Friday, July 9, 2010

Sumptuary Law in the Thirteenth Century

Prior to the thirteenth century legislators paid scant attention to fashion, dress or adornment (Brundage, 1987). One cannon in the Decretum of Gratian (circa 1140) dealt with feminine adornment but that was more concerned with the morality of makeup than with luxurious clothing (Freiberg, 1879 cited in Brundage, 1987). Theologians and moralists prior to the end of the thirteenth century were more concerned with costume than were the lawyers and legislators of the period.

St Thomas Aquinas (1224-74) scrutinized the moral implications of luxury in women's dress. Inordinate attention to and expenditure on lavish clothing, he cautioned might under some circumstances be sinful. A single woman who had no desire to marry should dress plainly, lest she provoke men to sinful thoughts and deeds. Married women could legitimately lavish attention on their appearance only as long as her goal was to make herself attractive to her husband and keep him interested in her (Bursa 1980 cited in Brundage, 1987).

Aquinas did not consider the dressmaker guilty of any sin by creating luxurious or attractive fashions since the purchaser could use the attire for legitimate or illegal purpose. The fashion designer might however commit a sin by creating frivolous or novel styles for the display of feminine charms. (Bursa, 1980, cited in Brundage, 1987). This may go some way to explain the often puckarian depiction of cobblers and shoemakers in folklore and fairy tales.

The first record of sumptuary legislation is an ordinance of the City of London in 1281 regulating apparel of workman. These related to workers who had working clothes supplied by their employer. This may have arisen from a wage/price control impulse or from imitation of continental trends.

The first Italian sumptuary law contained in the Breve della Campagna, dates further back to 1157. The law related to the banning of the use of rich furs.

In Venice special magistrates, Proveditori Sopra Le Pompe, were appointed to enforce sumptuary regulations. In 1299 a law was passed permitting only the bride and one other guest to wear pearls i.e. one strand around the waste.

The sumptuary laws which appeared in the middle of the thirteenth century came from governments which omitted common people or "popolo". Hence the laws were thought to control aristocratic excesses more than keep down the peasants. The city state of Siena regulated trains on dresses in 1249. Bologna made a similar decree in 1260. By the time sumptuary laws were being applied to various levels of European Society, the Council of Montpellier had forbidden Churchmen from slashing the hems of their robes (AD 1195) and King Louis VIII was able to control his noble's wardrobe by 1229.

Brundage JA 1987 Sumptuary laws and prostitution in late Medieval Italy Journal of Medieval History 13:4 343-355.

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