Sumtuary law in ancien regime France, 1229-1806

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Cissie Fairchilds


luxury, regulation

Subject Categories

European History | History


Sumptuary law, the regulation of luxury by social station, was enacted in France throughout the ancien regime. An analysis of the frequency and types of sumptuary laws enacted shows that such legislation was prompted by concerns about the correct ordering of French society. Several themes were common to anti-luxury legislation between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries. Sumptuary laws regulated the material culture of elite society. They served to protect the interests of the poor by ensuring that the surplus wealth of nobles and the rich was redistributed down the social hierarchy. In the sixteenth century, for example, sumptuary laws were enacted to curb the power and wealth of the French nobility by manipulating its material symbols, while Revolutionary legislators used sumptuary taxes to redistribute the tax burden in favor of the working poor.

Sumptuary law was also an important part of the political culture of France. It was used throughout the early modern era to forward political centralization. Anti-luxury statutes solidified the king's right to define and "balance" the body politic. Calls for sumptuary law and the rhetoric of luxury control were also vehicles for charges of corruption by opponents of the monarchy.

Sumptuary laws also permitted a certain amount of luxury, however. This was based in part in the traditional Christian notion that abstinence and charity must be voluntary, and also in the fact that sumptuary laws were difficult to enforce. An analysis of enforcement and evasion patterns in France shows that the population often influenced the content of sumptuary laws through evasion. In this sense, sumptuary laws were as much a product of French society, as they were of the governments that enacted them.


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