Sumptuariae leges

Montaigne, who idleblog’d back in the 1570s and ’80s, has a post on the sumptuary laws with which I can only partly agree. He argues that they defeat their own purpose, as a check on extravagance, especially in food and clothing. They do not in fact much reduce vanity and insanity among the public at large, nor discourage emulation of the high-born and well-placed. Rather they encourage the great evil that Plato identifies in his Laws, among the young and the pretentious. These errants disdain tradition and good taste. They chase trends in dress, diet, dance and song. They are conspicuous consumers, who beslaver the fashion gurus and entertainment stars.

This, according to Plato; and Montaigne is inclined to agree that change is a bad thing in itself, unless it is away from evil. Customs should be maintained, and laws honoured, particularly those “to which God has given some ancient duration, so that no one knows their origin or that they were ever different.”

All wise men are conservative, of course, but the wisest are extremely reactionary, and profoundly religious — Plato even more than Montaigne. All, in principle, oppose extravagant posturing, but there may be disagreement on how to suppress it. There is little sense in making exceptions for kings and lords, Montaigne thinks. This only encourages envy in the lower born, who then put value on whatever they are denied: turbot, for instance; or velvet and gold braid. They begin to associate such shallow things with rank, as if superiority could be reduced to flash and ostentation. And thus, by small increments of impudence, in defiance of all sumptuary laws, they set themselves on familiar terms with their betters.

For as Montaigne knows, equality is the enemy of civilization. The careful preservation of class distinctions requires stronger buttressing than any sumptuary laws can provide. We must find better ways to diminish the young, and undermine middle class pretensions.

He suggests the best way might be actually to reverse the sumptuary laws, as they were in the France of his day. He cites, for instance, Zaleucus, the Locrian lawgiver from the seventh century BC, who forbade gold ornaments and crimson to the common people — but with an exemption for mountebanks and “tumblers.” (Courtesans?) He allows the free woman to be accompanied by one chambermaid at most — except when she is drunk. She may not wear gold jewellery or a lace dress — unless she is a registered whore. A man may not wear a gold ring, or dress in too fine-woven a robe — unless he is a pimp.

And so forth.

Yet in a broader view of history, let me humbly suggest, the conventional sumptuary laws have proved reasonably effective. We find them in the rise, and at the peak, of all the higher civilizations. We find them abolished or ignored in all periods of decline and decadence. (The Roman novelist, Petronius, to my mind, is a subtle and ingenious observer of these connexions, though as this day is winding down, I must leave him to another.)

Whether the imposition of sumptuary laws, or more daringly, their re-imposition, could effect an improvement in public manners, is a more open question. Correlation is not causation, it could be said. Gentle reader may however wish to help me draught a model sumptuary code, that would be appropriate for times like these.

Looking about me in this pseudo-Christmas shopping season, I think it would at least be worth a try.