Liberty Matters

The Rise and Decline of Sumptuary Laws


Hank Clark’s essay has many merits and raises, for me, a significant overarching question.  Given the power of age-old religious and moral strictures against conspicuous consumption, and given the prevalence throughout Europe of sumptuary laws in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, how did it transpire that spending on superfluities came eventually to be judged, not as an evil to be restrained, but as a good, so much so in fact that President George W. Bush could advise Americans after 9/11 to get back to business and go to the mall?  The transformation from governments constraining to governments encouraging spending on superfluous luxury goods was by no means preordained.  Even as late as the 18th century in France, as Sarah Maza notes, “critics of luxury vastly outnumbered and decisively out-argued defenders of the concept.”[37]  In France, these critics included such influential writers as Fénelon, Rousseau, Mably, the elder Mirabeau, Gabriel Sénac de Meilhan, Antoine-Prosper Lottin, and Abbé Pluquet. 
Certainly Adam Smith’s theories of the “invisible hand,” suggesting that the self-interested pursuit of wealth benefits both rich and poor alike, and of free markets maximizing a state’s productivity and hence wealth are central to comprehending the change in thinking leading to the abandonment of state controls on consumption.  But by what means, we need ask, did economic thinking evolve away from mercantilism, enabling Adam Smith to suggest the necessity of prioritizing liberty, free trade, and property rights over state-imposed equality, import restrictions, and sumptuary laws?  To repeat Clark’s formulation of the issue, how did we reach the point where we tolerate gross disparities in wealth to an extent that would have “struck terror into the hearts of republican moralists from antiquity up to Montesquieu’s own time?”
Clark highlights the importance of Montesquieu’s distinction between commercial and martial republics.  Not all republics, Montesquieu asserted in Book V of The Spirit of the Laws, elevate conquest over commerce.  Although Sparta and early republican Rome did so, Athens and Carthage presented a contrasting republican model where commercial enterprise was prioritized and did not undermine civic virtue because it embodied the ”spirit of frugality, economy, moderation, work, prudence, tranquility, order, and rule.”[38]  Thus “bourgeois virtues” may retard the corrosive effects of what we now call income inequality.  “We celebrate,” Clark asserts, “or at least tolerate our wealthy if, and insofar as, we regard their riches as the earned reward of the productive virtues” whose effect on gross inequalities is “pacifying.” And he rightly asks: “is this insight enough to help explain the demise of sumptuary law?“  Clearly it is not, and Clark himself points us to three theorists, Nicholas Barbon, Bernard Mandeville, and Jean-François Melon, whose writings suggest other explanations.  At some point in the ensuing discussion, it will be important to explore the contributions of these writers.  First, however, it seems appropriate to make some general comments on sumptuary laws and on possible reasons for their decline that are unrelated to fine points of economic theory.
Clark’s use of Nicolosa Sanuti’s protests against restrictions on her freedom of dress and ornamentation in Bologna serves as a useful starting point for discussion of the general subject of sumptuary laws.  Such laws were introduced in Italy beginning in the early 13th century, and one scholar has noted that “[b]etween 1200 and 1500 governments in over forty Italian cities enacted more than 300 laws designed to restrict and regulate the consumption of luxury goods and related manifestations of excess,” particularly in marriages, funerals, and gift giving.[39] 
Depending on time and place, sumptuary laws fulfilled quite different purposes.  In England and in many of the Italian city-states, where a premium was placed on preserving class distinctions, sumptuary laws were designed to prevent those of lesser rank from mimicking those of higher rank.  Preserving rank and distinction was also an important goal in France.  We need only think of the dramatic and by then much-resented differences in dress at the opening of the Estates General in France in 1789, as each estate of the realm paraded to the opening session adorned in its state-sanctioned apparel.  Sumptuary laws, however, were not always designed to ensure that the lowly did not masquerade as the equals of their superiors.  In the aristocratic republic of Venice sumptuary laws were designed, in part, to mask rather than accentuate class differences.  Nobles were prohibited from displaying their social superiority in dress and jewelry so as not to increase envy of the commoners within the state who were deprived of political influence.[40] 
