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Medieval Sumptuary Laws

Medieval life and Times

Medieval Sumptuary Laws

The Medieval fashion and dress of the Middle Ages was dominated and highly influenced by the Kings and Queens of the era. Only the wealthy could dress in fashionable clothes. Laws dating back to the Romans restricted ordinary people in their expenditure. These were called Sumptuary Laws.

The definition of the word Sumptuary is derived from the  from the Latin word which means expenditure. English Sumptuary Laws were imposed by rulers to curb the expenditure of the people. Sumptuary laws might apply to food, beverages, furniture, jewelry and clothing. These Laws were used to control behaviour and ensure that a specific class structure was maintained.

English Medieval Sumptuary Laws
The Medieval English Medieval Sumptuary Laws were well known by all of the English people. The penalties for violating Sumptuary Laws could be harsh - fines, the loss of property, title and even life! The Medieval period had been dominated by the Feudal system - everyone knew their place! Clothing provided an immediate way of distinguishing 'Who was Who'. Medieval clothing and fashion like everything else was dictated by the Pyramid of Power which was the Feudal System and the Sumptuary Laws which were passed by the Medieval Kings of England.

1281 and 1309 - The first recorded English Medieval Sumptuary Laws
The first record of sumptuary legislation is an ordinance of the City of London in 1281 which regulated the apparel, or clothing, of workman. These related to workers who had working clothes supplied by their employer as a part of their wages. Fashions and trends between countries were frequently imitated and this first Sumptuary Law was probably copied from a European country. The second record of sumptuary legislation occurred during the reign of King Edward II (1284-1327) related to food expenditure. King Edward II issued a proclamation against 'outrageous consumption of meats and fine dishes' by nobles.

1336, 1337 and 1363 - The English Sumptuary Laws of King Edward III in Medieval Times
The next records of sumptuary legislation occurred during the reign of King Edward III (1312-1377). King Edward III passed these Sumptuary Laws to regulate the dress of various classes of the English people, promote English garments and to preserve class distinctions by means of costume, clothes and dress.

The English Sumptuary Law of 1336
The sumptuary legislation of 1336 attempted to curb expenditure and preserve class distinction. One of acts stated the following:

"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."

The English Sumptuary Law of 1337
The sumptuary legislation of 1337 was designed to promote English garments and restrict the wearing of furs

The English Sumptuary Law of 1363
The sumptuary legislation passed in 1363 included the following:

  • Women were, in general, to be dressed according to the position of their fathers or husbands
  • Wives and daughters of servants were not to wear veils above twelve pence in value
  • Handicraftsmen's and yeomen's wives were not to wear silk veils
  • The use of fur was confined to the ladies of knights with a rental above 200 marks a year
  • The wife or daughter of a knight was not to wear cloth of gold or sable fur
  • The wife or daughter of a knight-bachelor not to wear velvet
  • The wife or daughter of an esquire or gentleman not to wear velvet, satin or ermine
  • The wife or daughter of a labourer were not to wear clothes beyond a certain price or a girdle garnished with silver
  • Cloth of gold and purple silk were confined to women of the royal family
  • The importation of silk and lace by Lombards and other foreigners were forbidden

These Sumptuary Laws distinguished seven social categories and made members of each class easily distinguished by their clothing.

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