Sumptuary laws refer to a set of legal injunctions which define the permissible practices in expenditure or consumption. Historically, these laws were used to govern a large part of people’s public life in medieval Europe, especially aspects such as the nature of the clothes socially permissible, the foods allowed to be consumed and the extravagance allowed in public lifestyle.
In medieval times, these laws became particularly common especially when Church began differentiating its officials by designating them by specific clothes based on their ranks. In later medieval ages, the nobility used such laws to prevent the wealthy bourgeoisie from spending too much and from displaying too lavish a style in public.
The origins of the sumptuary laws in the medieval ages can be traced back to the Catholic Church. As the Church rose to political prominence and authority in the medieval ages, it began to formulate specific ranks for the clergy. A clergyman was supposed to dress based on his rank in the Church, and the dress he was to wear was defined by the Church. Since the Church had a huge influence on European thought in the medieval ages, sumptuary laws gradually became a part of the European life, used by the royalty and the nobility.
Among the earliest sumptuary laws enacted in medieval Europe were those governing the appearance of the minorities and certain social groups. As such, these laws defined dress codes for these groups, making it easier for the society at large to identify them, and usually discriminate against them. The groups for whom these laws were regulated included Jews, Muslims, lepers, heretics, prostitutes and people suffering from specific diseases.
According to the sumptuary laws defined for specific groups, Jews and Muslims were required to wear specific clothing items which would identify them in public. For Jews, this required wearing a conical hat, a yellow badge or a ring. For Muslims, this usually involved wearing a crescent-shaped badge. Different European countries enacted different dress requirements for these minorities, and some even exempted them from such laws altogether.
A number of medieval sumptuary laws defined the way the courtesans were permitted to be dressed. In medieval Marseilles, a courtesan had to wear a striped cloak. Medieval England required a courtesan to wear a striped hood. Similar restrictions governed the courtesan dress in other European courts. In later medieval era, these laws evolved into requirements to wear specific bands attached to the arm or shoulder which would distinguish a courtesan according to his social rank.
England took the lead in restricting the extravagance displayed publicly in dressing. To that end, a number of monarchs passed sumptuary laws aiming to prohibit the use of expensive items and clothing. These measures were meant to stop the outflow of English capital into foreign countries in exchange of the precious imported fabrics. At the same time, they were also meant to maintain a certain sense of social distinction between hereditary nobility and those who had acquired wealth but were not a part of the nobility. English monarchs, from Edward III to Elizabeth I, promulgated detailed laws governing the quality, color, fabric and type of clothing for each sex. However, these laws weren’t very strictly implemented in England.
The Renaissance in Italy saw a certain liberality being practised by the people when it came to their dressing. However later a number of sumptuary laws and edicts were passed specifically concerned with the matter of people’s clothing. In the later middle ages, such laws prohibited the use of low necklines by the women, a feature which had become a common part of the feminine clothing. Other laws were also passed which restricted the use of expensive clothing items such as furs and precious metals. Some of these sumptuary laws were meant to prevent public extravaganzas.
In England, sumptuary laws defining the allowed number of dinner courses, the dresses of the prostitutes and the prices of food items were passed in the 14th century. In the second half of the same century, another detailed piece of legislation made it incumbent upon the knight class not to wear weasel fur or clothing with precious stones and barred esquires and merchants from wearing a dress costing more than 5 marks. This latter law was soon repealed. In the 15th century, a notable sumptuary law defining the permissible length of a pike shoe was passed by the English parliament.
The gist of the medieval sumptuary laws in France was to ensure a distinction between the hereditary nobility class and the rising bourgeoisie. To this end, a 13th century sumptuary law barred the burgher class from wearing gold, silver or precious stones in public. A 14th century sumptuary law banned the use of items such as gold buttons, silver items and pearls being worn by prostitutes.
Germany also enacted a number of sumptuary laws during the medieval ages. Compared to the rest of the Europe, though, these laws were less frequent in Germany. A 14th century German law stated that noblewomen could wear only one brooch of silver or gold and that such a brooch should not be more than one heller in weight. Similarly, they were allowed to wear silver girdles but these had to be restricted to the value of one mark. The burgher class which was gaining in wealth and social status in medieval Germany was barred from wearing any gold, silver or other precious stones on their dress publicly.
Sumptuary laws were specific legislations passed during medieval ages in different countries of Europe, overlooking the public conduct of different social classes and groups. Some of these laws, for example, dealt with the permissible expenditures that nobility or the burghers could do on their dresses. Others defined the specific dressing items that were to be used by social groups such as Jews and Muslims.
Similar laws were passed to overlook the social practices related to dining, drinking, gambling and any public displays of status and affluence. While early sumptuary laws in medieval Europe were more geared towards discriminating on the basis of faith, later laws were aimed at ensuring a distinction between the nobility and other rising social classes such as the bourgeoisie.