Sumptuary laws were often designed to bolster morality on the assumption that luxury leads to debauchery, as the Roman example seemed to prove.[41]  Many of the Italian regulations were aimed at ensuring female modesty.[42]  Religious writers were quick to assert that hedonistic devotion to excess in food, drink, and fashion improperly focuses attention on bodily rather than spiritual needs, and it follows that clerics were therefore often involved in the encouragement and enforcement of sumptuary laws.  In Sanuti’s Bologna, for example, and also in Pisa and Perugia, violating clothing restrictions could bring excommunication, as experienced by the wearers of elaborate dresses at the wedding of a member of the Sforza family in 1464.[43] Religious objections covered a gamut of concerns.  Catholics linked the display of luxury to the sin of pride, whereas Protestants linked immersion in luxury to immorality, and Puritans regarded luxury as wasteful and as deflecting sums away from what could be spent on charitable works.[44] 
Some sumptuary legislation was expressly anti-crime, based on the assumption that those who engaged in excessive spending would resort to theft to keep up appearances after they had beggared themselves through that spending.  Such fear of incipient criminality is transparent in a 1562 proclamation of Queen Elizabeth suggesting that excessive spending on clothing has “provided meny of them [the King’s Subjects] to robbe and to doo extorcion and other unlawfull Dedes to mayntayne therby ther costeley arraye.”[45]  And some sumptuary laws were blatantly discriminatory.  In a number of states, including Venice, Jews were required to dress in certain ways, in part to enforce the rule of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 prohibiting them (and Muslims) from having sexual relations with Christians.[46] 
Reason of state motivated passage of numerous sumptuary laws.  English rulers tried to prevent people from spending themselves into ruin, which would make them burdensome wards of the state.  A 1574 proclamation of Queen Elizabeth lamented the “the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen, otherwise serviceable.”[47]  State economic goals also motivated passage of sumptuary legislation.  Money spent on luxuries could not be invested in manufacturing or trade or be used to pay taxes, and mercantilists believed the importation of foreign luxury goods crippled domestic industries and risked balance-of-payments ruin.  Therefore much sumptuary legislation was protectionist. As early as 1510, for example, an English statute targeted the wearing of foreign wools and furs,[48] and in England wearing foreign items was eventually regarded as a lack of patriotism.[49]  
Aside from advances in economic theory, which deserve treatment in subsequent posts, what general explanations can account for the decline of sumptuary legislation?  For one thing, the record of  enforcement of such laws was abysmal.[50]  People were averse by nature to curbing their taste for luxury items that expressed their personalities and signified their rank and status.  As Voltaire quipped in his entry on “Luxury” in his Philosophical Dictionary, “For 2,000 years people have declaimed in verse and prose against luxury, and have always loved it.”[51]  Evidence of lack of compliance with English sumptuary laws is reflected in the frequency with which such laws merely restated old restrictions that had been ignored.  Queen Elizabeth’s proclamations, for example, often repeated regulations dating from the reigns of Henry VIII and Philip and Mary[52]  The same pattern of repetition of previously ignored sumptuary laws marked the history of Venetian legislation on that subject.[53]
There are obvious psychological reasons why sumptuary law tended to be self-defeating.  Michel Montaigne remarked that any attempt to regulate expenditures for luxuries was doomed to fail since rather than creating “contempt of gold and silk-wearing as of vaine and unprofitable things,” sumptuary laws augmented the value of fineries by restricting them to the well born.  “To let none but Princes eat dainties, or weare velvets,” Montaigne concluded, “makes the people want such things even more.”[54]
None of the above commentary is meant to suggest that the key reasons for the decline of sumptuary law lie outside the development of sophisticated economic theory contending that the production of luxury items benefits not just wealthy consumers but also the producers of such goods who would otherwise be unemployed.  A full-employment defense of luxury became an oft-repeated theme in the economic literature of the 17th and 18th centuries, and Montesquieu asserted in Persian Letter 106 that “For one man to live elegantly, a hundred must labor ceaselessly.  A woman gets it into her head that she should appear at a ball in a certain dress, and from that moment fifty artisans can sleep no more.”  And in this same letter Montesquieu says that a country that would “banish everyone serving only luxury or fancy … would be one of the most miserable on earth.”  Incomes would drop, the circulation and increase of wealth would cease, and the state “would rapidly decay.”[55]  Two things in particular are noteworthy here.  First, Montesquieu was advancing an argument that his friend Jean-François Melon would later repeat, and second, his assertion anticipated some of the argument Adam Smith would set forth in his The Wealth of Nations (1776).  It is not surprising, therefore, that John Maynard Keynes, in the Preface to the French edition of The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1942) referred to Montesquieu not only as the greatest French economist but also as “the real French equivalent of Adam Smith.”[56]  Clearly, exploring both the Montesquieu–Keynes and Montesquieu-Smith connections would be very worthwhile endeavors. 
