The New Sumptuary Laws: Covid and the Return of Absolutism
It’s a story that sounds all too familiar in the age of Covid-19. On March 22 a group of tavern owners petitioned against state regulations. They could only keep two tables open for customers. Their businesses suffered greatly from the rule, they complained. Now they hoped the government would relax the rules; they wanted to open up six tables to guests. Surely that wasn’t too much to ask.
Over the past year we have heard restaurateurs around the country voicing similar frustration. This story, however, is different. The innkeepers in the town of Staffelstein in northern Bavaria filed the petition. On March 22, 1619. Their ruler, the prince-bishop of Bamberg, issued the regulations three years before. The 1616 ordinance was like thousands of others in seventeenth-century Europe, sumptuary laws intended to preserve public order and encourage good morals. They did so through severe restrictions of consumption of goods and services deemed unessential by the state.
The parallels between the sumptuary laws of old and the restrictions of late are, in that regard, both revealing and instructive. They also provide us with a much-needed cautionary tale.
Absolutism and Sumptuary Laws
Sumptuary laws were central to the domestic policy of princes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Their revival points to the rise of an authoritarian streak in government. We can see it at the federal, state, and local levels. There is a growing gulf between the common folk and a ruling elite. These elites increasingly perceive themselves as an aristocracy, and contemporary “public servants” view ordinary people with a level of contempt more fitting to an absolute monarchy than a constitutional republic.
Absolutism rested on a theory of government that insisted that the power of the state was both unlimited and irresistible. European Absolutism emerged out of the Renaissance, gaining greater impetus after the Protestant Reformation. Religion developed into a political ideology. Depending on the religion of the prince, states were either Catholic or Protestant. Rulers assumed that it would be impossible to maintain civil order in a state divided by religion. Sixteenth-and seventeenth-century political theorists agreed on this point. Social stability required uniform belief.
The quest for ideological unity fed into the sumptuary laws. Every aspect of human life had to conform to the new norms. The 1616 ordinance begins with a long section on language which listed listing words and phrases deemed unacceptable. Fines for “criminal speech” ran as high as six-week’s salary. Third offenders faced imprisonment on bread and water. The rules applied not only to public speech, but statements made in private.
The restrictions on people’s speech reflected a growing lack of patience with the common herd. Early reforms targeted institutions. Make the church better, eliminate abuses, and appoint trained clergy and lay devotion would naturally increase. Or so it was thought.
Inequality and Hypocrisy
When people remained stubbornly committed to their own opinions, the ordinances took on a different tone. To the princes, the ills afflicting society were divine punishment on a disobedient and disorderly population. Although seventeenth-century bureaucrats never called their fellow subjects Neanderthals or Deplorables, they would have recognized the sentiment. The common folk engaged in “all kinds of disorderly behavior and criminal acts.”
Sumptuary laws did not fall equally on all subjects. This was a perennial sore spot. The section of the 1616 ordinance dealing with clothing allows aristocrats to dress however they wanted, while placing severe limits on townsmen, peasants, and servants. The sections dealing with food are similar. The law gives a detailed breakdown on how many dishes could be served at weddings based on the value of the host’s property.
The law formally decrees what we have seen happen in America unofficially. If a wealthy man or a public official wished to entertain friends, the inn could set up as many as twelve tables. There were no limits on how much wine they could consume. The number of dishes was practically unlimited. Meanwhile, poor people could only have one or two dishes, and even then they were limited to cheese, fruit, and bread. Meat was forbidden to the lower orders on pain of a 10 gulden fine. That was more than two month’s wages for a common laborer.
To put it in modern terms, the laws were directed at working-class guys wanting to grab something at a local pub. They did not apply not to members of the governing class dining at the French Laundry. At least if the seventeenth-century laws were unfair, they were honest about it.
The Costs of Sumptuary Laws
The long-term effect of the regulations was to limit economic growth. After a century of unprecedented expansion, the European economy slowed then stagnated at the end of the sixteenth century. Although wars, climate, and disease played a role in the decline, arguably it was the massive expansion of the state that plunged Europe into a depression that lasted most of a century.
To be fair, the economic impact of the legislation was poorly understood and entirely unplanned. Not so with the social engineering goals. Sumptuary laws were intended to maintain and even sharpen social divisions. Social mobility threatened the powers of the elites, and the rules were very deliberately designed to keep the rising Middle Class for rising any further. The impediments to upward mobility were a cause of perpetual frustration. Indeed, the pride and insolence of the lower orders were frequently cited as justification for more repressive laws.
