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Sumptuary Law in Italy: 1200-1500.

Catherine M. Kovesi Killerby. Sumptuary Law in Italy: 1200-1500.

Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. x + 192 pp. index. bibl. $65. ISBN: 0-19-924793-5.

In the middle of the fourteenth century, Perugia and Verona enacted sumptuary laws "to avoid the useless expenses which are continually made by the citizens and peasants," "to curb the vain ambition of women, and to stop the useless and costly ornaments of their clothing" (36). In contrast, by the middle of the sixteenth century, an anonymous Milanese author argued that because God made human beings with the ability to produce beautiful ornaments, to make and wear such goods is to praise the Lord. "Il lusso e morale" (163). These statements bracket an unusually prolific period in the writing of sumptuary laws on the Italian peninsula. From the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries, governments enacted dozens of such laws regulating expenditures on what they considered luxury items and on conduct during public occasions such as funerals and weddings. Catherine Killerby's book is the first to explore systematically the rise and spread of such laws, their antecedents, purposes, enforcement, and ultimate failure.

She notes that classical and early Christian antecedents provided arguments that late medieval and early modern governments could use, but that from the end of the Carolingian empire until mid-twelfth century, no secular European governments passed sumptuary laws. Because wealth was limited and was concentrated in ecclesiastical institutions or a few royal or noble households, prohibitions against the use of luxury goods or excessive display were few and were aimed at clerics. Yet as the economy began to develop, and the consumption of luxuries and public displays of social standing became increasingly common, there was a growing perception that these were social problems that needed to be addressed through new laws. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in northern Italy, the vanguard of European economic development in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Historians have tried to link these laws to the republican governments that emerged in this region. Killerby argues that this is a mistake. While the sheer number of sumptuary laws passed by these governments suggests that they may have been more concerned with luxury consumption than other governments, she demonstrates that all types of regimes on the Italian peninsula enacted such laws in the centuries of her study.

What were their motives? Their major concern was the protection of precarious economies, fledgling industries, and the uncertain accumulation of scarce capital. They were not opposed to luxury expenditures per se--after all, women needed to look attractive enough to find and retain husbands; and men needed to look prosperous enough to represent their governments on public occasions, especially in the presence of foreign dignitaries. But governments were opposed to "useless" expenditures--those that might ruin well-to-do families or reduce marriages and reproduction rates because families could not amass sufficiently large dowries to find acceptable husbands for their daughters.

Another concern was the stability of the social order. At a time of increasing wealth and social mobility, efforts were made to distinguish different social groups--the newly rich from the titled rich--through the clothing and ornaments they were allowed to wear. Contrary to arguments advanced by some historians, this concern resulted in the protection of aristocratic displays of luxury. The prerogatives of the nobility, particularly in republics, were often protected to keep them content with the loss of their political rights. Instead, the primary target of these laws was women. In a patriarchal society, where women were largely confined to the private sphere, governments feared that the only outlet for the expression of women's social standing was their increasing rivalry in clothing and ornamentation. Most of the sumptuary laws by far were aimed at women's clothing.

Governments also feared excessive displays at funerals and weddings, which could become the catalysts for political upheaval. Funerals, particularly when the dead were opponents or victims of established regimes, might provide the occasion for political opposition and public disorder.

Not surprisingly, enforcement of sumptuary laws was exceedingly difficult and ultimately failed. Killerby argues that this was not due to a lack of desire to implement them, but rather to the inherent nature of these laws, which tried to proscribe specific items and uses. The more detailed the laws, the faster and cleverer were the changes in fashion. Seeking to curb the excess of fashion, the laws helped to create it.

The author has written a thorough and convincing book. The only part of her argument on which she is on less firm ground is in seeing the number of provisions about punishment as evidence for the desire to enforce the sumptuary laws. A better gauge of the social and political will to enforce these laws is the number of prosecutions and fines collected. In this instance, the scarcity of the evidence suggests that the will of the magistrates was as weak as the self-imposed dictates of fashion were strong.


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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Brown, Judith C.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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