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Blue blood

4 February 2010

From the Spanish phrase sangre azul, indicating nobility or noble descent.

This is said to derive from the fact that the native Spanish had fairer skin, which displays veins more prominently, than people of Arab origin. The result seems to have been that the aristocracy, particularly certain families in Castille, who would not mix with the Moors, showed rather bluer blood vessels (in, for example, the back of the hand) than the ordinary folk.

In France, this became sang bleu and was more or less referential to the fact that the elite, who did not work in the fields unlike the tiers état (everyone other than nobles and clergy), had extremely fair skin which showed the deoxygenated bluish blood in their veins.

This was one of the only ways of legitimizing their social status after the Battle of Azincourt in the Hundred Years’ War. At Azincourt, nearly all of the French aristocracy were killed while the English (under Henry V, see the Shakespeare play of the same name) lost a negligible number of soldiers. Due to this loss, the aristocracy had their military function stripped so they couldn’t all be killed off again. From Azincourt onward, the aristocracy struggled to find a reason to exist, which they never really managed to do.

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