KRA-Week 2013-5: Fitzg – Sumptuary Laws

 
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SUMPTUARY

 

Sumptuary laws

 

in Medieval and late medieval England.

 

(by Fitzg)

 


 
 

“Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditure in the matter of apparel, food, furniture etc.”
Black’s Law Dictionary.

 

English Sumptuary Laws date from 1281 in extant documents. They were then an expression of the Feudal System (every man in his place, dressed according his station. Women too.) The hierarchy must be established according to the “natural law”.
 
The next documented Law is that of 1309. This relates to conspicuous food consumptions of the nobles. (Peacocks presented at table, complete with feathers re-attached to the roasted fowl…)
Perhaps Edward III felt that such expenditure by his magnates reduced their monetary contributions to his Scottish and overseas wars.
 
Obviously, Kings and their families were not restricted by such fiscal management restraints.
 

Richard III Portrait (earliest surviving)

cloth of gold – Richard III earliest known copy of original; dated early 16th century (Source: Society of Antiquaries, London – Wikipedia)


 
 
Richard II, c. 1390s. (Source: Westminster Abbey - Wikipedia)

Richard II, c. 1390s. (Source: Westminster Abbey – Wikipedia)

Wilton Diptych (Source: National Portrait Gallery, London - Wikipedia)

Wilton Diptych (Source: National Portrait Gallery, London – Wikipedia)


 
 
Edward IV. Portrait early 16th century (Source: Society of Antiquaries - Wikipedia)

Edward IV. Portrait early 16th century (Source: Society of Antiquaries – Wikipedia)

Henry VII, c. 1505 (Source: National Portrait Gallery, London - Wikipedia)

Henry VII, c. 1505 (Source: National Portrait Gallery, London – Wikipedia)


 
 
Cloth of gold, fur, gold…. It appears that the first Tudor, despite a somewhat austere, penny-pinching reputation, at least in the popular version, was not averse to personal display.
 
However, there was considerable Church disapproval of courtly display of fashion “trends“. Shoes, in 15th C, were an issue with the Church: the vanity of the elongated toes.
 

Sumptuary Law - Fitzg Sumptuary Law - Fitzg Sumptuary Law - Fitzg

 
 
And then, there was the Disney head dress. The Henin, and variations thereof.
 

Hans Memling, Lady Donne of Kidwelly. The Donne Triptych, c. 1478 (Source: Wikipedia)

Hans Memling, Lady Donne of Kidwelly. The Donne Triptych, c. 1478 (Source: Wikipedia)


 
 
The middle class was rising in wealth, and becoming uppity in dress. Note the quantities of costly material in the sleeves and gowns and richness of dyes.
 
Hans Fouquet, the Melun Dipptych, c. 1452 (Source: Wikipedia)

Hans Fouquet, the Melun Dipptych, c. 1452 (Source: Wikipedia)

Etienne Chevalier, was not a merchant, but a trusted civil servant.

 
 

The Arnolfini Wedding, Jan van Eyck, c. 1434 - Italian merchant and his wife (Source: National Portrait Gallery, London - Wikipedia)

The Arnolfini Wedding, Jan van Eyck, c. 1434 – Italian merchant and his wife (Source: National Portrait Gallery, London – Wikipedia)


 
 
Disconcertingly to the “enforcers” of the Sumptuary Laws, the merchant class rose inexorably. The merchant class accumulated wealth, based on wool and textiles, and import/export. They bought off the enforcers’ fines, and even lent funds to cash-strapped nobility. They were going to wear what they had earned. Their wives (and often mercantile partners/supporters) were an advertisement to their wealth and their often mutual hard work. (Take that, Enforcers! 😀 )
 
England has not been quite as rigidly class-ridden as might be thought – upward mobility was mobilised. From 15th century sheep farmers, the Churchills were Dukes of Marlborough two centuries later. A middle class was firmly rising throughout Europe, driven by trade – wool/textiles/luxury goods from the East. The sheep farmers became merchants (and money-lenders), married into gentry and titled families, became senior civil servants.
 
 
BBC "Robin Hood" - Richard Armitage in the role of Guy of Gisborne (Source: RichardArmitageNet.com)

BBC “Robin Hood” Guy of Gisborne (Source: RichardArmitageNet.com)


Sir Guy of Gisborne, dressed head to toe in costly leather. Would a minor knight, in possession of an obscure provincial manor, pass the Sumptuary laws? Leather tanning and production were extremely costly, as is the case today. Perhaps; it didn’t involve cloth of gold or furs….
 
And Many Happy Returns to Richard Armitage on August 22 2013.
 
Respects to King Richard III, may he please be laid to rest as befits an anointed monarch.
 
 

SOURCES (for the costume-obsessed)

 
 
 

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7 Responses to KRA-Week 2013-5: Fitzg – Sumptuary Laws

  • servetus says:

    There were even laws (in Germany) that determined now many musicians you could have at your wedding, based on your estate / social station. It’s really an interesting theme.

    • CDoart says:

      Yes, Germany always was very meticulous in regulating things before they happen ;o)
      I also like the Venetian laws, regulating the height of shoes, as rich merchants tended to give their wives very high plateau shoes, to display more of the expensive damask woven cloth that was their specialty. The women must have had trouble getting into houses or onto their gondolas. But I think, the accidents were the reason why the laws were finally made and after all, gondolas are black for a reason.

  • fitzg says:

    When I see stacked/fashion heels shoes today, I despair of good sense! However, common sense and fashion never meet. Yes, I came across much of the sumptuary regulations of the German states in research. It makes sense to regulate the number of musicians. Everywhere, one must be recognised as of one’s station. (Perhaps some rather high-profile, high-heeled celebrities today have added to the narrative?) 😀 CDoart, is there a record of high-heeled Venetian women breaking their necks tumbling into a gondola?

    • CDoart says:

      Hello Fitzg,
      About the luxury related accidents, I only heard in a reading and so must look, where more background information may be found about those.
      I tried to find a source for you, but don’t have my more detailed books about Venice with me right now. I must search some more.
      In the one I looked, I just had the luxury laws mentioned in a general way, but Venice had numerous and over quite a long period of time. (Must consult my Venice timetable I made for my studies. No hardship, because I love this topic ;o)
      The surprising thing with the women of Venice for me was, that they did not only have high heels, but entire plateau shoes, to necessitate much more cloth to cover them and show off their wealth.
      What I vaguely remember from the reading, there must have been a case where one fell into the water and drowned, while others broke their legs, till this fashion was forcibly stopped.

  • fitzg says:

    Thank you, CDoart! I’ll double-check my Boucher, too.

    • CDoart says:

      So far I only came across the one law by the Venetian magistrate against pomp and the directive for black gondolas. It is from the year 1562.

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