Thursday, August 19, 2010
Why sumptuary laws were seldom enforced.
By the Middle Ages the Church was a powerful body that exerted considerable social control. It was ideally positioned to create and enforce sumptuary laws, yet these laws were generally ignored and went practically unenforced.
In the main the laws were aimed specifically for middle and lower classes, with the nobility and royalty exempt. Laws allowed the upper classes to indulge themselves in grave excesses. This behaviour was eagerly copied by lower tiers of society, particularly the middle classes who would wear elegant fashion, and consume fancy food. These excesses were often cited as the cause of ruin in families with meagre circumstance. Only the very poorest working class strictly followed sumptuary laws, and even they were rarely prosecuted for violating them. Due to their impoverished circumstances most, by necessity, wore rudimentary garments fashioned of the coarsest cloth, and referred to as "russet" or "blanket cloth”.
Despite this, according to Hurlock (1965) the desire for self-display was strong among the lower strata of society and the author suggests this was the origins of national costume. Instead of imitating the upper classes, gratification came from out-rivalling the beauty and elaborateness of costumes of the other members of the same social class. By this means the desire to be satisfied was met without breaking the laws of the land.
Many of the sumptuary laws went ignored although fashions such as slashing were thought to be implemented as a means to overcome the law. Fancy dress was also another clever deception as was, celebration days, where the gentry changed places with other classes.
One explanation as to why so many people ignored the laws was because despite the act of defiance incurring steep financial penalties, the nouveaux rich could well afford to pay them. Alternatively at times of rising costs of gold and silver men did not want to have their money spent on women's luxuries and hence encouraged such restrictions.
Hurlock E B 1965 Sumptuary law In Roach ME Eicher JB Dress, adornment and the social order New York: John Wiley & Sons 295-301.