Pardon me, milord, but do you have any mink stoles I can borrow? All kidding aside, rules of extravagance, or Sumptuary Laws, were serious business in the medieval period. Sumptuary is defined as regulating expenses or expenditures; specifically seeking to regulate extravagance based upon religious or moral grounds per Webster Dictionary.
Sumptaury Laws were used as far back as the Roman Empire. The laws weren’t actually restricted just to clothing. For example, purple dye was originally restricted to use by royalty. Charlemagne decided what his people could, and couldn’t wear with by passing an extravagance law in 808. His successor, and son Louis, amended the law to include the wearing of gold, silver, and silk. Genoa passed a law dictating prices on sable furs in 1157. The law was later repealed in 1161.The first recorded Sumptuary Law in England was noted in London, in 1281. The Law stated that any person who employed another had to supply clothing. King Edward II passed a law restricting the amount of food a person could eat. Apparently, the King didn’t want his subjects overindulging.
French law banned burghers and their wives from wearing coronals of silver or gold, and jewels, in 1283. Italian law restricted doctors, knights, and judge’s wives from wearing silver buttons, pearls, gilt, and squirrel edges on their clothing. Germany joined in the regulatory fashions, with a 1356 law allowing noblewomen to wear one brooch or silver or gold weighing up to one Heller and a silver girdle weighing up to one mark. In addition, Germany forbid burghers to wear gold, silver, pearls, or precious stones.
King Edward III liked the idea of being able to distinguish the haves from the have-nots. He instituted ‘classes’ of people by setting rules of clothing. According to a 1336 law, "no knight under the estate of a lord, esquire or gentleman, nor any other person, shall wear any shoes or boots having spikes or points which exceed the length of two inches, under the forfeiture of forty pence." King Edward wasn’t done with his lawmaking. In 1337, he decided to regulate what furs could be won by which persons. Ermine was designated for use by royalty and nobility whose income was over one thousand pounds a year (or more). Only viscounts and above were allowed to wear sable; finally, the black genet was exclusive to the royal family.
In 1363, a hodgepodge of rules went in to effect, including: women were supposed to dress according the rank of their father or husband; daughters or wives of knights was not to wear a cloth of gold or sable fur; wives or daughters of bachelor-knights couldn’t wear velvet clothing; Yeoman and their family could wear lamb, cat, rabbit, fox; or clothing made of gold cloth or in the color purple was for royal women only; and, importing silk and lace was forbidden, but especially by the Lombard family (they must have really pissed off the King).
Another example of Sumptuary Laws is the wearing of symbols or religious clothing. In 1215, Jews were supposed to wear either a particular hat or a yellow badge. Muslims wore a crescent-shaped patch or their native dress clothes. The Cathars wore a yellow cross if they repented. Even lepers were made to stand out. Prostitutes were supposed to wear a striped hood. Even recreation was dictated, with a law covering games in 1409! Gambling and illegal games was passed in 1449.
Queen Elizabeth I kept a tight rein on her people. She, along with many monarchs was ever on the alert for possible assassins. Here is an excerpt from a Sumptuary relating to weapons.
“And whereas a usage is crept in, contrary to former orders, of wearing of long swords and rapiers, sharpened in such sort as may appear to the usage of them cannot tend to defense, which ought to be the very meaning of weapons in times of peace, but to murder and evident death, when the same shall be occupied: her Majesty's pleasure is that no man shall, after ten days next following this proclamation, wear any sword, rapier, or any weapon in their stead passing the length of one yard and half a quarter of blade at the uttermost, neither any dagger above the length of twelve inches in blade, neither any buckler with a sharp point or with any point above two inches in length, upon pain of forfeiting the sword or dagger passing the said length, and the buckler made otherwise than is prescribed, to whomsoever will seize upon it, and the imprisonment of his body that shall be found to wear any of them, and to make fine at her Majesty's will and pleasure. And if any cutler or other artificer shall, after the day of the publication hereof, sell, or have within his shop or house to be sold, or shall make or cause to be made any rapier, sword, dagger, or buckler contrary to this order, to forfeit the same, his body to be imprisoned, and to make fine at the Queen's Highness's pleasure, and to remain in prison till the said fine be fully satisfied; and being taken with the fault the second time, never to be permitted after to use that occupation; which in the Court is to be executed by the officers aforesaid, in the city and within the liberties, by the mayor and Court of aldermen, and such as by them shall be appointed in that sort, as well sergeants as others beforesaid; in Westminster, the suburbs, and other privileged places, by the officers, of the same; in towns corporate by the mayor and other head officers, and in all other places by the justices of peace.”
“And finally, Her Majesty straightly chargeth as well the said Lord Chamberlain, Vice-Chamberlain, the Lord Steward, the Treasurer, and Comptroller of the household, as the Lord Chamberlain, Vice-Chamberlain, and such as under them shall be appointed and assigned, the Mayor of London, and all other mayors, sheriffs, bailiffs, constables, and justices of peace, all principals and ancients of the Inns of Court and Chancery, the chancellor and vice-chancellor of both universities, and the heads of halls and colleges of the same, and all other her Highness's officers and ministers, each of them in their jurisdictions, to see these orders being set forth and confirmed by her Majesty's proclamation, to be duly and speedily executed in form aforesaid, as they will answer for the contrary at their peril, and will avoid her Highness’s displeasure and indignation.”
from the manuscript copy for London; ... Printed by R. Jugge and J. Cawood (London, 1562).... 4d. paid to the town clerk for proclamation 'for the maintenance of archery.'
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