Thursday, September 20, 2018

Sumptuary Law in the Fourteenth Century

According to Strutt (cited in Baldwin, 1926), during the 14th and 15th centuries the people of England and France loved to imitate each other. Courtly concerns about upward mobility may have influenced sumptuary control. During the reign of Edward II, (1284-1327) in 1309, a proclamation against outrageous consumption of meats and fine dishes by the great houses was issued. Parliament did not however address the royal concern with legislation.

Aristocratic luxuries introduced from France began to appear in the reign of Edward III (1327-1377). English manufacturers were quick to make these available to anyone who wanted to buy them. England's prosperity was on the increase at this time due to success in foreign wars. Many subjects wore fine garments, lined with fur, and made from superior linen. The acquisition of jewels, gold and silver plate, and rich furniture had all been acquired as a result of the war with France. The availability of costly items led gentlewomen and knights to overvalue their appearance. Each tried to outdo their neighbours with their finery and the habit soon became common place among the lower classes. Keen to promote English craftsmen and swell craft guilds in the cities and towns, Edward III used diplomatic and legislative means to achieve this end.

As a result, the artisan class prospered and this became one of the chief causes of national strength and prosperity during his reign. Edward III was described as "the king who taught the English how to dress." Although responsible for the introduction of sumptuary laws in England, he did not lead by example. The King hoped to promote prosperity in England and according to Cunningham (cited in Baldwin, 1926) had three main ways of achieving this objective. He intended to foster foreign commerce; he wanted to help English industries; and to restrict public extravagance by sumptuary legislation. During his reign English commerce spread throughout Europe. The wool trade was especially healthy and brought much wealth. The war with France provided a window of opportunity. This led to building of national wealth and coincidentally national costume. One manifestation of the new patriotism engendered throughout the reign of Edward III was the development of a style of dress. Baldwin described this as more national and not a copy of continental styles seen in previous fashions.

The frequent tournaments and other entertainments which took place in the reign of Edward III promoted a rapid succession of new fashions among the upper classes. Edward's reign saw a meteoric rise in the merchant class (Pearsall, 1996). The recognition of the laboring class and moneyed (or capitalist class) was one of the most important developments in English life from the time of Edward III, onwards. (Cunningham, cited in Baldwin, 1926). A good many changes in male costume took place about 1350. Boots became longer more pointed and also more ornate. They were sometimes laced instead of buckled. Women of the period were very fashion conscious. The royal attire of Edward III included embroidered shoes.

The reign of Edward III provided the first national sumptuary legislation on record. Statutes were passed in the Parliaments of 1336, 1337 and 1363. These are available in the Statutes of the Realm. According to Bland (1976) one act included the following

"no knight under the estate of a lord, esquire or gentleman, nor any other person, shall wear any shoes or boots having spikes or points which exceed the length of two inches, under the forfeiture of forty pence."

The 1336 Act attempted to regulate the dress of various classes of the English people. The war with France was over and the English had triumphed. But the spoils of war brought extravagance and wastefulness. Many of the parliamentarians were clerics or influenced by clerics, and the 1336 Act most probably came from their lobbying (Baldwin, 1926). The law had two levels i.e. an attempt to control excess in dress and promote English garments; and secondly an effort to preserve class distinctions by means of costume. Due to a lack of documented evidence it would seem there are no records of prosecution under the sumptuary laws of Edward III and the same law was repealed a year later.

In 1337 when war was again declared with France, the English Parliament enacted a law intended to restrain extravagance in dress and to promote the consumption of English manufacturers. The 1337 act dealt with furs, limiting the wearing thereof to persons of gentle birth (or persons with annual incomes of 100 pounds or more). The Black Death (1348 and 1350) reached England in 1348 and the end of the following year had spread to the north of the country. It was estimated at least 20% of the population died. This led to the imposition in 1351 of the Statute of Laborers which fixed wages to pre Black Death levels and prevented mobility of labour in an attempt to restore stability at a time when demand for workers was much greater than the supply (Pearsall, 1996). People were often paid in apparel and foodstuffs.

In 1355 an act was passed to restrict prostitutes from clothing more in keeping with respectable women. Later parliament of 1363 passed an act regulating both apparel and consumption of foodstuffs. This act amended a previous act from 1337 and reduced the threshold for permissible wearing of furs to any non-peasant with annual income of 40 shillings or greater. The legislation had two objectives i.e. protectionism i.e. only members of the royal family could wear cloth of non-English manufacture; and an anti-inflationary measure. Prior to this, Flemish weavers were taking English cash out of the country. The laws were an attempt retrieve lost taxes by keeping English money in the country.

During the reign of Edward III the length of shoes were regulated i.e. nobility were allowed 24" (61cm) pointed shoes; gentlemen could wear 12" (31 cm) extensions and merchants 6.5" (16 cm).

Towards the end of Richard II (1367 -1400) reign extravagance in dress and manner of living rapidly increased. Richard was a bad example to his subjects and was known as "the greatest fob ever, to occupy the throne'. His excesses were legendary and his nobles and merchants were keen to follow his lead by spending large sums of money on their dress.

The fashions from Italy and those imported by his consort. Queen Anne from Bohemia influenced even the servant class who wore long toed shoes or Cracow’s (poulaines or pokys). Shoes were sometimes worn with one colour on the right foot and another on the left. They were made of every kind of material, sewn with pearls on velvet or cloth, stamped with gold on leather, or made of raised leather. Worn with enormously long, pointed toes, sometimes they were stuffed to become stiff, sometimes left limp. Some suggestions are the end of the shoe was fastened by chains to the waste or knees, in order to allow the wearer to move about. However, no evidence has ever been found to confirm this assumption. The long toed shoe styles proved so popular and unabated it was considered necessary to pass several laws prohibiting their use.

Baldwin F E 1926 Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England Johns Hopkins Press.
Bland A 1976 A history of ballet and dance in the western world London: Barrie & Jenkins.
Pearsall R 1996 Kings & queens: a history of British monarchy New York: Todtri Productions.

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