Moustaches, mantles and saffron shirts: what motivated sumptuary law in medieval English Ireland?

Sparky Booker

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Abstract

Sumptuary laws—laws that regulated displays of status through clothing, hairstyles, armor, and other visual markers—were enacted across Europe with increasing frequency beginning in the late thirteenth century. Sumptuary laws from the English colony in Ireland, promulgated from 1297 onward, have never been analyzed as a distinct corpus of law nor interpreted in the wider European context. Comparison of the Irish laws with their European counterparts highlights the markers of status that lawmakers in the colony were most anxious to preserve. Irish laws share the same core concern that prompted most sumptuary law: that a person’s position in society was faithfully reflected in their appearance. They differ markedly from much European material, however, in the types of status with which they were primarily concerned. They rarely addressed, for example, the attire of women or sought to restrain expenditure. Most notably, in Europe the signaling of rank and social status was the main concern of sumptuary laws, while in Ireland differentiation by ethnicity was the primary focus. The relative inattention to social status in the Irish laws relates to several economic and societal factors but also reflects the centrality of ethnic division between English and Irish to the worldview of lawmakers in the colony.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSpeculum
Volume96
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

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