Monday, May 14, 2018

Sumptuary Law in early Christian Times and other cultures

According to Brundage (1987) early Christians disapproved of luxury in dress.

“But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses.” (Matthew 11:8).

St Paul’s thoughts on Christian women were, they should dress quietly and modestly.

"Sweet disposition and gentle piety, not gems bangles, and flashy dresses should be the adornments that holy women cherished (1Tim. 2:9-10: cf. 1 Peter 3:3-5; Isaiah 3:16-24).

So it would seem early Christians had strong opinion on dress and initially the high church shunned sumptuous clothing for themselves, and most certainly for the commoner priest and friar. All this would change quickly as expensive clothing became the mark of the new ‘Christian Emperors.’

In her essay "Sumptuary Law", Hurlock (1965) refers to the custom of primitive societies and their reliance on sumptuary laws. The Chibcha (indigenous people of the eastern cordillera of the Andes of Colombia) forbade any common person in the tribe from decorating their bodies with paint.

The Kaffirs (or indigenous people from the region of the Great Fish River) punished members of the lower classes who attempted to ornament themselves in imitation of their social superiors.

In ancient Peru the lower classes could not use gold or silver except without express permission of the ruling group. >

Japanese sumptuary law was the most severe in civilised society. These determined not only how everyone should dress, work, speak, walk, sit, but also pray. Provincial governors were required to enforce these laws and farmers with an income of less than $100 were unable to wear zori (sandals) made from leather. Instead they wore sandals made from straw or wood with cotton straps.

Sun shades or paper umbrellas were prohibited to the lower classes and they protect themselves by wearing straw raincoats or large straw hats.

The Chinese people were aroused to great fury and open rebellion in the 13th century when ordered by their Tartar conquerors (Mongols) to cut off their hair as a sign of servitude. Many preferred to lose their heads rather than comply.

In pre-Christian Ireland, laws relating to the use of colour by different ranks were in place. These were similar in character to those found in ancient Rome. The colour purple for example, was always reserved for the royal family. Scarlet could be worn only by royal family members and high noblemen. The cost of dying cloth in ancient times was expensive and economic factors alone would influence what was worn within the caste or class structure. By the Middle Ages this began to change due to a rising Merchant Class and the spoils of war.

Brundage JA 1987 Sumptuary laws and prostitution in late Medieval Italy Journal of Medieval History 13:4 343-355.
Hurlock E B 1965 Sumptuary law In Roach ME Eicher JB Dress, adornment and the social order New York: John Wiley & Sons 295-301.

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