Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sumptuary Laws in Medieval Society

According to Jeudwine JW (cited in Baldwin, 1926) medieval society was a democracy founded upon the principle of aristocracy, and this meant every man was to keep his place in society. An increase in Merchant Class saw this principle challenged as sumptuous dress and social habits threatened the stability of the age. Each person's place in society was considered fixed by social custom and it was considered heresy for anyone to rise above their class, either in his manner of living or in his dress. Inevitably authority (usually the Kings or Parliament) took steps to curb extravagances. The laws were implemented throughout the middle ages and had their zenith during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

The motives for sumptuary law varied throughout history, depended on many factors including the prevailing circumstances at the time they were introduction as well as when they were eventually revoked. The flourishing of sumptuary laws in part reflected greater prosperity. The proliferation of sumptuary legislation occurred mainly in municipal statutes. Ecclesiastical legislation on the subject remained meagre and laws about adornment were a marginal concern for canonists. The paradox here was many of the clergy, were guilty of breaking the convention by wearing fashion excesses including Cardinal Wolsey. Someone responsible for imposing restrictions on lower orders of the clergy and faithful.

At first kings and parliaments paid little heed to regulating women's dress. Overwhelmingly in Europe it was city law makers who tried to repress extravagant fashions. This would infer the existence of sumptuary laws was in part the concerns of urban dwellers such as merchants, professionals, artisans and craftsmen. It is notable, most of the sumptuary laws came from the Mediterranean cities and Burckhardt (1945) suggested this was because dress was taken more seriously in Italy than elsewhere in this period. The main differences between English and continental sumptuary laws was in England they were national where as in Europe they were local in nature and dealt with fewer subjects than those of other countries (Baldwin. 1926).

According to Balwin (1926) what led to the enactment of these laws was likely to include the following: the desire to preserve class distinctions; the desire to check practices which were regarded as deleterious in their effects. For example, the feeling luxury and extravagance were wicked and harmful to the morals of the people. Economic motives, to encourage home industries and discourage the buying of foreign goods; or the attempt on the part of the sovereign to induce their subjects; to save money, so they might be able to help the country’s finances in time of need; and shear conservatism and dislike of new fashions or customs, especially by some of the more conservative clergy. The bulk of evidence indicates medieval sumptuary law was anti-inflationary, wage controls and protectionist in its intents. Prior to the eighteenth century there were laws to stop common people from dressing like affluent society. These laws regulated personal behaviour on moral or religious grounds (Healy, 1977).

Hurlock (1965) wrote "Sumptuary laws were used primarily to preserve class distinctions. When members of the nobility found their position of supremacy encroached upon by the lower classes that had attained wealth, they passed laws to restore the respect for the inequality of ranks which had previously existed.". Hurlock went on to say sumptuary laws were often used as a means of inducing people to save money. It was considered necessary to reduce senseless spending on luxuries such as clothing lest the event would result in the country going bankrupt. Sumptuary Laws were also used to help encourage domestic trade. One law which exemplifies this was a law concerning the wearing of woollen caps to be worn on Sunday and all holy days by all persons over the age of six (except those of high position). The caps had to be made in England and the law was thought to have succeeded by building up the woollen industry. As wealth began to spread to the lower classes people began to evade the sumptuary laws during the fourteenth century lower class women learned to embroider thus giving elegance to their clothing. Because this was handmade and not bought they did not breach laws relating to the purchase of expensive clothing. Avoiding prosecution by the law became a source of fertile innovation in clothing designs

In France the wearing of expensive hand muffs was restricted to the aristocracy, poor women avoided prosecution by wearing muffs made from cat and dog skin. Few could tell these apart from sable and mink.

Baldwin F E 1926 Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England Johns Hopkins Press
Burckhardt J 1945 The civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (2nd ed) Oxford: Middlemore.
Healey T 1977 History of costume London: Macdonald Educational.
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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