Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Sumptuary Laws Definition:

Laws which try to control personal behavior such as manners and what people eat and drink.

Related Terms: Shurb Al-Khamr

Sumptuary laws, or laws which try to control personal behavior such as what people eat and drink, are rare. But this was not always the case.

Some Roman and the Greek laws prohibited kissing in public and decorated ceilings or doors. An English law in 1336 prohibited anyone from having more than two courses at any meal.

In 1363, the British faced the Statute of Diet which said that the servants of Lords should eat meat or fish once a day (a subsequent amendment to that law, to help a struggling fishery industry, prohibited the eating of red meat on Fridays or Saturdays). The 1363 law also regulated the wearing of silk and purple; the poor (families of servants) were prohibited from wearing silk or fur. Only lords were allowed to wear a jacket that did not cover the knees. Only the Royal Family was allowed to wear purple.

A contemporary example of sumptuary law is the doctrine of shurb al-khamr which prohibits individuals of the Muslim faith from drinking alcohol, or in many jurisdictions where, for example, the representation of clients in courts of law by a lawyer not wearing specific apparel (such as a black gown and legal tabs) is prohibited.

sumptuary lawsIn his delightful 1897 article, George Westley penned:

"The sumptuary laws (Latin sumptus, expense) were designed to prevent personal extravagance.

"Legislation of this kind dates back to ancient Sparta, where that somewhat mythical character, Lycurgus, is said to have enacted laws tending to the suppression of every desire towards luxurious living. All citizens were compelled to take their meals at a public table, and from this not even the king was exempted. The fare was of the coarsest and plainest description. It was said of the famous black broth of Sparta that, if the Spartans had to live upon this, it is no wonder that they were so ready to die.

"The restrictions were not confined to indulgences of the palate: no foreign luxuries of any kind might be introduced, and all adornment of dwellings was prohibited by an inexorable law.

"Six centuries later, that is, in the third century before Christ, we find sumptuary laws directed against extravagance in dress. No man (could) wear a garment of silk fit only for women, and as for the latter they might not wear a dress of different colors, possess more than half an ounce of gold, nor ride in a carriage in the city or within a mile of it, except on public ceremonies.....

"The Lex Fannia, 161 B. C., regulated the expense which might be incurred at entertainments. At certain festivals, one hundred asses might be spent. On ten other days of each month the sum was limited to fifty asses; while for all remaining days ten asses were deemed sufficient....

"Under Charles VI an edict was issued: 'Let no man presume to treat with more than a soup and two dishes'!

"An old French law prohibited the use of any drink by women save water. An old Scotch law made it a crime for anyone under the rank of baron to use pies or baked meats.

"The first sumptuary laws in England concerned indulgences of the palate. The Plantagenet who reigned in 1336 shut down upon "the excessive and over-many sorts of costly meats" which caused "many mischiefs" to happen to the people of the realm. No man, high or low, dining at home or dining out, should at any meal allow himself to be served with more than two courses, except only on the principal feasts of the year, when three courses were permitted.

"Thirty years later the laws of that country took up the matter of wearing apparel. For knights and squires cloth of silver with girdles. Persons of lower rank are not to wear any silk, nor embroider their cloth with any silver, nor wear any jewelry, and the cloth itself must not cost more than four marks the whole piece.

"The last sumptuary law enrolled among the statutes of England was that made under the first Queen Mary. Persons with an income of less than twenty pounds a year might not wear any silk in their hats or bonnets, girdles, nightcaps, hose, shoes, scabbards, or spur-leathers. The penalty was three months' imprisonment and a fine of ten pounds for every day the interdicted material was worn....

"One thing that needed to be checked was the ridiculous length of shoe points. Some of these were two feet long. A law was passed forbidding anyone under the rank of earl wearing shoe points longer than two inches. Then again short garments were held to be indecent when worn by commoners, so gowns and cloaks were ordered to be made of a certain length, under pain of forfeiture....

"Let us glance over a law made by one of the sultans of Turkey. The monarch in question ordained that anyone of his subjects detected in the act of smoking should for the first offense have his cheeks bored and transfixed by his pipe; for the second offense he was to have his nose cut off, and for the third he was to lose his head."


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