Medieval Sumptuary Laws

Legislation of the Middle Ages regarding excessive expenditure

The medieval world wasn't all drab clothing, flavorless food, and dark, drafty castles. Medieval folk knew how to enjoy themselves, and those who could afford it indulged in dazzling displays of wealth -- sometimes to excess. Sumptuary laws originated to address this excess.

The Lavish Life of the Nobility

The upper classes took particular pleasure and pride in garbing themselves in luxurious finery.

The exclusivity of their status symbols was assured by the excessive cost of their garments. Not only were the fabrics expensive, but tailors charged hefty fees to design attractive outfits and fit them specifically to their clients to make them look good. Even the colors used indicated status: bolder, brighter dyes that didn't fade easily were more costly, too.

It was expected of the lord of the manor or castle to throw great feasts on special occasions, and nobles vied with each other to see who could offer the most exotic and abundant foodstuffs. Swans weren't particularly good eating, but no knight or lady wanting to impress would pass up the chance to serve one in all its feathers at their banquet, often with its beak gilded.

And anyone who could afford to build or hold a castle could also afford to make it warm and welcoming, with opulent tapestries, colorful draperies, and plush furnishings.

These ostentatious displays of riches concerned the clergy and the more pious secular rulers. They believed that lavish spending wasn't good for the soul, especially keeping in mind Christ's warning, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." And those less well-off were known to follow the fashions of the rich on items they couldn't really afford.

In times of economic upheaval (such as the years during and following the Black Death), it sometimes became possible for the lower classes to acquire what was usually more costly clothing and fabrics. When this happened, the upper classes found it offensive, and everyone else found it unsettling; how was anyone to know if the lady in the velvet gown was a countess, a wealthy merchant's wife, an upstart peasant or a prostitute?

So, in some countries and at various times, sumptuary laws were passed to limit conspicuous consumption. These laws addressed the excessive cost and reckless display of clothing, food, drink, and household furnishings. The idea was to limit wild spending by the richest of the rich, but sumptuary laws were also designed to keep the lower classes from blurring the lines of social distinction. To this end, specific garments, fabrics and even certain colors became illegal for anyone but the nobility to wear.

The History of Sumptuary Laws in Europe

Sumptuary laws go back to ancient times. In Greece, such laws helped establish the reputation of the Spartans by forbidding them to attend drinking entertainments, own homes or furniture of elaborate construction, and possess silver or gold.

The Romans, whose Latin language gave us the term sumptus for excessive expenditure, were concerned with extravagant dining habits and lavish banquets. They also passed laws addressing luxury in women's adornment, the fabric, and style of men's clothing, furniture, gladiatorial displays, the exchange of gifts and even funeral arrangements. And certain colors of clothing, such as purple, were restricted to the upper classes. Although some of these laws were not specifically called "sumptuary," they nevertheless formed precedents for future sumptuary legislation.

Early Christians had concerns over excessive expenditures, as well. Both men and women were admonished to dress plainly, in keeping with the humble ways of Jesus, carpenter and itinerant preacher. God would be far more pleased if they garbed themselves in virtue and good works rather than silks and brightly-colored clothing.

When the western Roman Empire began to falter, economic hardship reduced the impetus for passing sumptuary laws, and for quite some time the only regulations in effect in Europe were those established within the Christian Church for clergy and monastics. Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious proved to be notable exceptions. In 808, Charlemagne passed laws limiting the price of certain garments in the hopes of reigning in the extravagance of his court. When Louis succeeded him, he passed legislation forbidding the wearing of silk, silver, and gold. But these were only the exceptions. No other government concerned themselves with sumptuary laws until the 1100s.

With the strengthening of the European economy that developed in the High Middle Ages came the return of those excessive expenditures that concerned authorities. The twelfth century, in which some scholars have seen a cultural renaissance, saw the passage of the first secular sumptuary law in over 300 years: a limitation on the price of sable furs used to trim garments. This short-lived legislation, passed in Genoa in 1157 and dropped in 1161, may seem insignificant, but it heralded a future trend that grew throughout 13th- and 14th-century Italy, France, and Spain. Most of the rest of Europe passed little to no sumptuary legislation until well into the 14th century, when the Black Death upset the status quo.

Of those countries that concerned themselves with their subjects' excesses, Italy was the most prolific in passing sumptuary laws. In cities such as Bologna, Lucca, Perugia, Siena, and most especially Florence and Venice, legislation was passed concerning virtually every aspect of daily life. The foremost motive of these laws appears to be the restraint of excess. Parents could not dress their children in garments made of particularly costly fabric or adorned with precious gems. Brides were restricted in the number of rings they were allowed to accept as gifts on their wedding day. And mourners were forbidden to engage in excessive displays of grief, wailing and going with their hair uncovered.

