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Sumptuary Law
By Lady Anastasia
Reprinted from The Renaissance Herald

Sumptuary laws are laws that were passed in England and Europe, from about the mid 1300s, to the mid 1600s, devised to control all sorts of behavior, from the wearing of certain apparel to the consumption of certain foods, beverages, (usually of an alcoholic nature), and other miscellaneous products, to gaming and hunting. These laws also often proscribed what prices could be charged for various consumables, from clothing to food.

Several motives led to the enactment of these laws:

(1) the desire to preserve class distinctions; (2) the desire to check practices which were regarded as deleterious in their effects, due to the feeling that luxury and extravagance were in themselves wicked and harmful to the morals of the people, ("But the proude man to the end he may seme magnificent, doth love . . to have delycat garments and pretious ornaments. And what is a man decked with pretious thinges, but onely a Sepulchre Paynted & white lymed without, & full of filthinesse within?"; (3) economic motives: (a) the endeavor to encourage home industries and to discourage the buying of foreign goods, and (b) the attempt on the part of the sovereign to induce his [or her] people to save their money, so that they might be able to help him [or her] out financially in time of need; (4) sheer conservatism and dislike of new fashions or customs, [especially by some of the more conservative clergy, although we might mention that some of the clergy, most notably Wolsey, had a fondness, approaching addiction, for sumptuous finery and new fashion].

For the possible exception of some sumptuary laws pertaining to the capture and slaying of restricted animals, these laws were largely ignored, and went practically un-enforced. In fact, each and every source that I read stated that no actual legal documentation could be found wherein violators of the law were brought to "justice" and the prescribed punishment was meted out. Some references to such occurrences can be found in a few personal journals, but no parliamentary records seem to exist to substantiate these journal entries.

These laws were meant largely for the masses of middle and lower classes, as most of the nobility and all of the royalty were essentially exempted from them. Since the upper classes were allowed by law to set such a bad example, the other classes, naturally, followed suit, so to speak, and, in fact, competed most vigorously in fancy dress, and in the consumption of fancy food, sometimes to the ruin of the meager family fortune. And, since these laws failed to curb anyone's behavior, more laws were passed of the same nature and with the same admonitions, (because, as we all know, if something doesn't work the first time, just keep doing it over and over again and it will eventually work, right?). The only persons who seemed to obey these laws strictly were the lowest classes, as they could not afford to own but the most rudimentary of garments fashioned of the coarsest cloth, referred to herein as "russet" or "blanket cloth".

So, as we consult sumptuary law to add authentication to our historical re-enactments, we must keep in mind that few, if any, inhabitants of the Renaissance eras, (except the very poorest working class) strictly followed these laws, nor were they often prosecuted for violating them. Therefore, I humbly submit to my readership, that we not use these laws for purposes of personal aggrandizement, but, rather, as an endless source for entertaining gigs.

Recently, for instance, I witnessed nearly 45 minutes of uproarious entertainment when a man, (in reality the guildmaster of a most excellent archery guild here in California), in possession of a doe's head with stag horns rather obviously affixed thereto in the ragged hope of disguising the heinous crime of owning a forbidden does head, was brought before our good King Henry, that justice might be served. Witnesses, some rather unexpected, were brought forward, and blame was passed, and tales, er, excuses told, and a marvelous time was had by all. This type of gigging, in my opinion, should replace criticizing or humiliating one another for wearing "unlawful" apparel or parts thereof - a practice, unfortunately, prevalent in some arenas of re-enactment.

I have chosen to confine my discussion of English Sumptuary Laws of Apparel to the reigns of Henry through Elizabeth, as space here is limited, the laws are extensive, and these particular laws are prime examples of the kinds of laws passed in earlier times in England, and throughout Europe in the Renaissance.

In 1510, Parliament passed an extensive and detailed law regulating the wearing of all sorts of fabrics and of trim from fur to gold and silver. This law was amended and added to in 1514 and again in 1515 and 1553. The details of the laws changed little, as they were mostly reiterations and reaffirmations of previous admonitions. The most common punishment for the abrogation of these laws was the confiscation of the offending garment and a fine of several shillings to ten pounds per offense.

One brief sumptuary law was passed during Mary's reign. In 1559, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, both Her Royal Majesty and Parliament again felt it necessary to proclaim the importance of the sumptuary laws passed during Henry's and Mary's reigns. Fortunately for us, they thought it might be helpful in the observing and enforcing of these laws to lay them out in a rudimentary "spreadsheet". The gist of this antique visual aid is reproduced below, along with the preamble to the first, most extensive law passed in 1510. This chart is an excellent guide to the laws of apparel during both Henry's and Elizabeth's reign's.

A final word about color: The only colors I found in my research to be restricted were purple and scarlet. Purple was, at all times, reserved for the royal family ONLY. Scarlet could be worn only by the royal family and the highest nobles in the land. I believe that economic factors, and what was available in dyes at the time, more strongly influenced what was worn by whom, than did the law. (See AN HISTORICAL OVERVIEW OF DYES, DYING, AND FABRIC COLORS IN THE RENAISSANCE)

Forasmuche as the greate and costly array and apparrell used wythin this realme, contrary to good statutes therof made, hath be the occaion of grete impovershing to divers of the Kings subjects and provoked many of them to robbe and to doo extortion and other unlawful dedes to maynteyne therby ther costeley arrey: In exchewyng wheof, Be it ordeyned by the authority of this present Parliament that no persone of whate state, condiion, or degre that he be, use in his apparel eny cloth of golde of purpoure [purple] coloure or sylke of purpoure coloure, but onely the Kyng, the Quwene, the Kyng's Moder, the Kyng's Chylder, the Kyng's Brethers and Susters, upon payne to forfett the seid apparel, . . . and for using the same to forfaite 20 pounds.

Under this preamble was published the list of "no-nos" and "exceptions" laid out in the following chart. It must also be remembered that the King could, and did, grant special dispensations to wear articles of clothing forbidden by law, to whomever he pleased.

Bibliography

  • Dress and Morality, Aileen Ribeiro, Holmes and Meier 1986.
  • Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England, F.E. Baldwin, Johns Hopkins Press, 1926.
  • Fashions for Men, an Illustrated History, Diana de Marly, Homes and Meier, 198

Click on the thumbnail image for a full size view
of the English Sumptuary Law Chart

Sumptuary Law Chart

 

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