By Sarah Kelly Silverman
Master’s Thesis: Ohio State University, 2011
The 1363 English Sumptuary law was put in place to control the consumption of fabrics and related goods based on social class. The social implications of such laws have been discussed previously as reviewed in the literature. But there is a need to better understand the context, purpose, and function of these laws through examination of the prices of fabrics compared with the limits on cloth expenditure set out by the sumptuary laws.
This thesis provides a comparison of the 1363 English sumptuary law, the most comprehensive of the fourteenth-century English sumptuary laws, with available fabric prices from the fourteenth century. The fabric prices come from transcriptions of fourteenth-century documents that record fabric purchases for making clothing. Through a comparison of these documents it is possible to gain some understanding of the fabrics available to people based on the restrictions in the 1363 sumptuary law.
Introduction: Fourteenth-century Europe saw an increase in wealth for most of the social classes, especially among those of the middle classes, the artisans, craftsmen, and merchants. The fourteenth century also saw a stronger shift toward a merchant based economy in which the influx of gold into a country was often related to the amount of trade in finished goods the country was exporting. England was one of the last of the European countries to build a strong merchant economy with the export of finished woolen cloth, although they began to see the beginnings of it with the large trade in wool fiber from the thirteenth century onwards.
Edward III, who reigned from 1327 to 1377, kept trying to find ways to increase the amount of bullion coming into England to fund his war with France. With the increase of bullion into England, an overall increase in wealth of its inhabitants would be expected. This would mean that those of the lower and middle classes would also have experienced increased wealth, and would be able to acquire more expensive goods and food.