Sumptuous Women

Some of the laws passed seemed to be specifically targeted at women. This had a lot to do with a common view among the clergy of women as the morally weaker sex and even, it was often stated, the ruin of men. When men bought sumptuous clothing for their wives and daughters and then had to pay the fines when the extravagance of their finery surpassed the limits set down in the law, women were often blamed for manipulating their husbands and fathers. Men may have complained, but they didn't stop buying luxurious clothes and jewels for the women in their lives.

Jews and Sumptuary Law

Throughout their history in Europe, Jews took care to wear fairly sober clothing and never to flaunt any financial success they may have enjoyed in order to avoid provoking jealousy and hostility in their Christian neighbors. Jewish leaders issued sumptuary guidelines out of concern for the safety of their community. Medieval Jews were discouraged from dressing like Christians, in part for fear that assimilation could lead to conversion. Of their own accord, Jews in 13th-century England, France, and Germany wore a pointed hat, known as a Judenhut, to distinguish themselves as Jewish in public.

As Europe grew more populated and the cities became a little more cosmopolitan, there was increased friendship and fraternization among individuals of different religions. This concerned the authorities of the Christian Church, who feared that Christian values would erode among those exposed to non-Christians. It bothered some of them that there was no way to tell if someone was Christian, Jewish or Muslim just by looking at them and that mistaken identity could lead to scandalous conduct between men and women of different belief systems.

At the Fourth Lateran Council of November 1215, Pope Innocent III and the gathered Church officials made decrees concerning the mode of dress of non-Christians. Two of the canons stated: "Jews and Muslims shall wear a special dress to enable them to be distinguished from Christians. Christian princes must take measures to prevent blasphemies against Jesus Christ."

The exact nature of this distinctive dress was left up to individual secular leaders. Some governments decreed that a simple badge, usually yellow but sometimes white and occasionally red, be worn by all Jewish subjects. In England, a piece of yellow cloth meant to symbolize the Old Testament was worn. The Judenhut became mandatory over time, and in other regions, distinctive hats were compulsory elements of Jewish attire. Some countries went even further, requiring Jews to wear wide, black tunics and cloaks with pointed hoods.

These structures could not fail to humiliate the Jews, though mandatory elements of dress were not the worst fate they suffered in the Middle Ages. Whatever else they did, the restrictions made Jews instantly recognizable and clearly different from Christians throughout Europe, and, unfortunately, they continued up to the 20th century.

Sumptuary Law and the Economy

Most of the sumptuary laws passed in the High Middle Ages came about due to increased economic prosperity and the excessive spending that went with it. Moralists feared such excess would harm society and corrupt Christian souls.

But on the other side of the coin, there was a pragmatic reason for passing sumptuary laws: economic health. In some regions where the cloth was manufactured, it became illegal to purchase those fabrics from foreign sources. This may not have been a great hardship in places such as Flanders, where they were famous for the quality of their woolens, but in areas with less stellar reputations, wearing local products could have been tedious, uncomfortable, and even embarrassing.

Effects of Sumptuary Laws

With the notable exception of legislation regarding non-Christian attire, sumptuary laws seldom worked. It was largely impossible to monitor everyone's purchases, and in the chaotic years following the Black Death, there were too many unforeseen changes and too few officials in any position to execute the laws. Prosecutions of lawbreakers were not unknown, but they were uncommon. With the punishment for breaking the law usually limited to a fine, the very rich could still acquire whatever their hearts desired and simply pay the fine as part of the cost of doing business.

Still, the existence of sumptuary laws speaks to the concern of medieval authorities for the stability of the social structure. In spite of their general inefficacy, the passage of such laws continued through the Middle Ages and beyond.

Sources and Suggested Reading

Killerby, Catherine Kovesi, Sumptuary Law in Italy 1200-1500. Oxford University Press, 2002, 208 pp.

Piponnier, Francoise, and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages. Yale University Press, 1997, 167 pp.

Howell, Martha C., Commerce before Capitalism in Europe, 1300-1600. Cambridge University Press, 2010. 366 pp.

Dean, Trevor, and K. J. P. Lowe, Eds., Crime, Society and the Law in Renaissance Italy. Cambridge University Press, 1994. 296 pp.

Castello, Elena Romero, and Uriel Macias Kapon, The Jews and Europe. Chartwell Books, 1994, 239 pp.

Marcus, Jacob Rader, and Marc Saperstein, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book, 315-1791. Hebrew Union College Press. 2000, 570 pp.