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Sumptuous Sumptuary Laws

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When doing my cool job, I never know what will cross my path.  Recently, I happened to discover some items covering early sumptuary laws in England.  These laws were prohibitions against what the Monarch at the time considered to be “extravagance,” typically in the form of food or clothing.  They were reportedly aimed to preserve the class system and “to repress luxury and discourage extravagance, especially among the lower classes, by means of regulations regarding ostentatious expenditure on food, dress, furniture, and ornament.”  The laws served many purposes, including forcing people to buy certain British products, such as wool.  They also had further societal implications by allowing the easy identification of any “peasant gatherings,” which in the wake of revolts and uprisings, were of great concern to the Monarch and nobility.

The first of these types of laws can be traced to fourteenth century England, with a number of sources referring to a Proclamation issued by Edward II in 1309 against undue expenditure and the “‘outrageous’ consumption of meats and fine dishes by the great houses of the realm.” This Proclamation was shortly followed by a number of pieces of legislation.  In 1336 King Edward III attempted to legislate against luxurious living, providing in 10 Edw. III, c. 3 that:

whereas heretofore, through the excessive and overmany sorts of costly Meats which the People of this Realm have used … many mischiefs have happened to the People of the said Realm: for the great men, by these excesses, have been sore grieved, and the lesser People, who only endeavour to imitate the great ones in such sort of Meats, are much impoverished; whereby they are not able to aid themselves nor their liege Lord in time of need, as they ought; and many other evils have happened, as well to Souls as Bodies; …. That he would thereupon ordain a covenable Reedy for the Profit of his People … Hath ordained and established, that no man, of what estate or condition soever he be, shall cause himself to be served in his house or elsewhere, at dinner, meal, or supper, or at any other time, with more than two sources, and each mess of two sorts of victuals at the utmost, be it of Flesh or Fish, with the common sorts of pottage, without sawce or any other sort of victuals: and if any many choose to have sawce for his mess he well may, provided it be not made at great cost: and if flesh or fish be to be mixed therein, it shall be of two sorts only at the utmost, either fish or flesh, and shall stand instead of a mess; Except on the principle Feast of the year … on which Days and Feats every man may be served with three courses at the utmost, after the manner aforesaid … every man, of what estate soever he be, without any exception, shall keep and observe the aforesaid Ordinances and Statutes … without addition or fraud, by covin, evasion, art, or contrivance, or by interpretation of words, or any other colour seeking; upon the faith and allegiance that they owe to our said Lord the King … and upon the peril that belongeth, if any be found doing the contrary of a matter that is done by such common assent of all, and for so great profit of the realm.

An additional statute was passed shortly thereafter in 1363 (37 Edw. III, c. 8 ) which provides for the diet and apparel of servants:

For the Outragious and Excessive Apparel of divers People, against their Estate and Degree, to the great Destruction and Impoverishment of all the Land; It is ordained, That Grooms, as well as Servants of Lords, as they of Mysteries, and Artificers, shall be served [to eat] and drink once a Day of Flesh or of Fish, and the Remnant [of] other Victuals, as of Milk, Butter, and Cheese, and other such Victuals, according to their Estate.

This statute was repealed the following year by 38 Edw. III, c. 2, although similar legislation was soon passed.  In 1562/3 Queen Elizabeth passed an Act to increase the consumption of fish by prohibiting the eating of meat on designated “fish days,” although meat could be eaten under a license obtained by paying certain money to the poor box of the parish.  5 Eliz. c. 5 art. XI provided for an:

Increase of Provision of Fishe by the more usuall and common eating thereof, Bee it further enacted by theaucthorite (sp) aforesaid …. Every Wednesdaye in every Weeke through the whole yere, weh heretofore hathe not by the Lawes or Customes of this Realme bene used and observed as a Fishe Dayes, and which shall not happen to fall in Christmas Weeke or Easter Week, shalbe hereafter observed and kepte as the Saterdayes in every Weeke bee or ought to be: And that no maner of pson shall eate any Fleshe on the same daye, otherwise then ought to bee upon the common Saterdaye.

The same Act in Article XII provided that the penalty of eating flesh on “fish days” was £3, with an additional fine of £2 if a person was aware of the crime and did not inform the relevant people.  Article XIII provided for the issuance of licenses to eat meat, with the exception of beef, on “fish days” (so this type of indulgence was available to the upper classes and wealthy):

This Acte nor any thing herein conteyned concerning eating of Fleshe shall in any wise extende to any pson or psons that shall hereafter have any special Lycence, … Every lycence made to any pson or psons being of the Degree of a Lorde of Pleam, or of their Wyves , shalbe upon Condicion that every suche pson so to bee licensed, shall paie to the poore Mens Boxes within the Pishe where they shall dwell or remayne in the Feast of the Purificatyon of the Blessed Virgyn Marye, or within sixes days after the same Feast twentye syxe shillings eight pens, The same to bee paide within one monethe next after the same Feast, upon payne of forfeiture of every suche Lycence; And every Lycence to any pson of the Degree of a Knight or a Knights Wyef , shalbee upon condicion that every such pson so licensed shall paye yerelye thretten shillings foure pens to the use aforesaid an in fourme afore mentioned; And every Lycence to any pson or psons being under the Degrees above said, shalbee upon condicon that every suche pson so lycenced shall pay yerelye syxe shillings eight pens to the said use and in fourme afore mentioned; Provided always, That no Lycence shall extende to the eating of any Beef at any tyme of the yere, nor to the eating of anny Veale in any yere from the Feast of St. Mighell Tharchaungell unto the firste daye of Maye: Provided also, That all psons whiche by reason of notorious sicknes shalbe inforced for Recoverye of Helthe to eate Fleshe for the time of their sicknes.

These Acts are available to read in the Statutes of the Realm in the Reading Room of the Law Library of Congress.  There are also a number of general texts are available that provide further information on sumptuary laws that are available in the general collection of the Library of Congress: Frances Elizabeth Baldwin, Sumptuary legislation and personal regulation in England, 1926; and Alan Hunt, Governance of the consuming passions: a history of sumptuary law, 1996.

Comments (2)

  1. I have to wonder if these laws were somehow a contributing factor to the lack of any noteworthy cusine in England until recent times. After spending time in the UK in the late 1980’s I understood the need for colonialism – if only to provide a decent food source :-). In all fairness things have improved this century.

    • What about our delicious Sunday dinners with the roast beef and Yorkshire puddings??? Or our chocolate! Whilst admittedly not a true food source, don’t forget the chocolate!

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