The medieval world wasn't all drab clothing, flavorless food, and dark, drafty castles. Medieval folk knew how to enjoy themselves, and those who could afford it indulged in dazzling displays of wealth -- sometimes to excess. Sumptuary laws originated to address this excess.
The Lavish Life of the Nobility
The upper classes took particular pleasure and pride in garbing themselves in luxurious finery. The exclusivity of their status symbols was assured by the excessive cost of their garments. Not only were the fabrics expensive, but tailors charged hefty fees to design attractive outfits and fit them specifically to their clients to make them look good. Even the colors used indicated status: bolder, brighter dyes that didn't fade easily were more costly, too.
It was expected of the lord of the manor or castle to throw great feasts on special occasions, and nobles vied with each other to see who could offer the most exotic and abundant foodstuffs. Swans weren't particularly good eating, but no knight or lady wanting to impress would pass up the chance to serve one in all its feathers at their banquet, often with its beak gilded.
And anyone who could afford to build or hold a castle could also afford to make it warm and welcoming, with opulent tapestries, colorful draperies, and plush furnishings.
These ostentatious displays of riches concerned the clergy and the more pious secular rulers. They believed that lavish spending wasn't good for the soul, especially keeping in mind Christ's warning, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." And those less well-off were known to follow the fashions of the rich on items they couldn't really afford.
In times of economic upheaval (such as the years during and following the Black Death), it sometimes became possible for the lower classes to acquire what was usually more costly clothing and fabrics. When this happened, the upper classes found it offensive, and everyone else found it unsettling; how was anyone to know if the lady in the velvet gown was a countess, a wealthy merchant's wife, an upstart peasant or a prostitute?
So, in some countries and at various times, sumptuary laws were passed to limit conspicuous consumption. These laws addressed the excessive cost and reckless display of clothing, food, drink, and household furnishings. The idea was to limit wild spending by the richest of the rich, but sumptuary laws were also designed to keep the lower classes from blurring the lines of social distinction. To this end, specific garments, fabrics and even certain colors became illegal for anyone but the nobility to wear.
The History of Sumptuary Laws in Europe
Sumptuary laws go back to ancient times. In Greece, such laws helped establish the reputation of the Spartans by forbidding them to attend drinking entertainments, own homes or furniture of elaborate construction, and possess silver or gold. The Romans, whose Latin language gave us the term sumptus for excessive expenditure, were concerned with extravagant dining habits and lavish banquets. They also passed laws addressing luxury in women's adornment, the fabric and style of men's clothing, furniture, gladiatorial displays, the exchange of gifts and even funeral arrangements. And certain colors of clothing, such as purple, were restricted to the upper classes. Although some of these laws were not specifically called "sumptuary," they nevertheless formed precedents for future sumptuary legislation.
Early Christians had concerns over excessive expenditures, as well. Both men and women were admonished to dress plainly, in keeping with the humble ways of Jesus, carpenter and itinerant preacher. God would be far more pleased if they garbed themselves in virtue and good works rather than silks and brightly-colored clothing.
When the western Roman Empire began to falter, economic hardship reduced the impetus for passing sumptuary laws, and for quite some time the only regulations in effect in Europe were those established within the Christian Church for clergy and monastics. Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious proved to be notable exceptions. In 808, Charlemagne passed laws limiting the price of certain garments in the hopes of reigning in the extravagance of his court. When Louis succeeded him, he passed legislation forbidding the wearing of silk, silver and gold. But these were only the exceptions. No other government concerned themselves with sumptuary laws until the 1100s.
With the strengthening of the European economy that developed in the High Middle Ages came the return of those excessive expenditures that concerned authorities. The twelfth century, in which some scholars have seen a cultural renaissance, saw the passage of the first secular sumptuary law in over 300 years: a limitation on the price of sable furs used to trim garments. This short-lived legislation, passed in Genoa in 1157 and dropped in 1161, may seem insignificant, but it heralded a future trend that grew throughout 13th- and 14th-century Italy, France, and Spain. Most of the rest of Europe passed little to no sumptuary legislation until well into the 14th century, when the Black Death upset the status quo.
Of those countries that concerned themselves with their subjects' excesses, Italy was the most prolific in passing sumptuary laws. In cities such as Bologna, Lucca, Perugia, Siena, and most especially Florence and Venice, legislation was passed concerning virtually every aspect of daily life. The foremost motive of these laws appears to be the restraint of excess. Parents could not dress their children in garments made of particularly costly fabric or adorned with precious gems. Brides were restricted in the number of rings they were allowed to accept as gifts on their wedding day. And mourners were forbidden to engage in excessive displays of grief, wailing and going with their hair uncovered.
Some of the laws passed seemed to be specifically targeted at women. This had a lot to do with a common view among the clergy of women as the morally weaker sex and even, it was often stated, the ruin of men. When men bought sumptuous clothing for their wives and daughters, and then had to pay the fines when the extravagance of their finery surpassed the limits set down in the law, women were often blamed for manipulating their husbands and fathers. Men may have complained, but they didn't stop buying luxurious clothes and jewels for the women in their lives.