Ah, hierarchy. Where would we be without it? How would we know who is important and who is not? How would we decide which families are worthy of security, luxury, and opportunity, and which families deserve yesterday’s scraps and a kick in the bum?

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We wouldn’t! (citation needed). Hierarchy is the seating chart for civilization. Without it there would be utter, bloody, lunatic chaos and everyone would die (citation needed).

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You can’t let just anyone sit in the front row.

But some annoying people aren’t satisfied with the little they deserve and want to change the way of things. In order to keep things from changing, we invented sumptuary laws.

Image result for sumptuary lawsProbably not the guys who started it, but they look like guys who would.

Sumptuary laws have been around since, well, probably the moment one guy had more stuff than the guy next to him.  The intention of these laws is to restrict consumption. By restricting what people consume, you control what they can wear and eat, where they can travel, what they can see, do, and learn. Even who they can talk to.

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Control what a person can consume (not just buy), and you can more or less control who they can be.

These laws come in very handy when traditional power structures are threatened by unexpected social progress.

In Japan during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868(!)), the merchant class–what we would call middle class–began enjoying an incredible run of prosperity. Quickly their wealth far surpassed that of the samurai, who were considered important aristocracy with status far above the servile merchants. Rules had to be made to maintain order and the honor of the samurai, while also acknowledging that the newly rich merchants finally had some social clout (cash money, honey).

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So, merchants were allowed to wear their fancy clothing with only one sword, while samurai were ordered to wear two when out and about.

The kings of Europe tended to use sumptuary laws in the ways you’d expect from western royalty: stopping other people from wearing or eating or owning anything the King himself particularly favored and thought made him kingly.

Related imageThe law prohibits you being like these dudes. 

In England, Edward II outlawed the “outrageous and excessive multitude of meats and dishes which the great men of the Kingdom had used, and still used, in their castles.”

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Ahem, except of course, for HIS castle.

In 7th century Greece, part of a legal code stated: “A free-born woman may not leave the city during the night, unless she is planning to commit adultery.”

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The usual patriarchal misogynistic nonsense…until that twist at the end!  Okay, ancient Greece, you do it your way.

I bring up Sumptuary laws, because although they have traditionally been used by the rich to maintain their lofty positions, they can also be used the opposite direction.

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At a time when income and wealth imbalances are indeed medieval in scale and severity, perhaps it is time to impose some consumption restrictions once again. Not on people who want to buy a nice pair of sneakers or a fancy watch, but on the those very special ones who can’t think of anything better to do with their multiple billions than make ugly rocket ships and drink the blood of young people.

 

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