[37.] Sarah Maza, The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie: An Essay on the Social Imaginary, 1750-1850 (Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 55, cited by Jeremy Jennings, “The Debate about Luxury in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Political Thought,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan., 2007), 79-105 (at 82).
[38.] The Spirit of the Laws, trans. Anne Cohler, Basia Miller, and Harold Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 5.6, p. 48, as quoted by Clark with one word alteration.
[39.] Catherine Kovesi Killerby, “Practical Problems in the Enforcement of Italian Sumptuary Law, 1200-1500,” in Crime, Society and the Law in Renaissance Italy, ed. Trevor Dean and K.J.P. Lowe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 99, 102.
[40.] See David W. Carrithers, “Not so Virtuous Republics: Montesquieu, Venice, and the Theory of Aristocratic Republicanism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 52, no. 2 (April-June, 1991), 245-68 (at 259-60).
[41.] Killerby, “Italian Sumptuary Law” (115) asserts that in Italy “the overwhelming majority of sumptuary laws were directed at women’s clothing and ornaments,” and “a small proportion … express misogyny.”
[42.] Diane Owen Hughes, “Sumptuary Law and Social Relations in Renaissance Italy,” in Disputes and Settlements. Law and Human Relations in the West, ed. John Bossy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 82-83.
[43.] Ibid., 103, 117.  See also Hughes, “Sumptuary Law and Social Relations,” 81.
[44.] Leah Kirtio, “‘The Inordinate Excess in Apparel’: Sumptuary Legislation in Tudor England,” in Constellation: History and Classics Faculty of Arts, University of Alberta, 3, no. 1 (2011), 17-29 (at 22). Catherine Killerby has observed, however, that no Italian government in the period 1200-1500 “regarded luxury as evil in itself.  It was the context of its use, by whom and for what purpose, that determined the approval or censure of luxury.”  Displays of luxury by nobles or by doctors and lawyers were seen as properly marking their elevated status (Killerby, “Italian Sumptuary Law,” 119).
[45.] Quoted in Kirtio, “Inordinate Excess,” 23. For the anti-crime rationale, see also Henry Fielding, “An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase in Robbers” (1751).
[46.] Joanne M. Ferraro, Venice. History of the Floating City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 90, 123.
[47.] Quoted in Kirtio, “Inordinate Excess,” 23.
[48.] Ibid., 25, citing Wilfred Hooper, “The Tudor Sumptuary Laws,” in The English Historical Review, 30, no. 119 (Jul., 1915), 433.
[49.] Ibid., 24 citing Roze Hentschell, The Culture of Cloth in Early Modern England: Textual Constructions of a National Identity (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008), 104.
[50.] It was not for lack of trying, however. For Italy, see Killerby, “Italian Sumptuary Law,” 118-19.  One difficulty was that once a particular fashion in clothing or jewelry was prohibited, another equally luxurious item of dress or ornament would be invented.
[51.] Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, ed. and trans. Theodore Besterman (London: Penguin Books, 1972), 290. Online version: "Luxury," in The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. VI. </titles/355#lf0060-06_head_047>.
[52.] See Kirtio, “Inordinate Excess,” 19. In England enforcement was left to the justices of the peace, and they generally had more important business to conduct (ibid., 20, citing Alan Hunt, Governing Morals: A Social History of Moral Regulation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 331).
[53.] Ferraro, Venice, 120-21.
[54.] The Essays of Michael Lord of Montaigne, trans. John Florio, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1904; orig. ed., 1603), I, 348. Online version: "Of Sumptuary Laws" in Essays of Montaigne, vol. 3, trans. Charles Cotton, revised by William Carew Hazlett (New York: Edwin C. Hill, 1910). </titles/1744#lf0963-03_head_008>.
[55.]Montesquieu, The Persian Letters, trans.  George R. Healy (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), 177-78. Montesquieu repeats this line of thought in The Spirit of the Laws, where he remarks, regarding monarchies, “If wealthy men do not spend much, the poor will die of hunger.” See 7.4, p. 99. Online version: "Persian Letter 106," in Baron de Montesquieu, The Complete Works of M. de Montesquieu (London: T. Evans, 1777), 4 vols. Vol. 3. </titles/1338#lf0171-03_label_628>
[56.] For details regarding Keynes’s interest in Montesquieu, see Nicos E. Devletoglou, “Montesquieu and the Wealth of Nations,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 29, no. 1 (February, 1963), 1-28 reprinted in Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, ed. David Carrithers, in the series International Library of Essays in the History of Social and Political Thought, ed. Tom Campbell (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009), 497-521 (at 497).