New Worlds: Sumptuary Laws

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Any society that has ways of marking certain people out as having power and authority — which is most of them — will also have ways of restricting those signs to the people who ought to have them. There are penalties for impersonating a police officer; you can’t just dress up in a uniform and flash around a fake badge without consequences. Similarly, an army lieutenant who decides to pin on a general’s stars is going to be in a world of hurt. In the Mayan Quiché kingdom, the top officials known as the Keeper of the Mat, Keeper of the Reception House Mat, Lord Minister, and Crier to the People were permitted canopies according to their rank: four, three, two, and one, respectively, and bad things would have happened to anybody who tried to break that rule.

But this goes well beyond claiming specific authority you don’t have. I mentioned last week that one of the ways to say “I’m important” is to wear or carry or use items that are made from precious materials, or have expensive workmanship. That works fine so long as the main metric of social class is how much money you have; someone working three minimum-wage jobs just to pay their rent can’t pretend to be the upper crust of New York society because they flat-out can’t afford the trappings that would allow them to try. Historically speaking, though, lots of cultures have treated class as a matter of birth or achievement, and have frowned heavily on people trying to use money to buy their way into the upper strata.

Those cultures tend to have something called sumptuary laws. You mostly hear about these in the context of clothing, but they apply to any form of consumption: food, furniture, the size of your entourage, even the way you build your house. Such laws reserve certain types of luxury only for the “right” kind of people, and impose fines or other punishments for individuals who overstep their bounds.

Let’s start with clothing, since the examples there are so abundant. Sumptuary laws may govern the use of certain fabrics (no silk for the hoi polloi!), dyes (Tyrian purple was hugely significant in ancient Rome), garments (Heian Japan restricted hat types by bureaucratic rank), cuts (restriction of necklines or sleeve lengths or just about anything else), embroidery (limiting both quantity and subject matter), jewelry (Islamic sumptuary laws discourage men from wearing gold), and so forth. What’s interesting here is that the purpose of the law may be to maintain the power of the elite . . . but it may also be to keep the non-elite down. Banning native dress in a subjugated population, or requiring disfavored groups like prostitutes or members of religious minorities to wear markers of their status, also helps to maintain the structure of the society.

When it comes to food, sumptuary laws may be about protecting certain resources for the use of the elite. This is kind of what’s at work with medieval English laws against the taking of game in royal forest; since you’re unlikely to find that game in the middle of your wheat field, it amounts to a prohibition against commoners eating venison and such. But it also shows up in situations where allowing widespread consumption would have the positive effect of encouraging trade, because restricting access to imported foodstuffs (coffee, tea, spices, oranges, and so on) turns those things into a privilege for the upper crust. This often carries a moralizing element: there are endless historical documents inveighing against the fecklessness of the poor, spending their limited coin on tea or whatever. (And if you think this sort of law has died out in modern times, check out the regulations governing what you are and are not allowed to spend food stamps on in the U.S. Our Puritanical background is still very much with us.)

Sometimes these laws serve a very practical purpose: it makes a great deal of sense to restrict how many followers someone can bring with them when those followers are likely to be armed, or when the host is expected to house and feed the entire group. (On the other hand, why the limitation that a free-born Greek woman can only be accompanied by one female slave . . . with an exception for when she’s drunk?) But just as often — maybe more so — the elite impose these restrictions just because they can. Why did Tokugawa Japan forbid the construction of a certain style of gatehouse in the residences of non-samurai? Or the shoin-style room, with its precise arrangement of a display alcove, a side desk, and three shelves? Simply because those things were seen as desirable, and therefore telling someone “you can’t have it” was a way to exert your power. But of course that is, in its own way, a practical reason, because this kind of social stratification relies on a constant policing of boundaries between the layers. Those three shelves have no inherent value of their own; they only matter as a signifier for a more important struggle.