Adam Smith argued that invasive and arbitrary government regulations hindered economic growth. In the eighteenth century many of the older sumptuary laws disappeared. Instead, rulers encouraged spending. This heightened demand, and primed Europe for an explosion of production: the Industrial Revolution.
Justifying Sumptuary Laws
What subjects objected to most was the arbitrary nature of the laws. Seventeenth-century people accepted social inequality as part of the divine and natural order. What annoyed them were laws that fell most harshly on the bulk of the population while sparing the elites. Absolutist regimes responded to criticism by enacting yet more extreme measures.
The 1616 ordinance began by noting that “earlier well-meaning decrees had born so little fruit.” The common people had “almost completely failed to observe” the old laws; therefore stricter laws were needed. No one considered that the old laws only made matters worse. If the regulations had failed, it was obviously the fault of the stubborn, disorderly, sinful, and wicked people.
Covid restrictions evince the same general viewpoint: Only by disciplining a stubborn, disorderly people can we stem the pandemic. Many Americans view not wearing a mask as a sin. The severity of the threat justifies the limits on individual liberty.
Sumptuary laws of the sixteenth and seventeenth were no different. Wars, plagues, and economic problems demanded increased regulation. An ordinance from Bamberg in the 1570s explicitly identified a disease as proof of God’s anger, though in that case it was syphilis, not Covid.
The main rationale for the 1616 ordinance was what we now call Climate Change. A series of devastating frosts had devastated crops in 1615 and 1616. Although no one knew it at the time, the frosts marked the beginnings of the “Little Ice Age.” Then as now, leaders cited humanity’s wasteful consumption of “luxuries” as the root cause of extreme weather events.
From Restriction to Persecution
Of course, we base our modern sumptuary laws – whether driven by Covid fears or concern for the environment – on science. In the eyes of many, witches caused the climate change of the seventeenth century. Indeed, the Bamberg ordinance appeared at the beginning of perhaps the largest witch hunt in history. Here we should remember, though, that it was the secular state, not the church, that persecuted witches. And demonology was a science of sorts. The opinions of the witch-hunters derived from piles of empirical data sifted from the confession of condemned witches.
We may dispute the demonologist’s methodology since they obtained practically all their data almost universally through torture. But for nearly a century their findings constituted a scientific consensus one questioned at one’s peril. While we don’t blame witches for Covid, there has been a tendency among the elites to view resistance to the most severe regulations as heresy.
People who flaunt mask mandates have been demonized, dehumanized (think “Neanderthal”), and even accused of seeking to murder their fellow citizens. These attacks are framed in terms of “science.” The terms, though,resemble those used to justify the mass slaughter of fifteen percent of the population of Bamberg, men, women, and children, as “witches.”
The New Absolutism
In 1968 the Czech dissident Ivan Svitak warned his students against “a new form of absolutism, a modern type of despotism.” Its essence was the reduction of the individual to a target of the state. The rulers flattered themselves that they alone understood progress. They knew what was in the best interests of the whole world. Their expertise justified their attempts to impose their vision of the “good” on the masses. The people were an easy target. Propaganda stirred them up into an emotional panic as reason and traditional values disintegrated. This made it difficult if not impossible for the masses to resist.
Svitak’s words ring true for the witch hunts of the seventeenth century. More ominously, they describe the attitudes revealed in many of the Covid restrictions. Politicians and scientists see themselves as our intellectual and moral betters. As our betters, they believe they can force us to accept despotism because of this latest crisis.
One clear sign of creeping despotism is the distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” activities. Sumptuary laws explicitly aimed at limiting “non-essential” purchases. But why was it better to allow restaurants to seat two parties in the dining room rather than three or four or six? Likewise, why rope off the toy section of a store while other sections remain open? Why was it more dangerous to buy Legos than groceries? In the arbitrary character of the rules, we can see the spirit of Absolutism most clearly.
Citizens, not Subjects
Despite all this, we have a set of remedies not available to the subjects of seventeenth-century princes or Soviet Communism. We need to exercise our common sense and resist the would-be absolute monarchs of our day. We should be on guard against the emotional manipulation of the media. Moreover, we are not serfs. Whatever the petty tyrants might say, the Constitution protects our rights. The right to speak our minds. To assemble. The right to equal treatment under the law. And we have the power to vote them out. We the People ought to remind the purveyors of modern sumptuary laws that they are not our princes or our priests. They are our servants.