Various cities and states in the Middle Ages passed what historians call “sumptuary laws,” laws intended to restrain luxury or extravagance. Commonly, sumptuary laws forbid wearing certain types of fabric or clothing, or regulate the size and expense of feasts and banquets. These types of laws could also impact trade, by placing prohibitions on overly expensive imports such as spices. By keeping citizens from overindulging, sumptuary laws also helped to avoid that “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality — the thought was that by disallowing commoners from wearing the same clothing as the aristocracy or emulating their large banquets, commoners would be less likely to bankrupt themselves in attempts to appear above their station. By disallowing lower-class citizens from imitating upper-class citizens, there was also the possibility of inhibiting actual social mobility. And although this may seem unsavory to us today, attempts to curtail social mobility were in keeping with the mentality of the times, which saw social mobility as disturbingly transgressive. We may also read in these laws a certain feeling of fragility or fear on the part of the ruling classes, as sumptuary laws were an expression of noble desires to be, and more importantly appear, powerful and wealthy.
The city of Geneva did not promulgate its own sumptuary laws until rather late, in 1558. A second set of proclamations were published in 1560 as Les Cries faites en ceste Cité de Geneue (The Proclamations made in this City of Geneva). Few of the regulations included in Les Cries are actually sumptuary laws, but rather Les Cries consists of ordinances more generally applicable to daily life, including requirements to attend sermons and send children to catechism, regulations of professional activities, and considerations for fire safety. Although Les Cries touch only lightly on clothing and dietary restrictions, the typical purview of sumptuary laws, the restrictions that do appear reveal that the city’s government believed regulation of excess to be necessary to transform Geneva into an ideal reformed city. By limiting extravagance, Genevans would be free from the distractions and pleasures of everyday life that led them astray from living properly and modestly “as becomes Christians.” You might see this sparse lifestyle as in line with the sparse decorations of the main Genevan church, St.-Pierre — certainly, Genevans did.
The general idea of the sumptuary laws included in Les Cries can be summed up from Item 22: “It is forbidden to all and to each, of any station, quality and condition that they are, that they commit any excess in foods, be it at weddings, banquets, feasts, or otherwise; nor [excess] in outfits and clothing. But that everyone should behave and dress modestly, honestly, and simply, according to his position, on penalty of sixty sols [5 livres] for each time that he will be known to do the contrary. And besides, those preserving and rebelling [will be] chastised according to the demands of each case.”
Clearly, the general idea of the sumptuary laws was to ensure simple, modest living. And it’ss important to note that this was applied to people of “any station, quality and condition” — meaning that these regulations would apply to both genders, and to people of every socioeconomic class.
But the regulations get a bit more interesting after this, as we encounter specific items and practices that are forbidden. This gives us a glimpse into what was actually going on in Geneva, as the government had little reason to forbid clothing items or banqueting practices that were not actually occurring.
Les Cries disallow women from wearing embroidered clothing, hooped/enlarged petticoats (vertugales), or French hoods, a type of headdress that (immodestly) reveals part of a woman’s hair (Item 25; see the image of Princess Elizabeth Tudor). Also disallowed for men or women are “garters with points,” a highly fashionable way of keeping up your socks; and high heels, called “drawbridge shoes” because of the “bridge” made beneath the sole (Item 23). Although today high-heeled shoes are considered particularly feminine shoes, they were first truly popularized as men’s shoes (particularly by French King Louis XIV).
Les Cries also regulate jewelry, with specific regard to rings (Item 26). They regulate that no more than two rings can be worn at a time, with a special exception granted for couples on their wedding day. It seems the intention here is that on a wedding day, the betrothed could each add an extra “wedding” ring, but this increase would only be allowed on the wedding day itself and the following day. However, because the regulation does not indicate the maximum number of three rings it’s entirely possible that a bride or groom could bedeck their hands for the day with as many rings as they wanted. Also notable here is that customs regarding engagement and wedding rings were less rigid than they are today: a token gift was expected to accompany a marriage proposal, which might be a ring, or perhaps a feather, flower, hat, kerchief, bottle of wine, or simply a coin.
The final sumptuary law included in Les Cries has to do with banquets and feasting (Item 27). As someone who has recently had a wedding, this is perhaps of greater interest to me than to those who haven’t recently had a hundred-person party. Les Cries limits a wedding feast and all other other banquets to no more than three courses. Of these courses, each may include no more than four simple dishes — although a special provision is made to indicate that as much harvested fruit can be included as desired. Although three courses might still seem a bit extravagant, the larger picture of a Genevan wedding reception should be kept in mind: these were private parties that followed public ceremonies, and were expected to be modest both in size and decorum. Dancing was specifically prohibited — although the number of people punished for dancing at wedding receptions demonstrates that this was rule was not always followed during the early Reformation. Weddings must have been rather dry affairs, indeed, with limited food, no dancing, and no one wearing more than two rings or a single drawbridge shoe.
Complaints from Geneva’s ministers, as well as a large number of infractions, led to the creation of further sumptuary laws. In 1581, and then again in 1617, new regulations were promulgated with even more clothing restrictions, reductions on the number of courses and dishes that could be served at banquets and feasts, limits on the number of guests at weddings, and suppression of excessively expensive gifts.
Les Cries are currently displayed in the Archives d’État de Genève, the city archives, as part of its current exposition in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Côté chaire côté rue: la Réforme à Genève 1517-1617. A digital version of the exhibit is available online here.
This blog post draws on a translation project for Dr. Ute Lotz-Heumann’s Fall 2015 graduate seminar Hist 696F: The Long Reformation in Tudor and Stuart Britain.
Les Cries faites en ceste Cité de Geneue, l’an mille cinq cens soixãte. Geneva: Artus Chauvin, 1560.
The G.LN. 15-16, an online catalogue of books printed in Geneva, Lausannce, and Neuchâtel in the 15th and 16th centuries, indicates there are two copies of Les Cries held at libraries in France and three in Switzerland. The document is available online through the Elektronische Bibliotek Schweiz – Bibliothèque électronique suisse here.
Archives d’État de Genève. Côté chaire côté rue: La Réforme à Genève 1517-1617, une exposition des Archives d’État. 22 March – 15 December 2017. Exhibition catalogue.
Bossan, Marie Josèphe. The Art of the Shoe. New York: Parkstone International, 2015.
Chaix, Paul. Recherches sur l’Imprimerie à Genève de 1550 à 1564: Etude Bibliographique, Economique et Littéraire. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1978; original edition 1954.
Gilmont, Jean François. Jean Calvin et le Livre Imprimé. Geneva: Droz, 1997.
Pettegree, Andrew, Malcom Walsby, and Alexander S. Wilkinson, eds. French Vernacular Books: Books Published in the French Language Before 1601/Livres vernaculaires français: livres imprimés en français avant 1601. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
Witte, John, Jr., and Robert M. Kingdon. Sex Marriage, and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.
Image of Princess Elizabeth Tudor: unknown artist (formerly attributed to William Scrots), c. 1546, from Wikimedia Commons.