One the elite frequently lost. The history of sumptuary laws is also a history of them being broken. Sometimes they were bent deliberately, with someone being given the explicit right to some luxury as a bribe or reward for service: wearing a sword, embroidering clothing with a royal symbol, eating a special kind of food given to them as a gift. But a lot of the time, these rules just got flouted. People with money want to use it to buy nice stuff, and people selling nice stuff want money from whoever can give it to them. English peasants poached deer. Japanese merchants used cypress in their houses and bribed inspection officials to look the other way. Pretending to specific authority was relatively rare — the consequences for passing yourself off as royalty or a military officer were usually severe — but enjoying the fruits of higher status happened all the time. Sometimes the penalties weren’t even enforced, and when they were, people shrugged them off. It’s like breaking the speed limit these days: eh, you might have to pay a speeding ticket occasionally, but the rest of the time you get to enjoy yourself. And that’s a bargain human beings are very prone to making.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of The Memoirs of Lady Trent and the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies. The second book of the Wilders series, Chains and Memory, is on sale now from Book View Cafe. More information can be found on her website, Swan Tower.
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12 Responses to New Worlds: Sumptuary Laws

  1. I sometimes wonder if sumptuary laws were passed when they were already breaking down. Otherwise, why reinforce what everybody else accepts?

    Another thing, deer do wander into gardens. I wonder if some of those laws about game were mostly to dissuade the poor from weapons and their use. You don’t want the peasantry shooting your obnoxious sons from afar after they’ve been practicing droit de seigneur a little too assiduously amongst the young village girls.

    • I sometimes wonder if sumptuary laws were passed when they were already breaking down.

      Oh yeah. I think you need the rise of a wealthy non-aristocratic class to fuel the types I’m most familiar with; when status and wealth go hand-in-hand, the system doesn’t need to be propped up with laws. It’s only when they stop paralleling each other that breakdowns happen, and attempts to prevent them.

  2. Anthony Docimo says:

    One of the phrases I remember from way back when I was starting to read about archaeology, went along the lines of “You don’t pass the same law over and over again, unless people aren’t obeying (as well as they could)”…which is part of why the Old Testament kept telling people not to worship Ba’al or the other gods.

    Similarly, and this ties in with last week’s discussion, there are some things that its not against the law for upper- and lower-class people to own…but specific examples of that are not to be copied. (like the Cloak of Jacob on display at Topkapi’s museum – something that looks and is made like that, is only for the king and maybe – maybe – his family – and its a design nobody else can use…kinda-sorta like how some strata of people in China or Japan could only wear images of dragons with a certain number of toes?)

    • Or, as Sherwood has pointed out in her own blog posts, the newspaper diatribes in the 18th century against women wearing men’s clothes. Nobody would bother ranting if it weren’t happening on a somewhat regular basis . . .

  3. Mary says:

    Of course, sumptuary laws also make it easier to show off your wealth. Not only are you rich enough to wear silk, you’re rich enough to pay the fines that come with it!

    OTOH, they can also impose serious hardship on the high-status by requiring them to wear high-status and expensive stuff.

    • That too! Man, I should write a post on the whole burden-of-wealth angle — English monarchs could show both favor and disfavor by visiting someone on a royal progress, because it brought prestige, but could also bankrupt the host.

      • There was an SF/F book (forgot the title but something like the “Gift Factor”) where on this planet idle tools and decorations slowly revert to their base materials unless continuously handled, polished, worked. In this culture it was common to host a party and “give” valuable stuff away. Which carried not only the prestige of sharing but also the huge burden of keeping it “worked”. It could bankrupt an enemy who is obliged by societal norms to higher servants to keep all the stuff in good working order.

        An interesting book.

    • Cat Kimbriel says:

      Wasn’t the gift of a white elephant from a king a mixed blessing? Since it was a sacred animal, it could not be worked, and required protection. A white elephant could bankrupt its recipient. So the kings usually only gave them to those wealthy enough to absorb the burden–or to frenemies whom they wanted to damage.

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