two furs had become standardized, and ever since that time, the great majority of heraldic art has employed these nine tinctures.
Over time, variations on these basic tinctures were developed, particularly with respect to the furs, although the authorities differ as to whether these should be considered separate tinctures, or merely varieties of existing ones. Two additional colours appeared, and were generally accepted by heraldic writers, although they remained scarce, and were eventually termed stains, from the belief that they were used to signify some dishonour on the part of the bearer. The practice of depicting certain charges as they appear in nature, termed proper, was established by the seventeenth century. Other colours have appeared occasionally since the eighteenth century, especially in continental heraldry, but their use is infrequent, and they have never been regarded as particularly heraldic, or numbered among the tinctures that form the basis of heraldic design.
The frequency with which different tinctures have been used over time has been much observed, but little studied. There are, however, some general trends of note, both with respect to the passage of time, and noted preferences from one region to another.
In medieval heraldry, gules was by far the most common tincture, followed by the metals argent and or, at least one of which necessarily appeared on the majority of arms (see below). Among the colours, sable was the second most common, followed by azure; vert, although present from the formative period of heraldic design, was relatively scarce. Over time, the popularity of azure increased above that of sable, while gules, still the most common, became less dominant. A survey of French arms granted during the seventeenth century reveals a distinct split between the trends for the arms granted to nobles and commoners. Among nobles, gules remained the most common tincture, closely followed by or, then by argent and azure at nearly equal levels; sable was a very distant fifth choice, while vert remained scarce. Among commoners, azure was easily the most common tincture, followed by or, and only then by gules, argent, and sable, which was used more by commoners than among the nobility; vert, however, was even scarcer in common arms. Purpure is so scarce in French heraldry that some authorities do not regard it as a "real heraldic tincture".
On the whole, French heraldry is known for its use of azure and or, while English heraldry is characterized by heavy use of gules and argent, and unlike French heraldry, it has always made regular use of vert, and occasional, if not extensive, use of purpure. German heraldry is known for its extensive use of or and sable. German and Nordic heraldry rarely make use of purpure or ermine, except in