Elegance befitting the station: Sumptuary Law

Sumptuary laws, that is, laws regulating the use of special clothing, jewelry, or other symbols of rank or station, is the subject of Aoife's Links this week.

Greetings my Faithful Readers!

This week we turn our eye to that most Medieval of attitudes: Appearances are everything. While modern-day medievalists might have trouble with the idea that they can't wear any costume they like at any function (and that costume can be as fancy as they can afford or can make their garb to be, regardless of what other people of higher station are wearing), our medieval cousins weren't so lucky. In the Middle ages and Renaissance--heck, up to the French Revolution, even---the idea that one should dress in a manner befitting their station in life is one of the bedrocks of society. Even today, we tend to judge a person by their clothing. Actresses at the Academy Awards ceremony are compared according to the effectiveness of their dress and designers are made or broken depending on that success. How often have you heard this comment: "Looking prosperous!"? How many times have your read in fable, fairy tale or literary allusion about someone dressed in a golden gown? I remember a particular poem from the modern AA Milne (James James...) wherein the foolish mother went to town in a gown of gold, and had to be rescued by her wiser child. Or how about that Paul Simon song about a woman with Diamonds on the soles of her shoes...silly of course, but obviously she had money to burn. Our medieval counterparts would have instantly recognized those images. Obviously the people referred to were fabulously wealthy and very important.

So if appearance is everything, why wouldn't everyone wear clothing to the highest level of their ability to afford? I like to think of it as a form of medieval driver's license: Young unmarried ladies wore their hair down. With her hair up and/or covered, she must be married or a spinster. Instant ID; That child playing in the street has ermine cuffs. You'd better not run him over with your carriage. He's wearing his Social ID, and there'll be hel to pay; The young man selling penny loaves is wearing a fine woolen cloak. He must be a member of his baker's guild to afford such apparel, and thus safe to purchase from. You know your loaves won't be shorted because he's wearing his ID. And, if for some reason he isn't a member of his guild, obviously he's a fraud, considering himself above his station!

I hope you enjoy the following web articles, and will share them wherever they will find a ready audience. It's all food for thought on how we play this game we call the SCA.


Aoife, the incredibly bad seamstress who always looks well UNDER her station.

Dame Aoife Finn of Ynos Mon
Canton of Riverouge
Barony of the Endless Hills
Kingdom of Aethelemarc

Renaissance English Sumptuary Law Chart
(Site Excerpt) None shall wear in his apparrell any: woolen cloth made outside the realm: except: Dukes, Marquesses or their children, Barons or Knights or their Order.

Elizabethan Sumptuary Statutes
(Site Excerpt) The other concern was that letting anyone wear just anything must lead inexorably to moral decline. If you couldn't tell a milkmaid from a countess at a glance, the very fabric of society might unravel.

Sumtuariae Leges (Sumptuary law in Rome)
Article by George Long, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College
(Site Excerpt) In the states of antiquity it was considered the duty of government to put a check upon extravagance in the private expenses of persons, and among the Romans in particular we find traces of this in the laws attributed to the kings and in the Twelve Tables.

Regulating the Body: A Brief History of Sumptuary Law
(Site Excerpt) The sumptuary laws most often discussed in books on dress and costume are, naturally, those that deal with dress and costume. While arguments for sumptuary laws governing the consumption of drink and drugs can perhaps be more easily made, arguments for the regulation of dress are more tenuous, and it's not surprising that their enforcement has been difficult.

Sumptuary Laws in the SCA
by Lady Nastasiia Ivanova Medvedeva
(Site Excerpt) Many newcomers to the Society, having been to a Renaissance Faire or half-remembering something about ancient Roman restrictions on the wearing of purple, often assume that there are such restrictions in the SCA. Usually, there are not, but there are misconceptions that seem to get propagated as quickly as they can be invented.

Frankish Sumptuary Law: A Pearl of a Law
(Site Excerpt) 1345. Germany. The city of Ulm. No women, married or single, high birth or low birth...no women at all folks...were allowed to wear pearls on their dresses. Don't say nuthin' about naked bods...but that's my mind at work...so take no heed. By 1411...things had progressed. They were now allowed to wear a single pearl wreath on their heads...and I guess as many pearls as they wanted on their naked bods. Oh lordy lord. I can not stop this train of thought.

Stefan's Florilegium: Pearls--An Example of Sumtuary Law
by Lord Anton de Stoc, mka Ian Whitchurch
(Site Excerpt) BE IT RESOLVED that all who have pearls and wish to make use of them in Venice shall be obliged within the next eight days to go to the Provveditori sopra le Pompe, and declare their number, weight and quality of thos pearls. They shall have them registered in thir name, and within the next twenty days after that they must have them sealed with the seal of the Sopraprovveditori and Provveditori shall approve and which shall be kept in the office, so that if from time to time the strings get brokn they can be resealed with the same seal after first making sure they are in the sme weight and are of the same number and quality.

Bibliography of works about Sumptuary Laws

Medieval Sumptuary Laws
(Site Excerpt) The sumptuary laws of mediæval Europe are probably the most spectacular example of the difference in attitudes between western society then and today. They are the expression of the antithesis of several key principles, listed below, that our society has incorporated so thoroughly that we have come to feel them natural and inevitable.

If you wish to correspond with Aoife directly, please send mail to: mtnlion at ptd dot net