Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Out, Damned Spot

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Okay. Here is a piece of history a friend of mine reminded me of this morning.

Practically everybody who is reading this will know that there was an epidemic of plague in the Middle Ages that wiped out a considerable portion of the population.

Some of you will  know that there were also, in the Middle Ages, something called “sumptuary laws” that restricted what people could wear and own by their place in the social hierarchy–only people of royal blood could wear purple, for instance, and only members of the aristocracy could wear velvet.

The sumptuary laws varied by place.  The plague didn’t much.  And the two are connected.

That is–sumptuary laws were a response to the first great Continental exposition of the law of supply and demand.

The plague killed indiscriminately, rich people as well as poor, which is the kind of thing that happens when you know nothing about either germs or hygiene.

The kick is that it also killed the skilled craftsmen and experienced husbandmen who had provided the work that kept the aristocracy in spectacular clothes and working farms. 

And once enough of those people had died, the ones left were in increasing demand.  There weren’t enough of them to go around.

And since they were in demand, the money they were paid went up.

And not just for the ones at the very top of the skill scale, either.  Wages for skilled work rose dramatically in the wake of the plague, and skilled workmen suddenly found themselves with lots of disposable cash.

They were therefore in a position to buy Stuff, as such Stuff existed in the Middle Ages, and buy it they did.

Aristocrats and functionaries suddenly found themselves in a position of not being able to tell the class of a man or woman just by looking.  People whom they believed ought to be poor weren’t poor any more, and they looked just like gentlemen. 

The rich and the well connected were in constant danger of treating inferiors as equals, among other things.

That’s why the sumptuary laws–to try to stop the upstarts from getting the Stuff tha that made them look like quality, and to try to make sure that you could know immediately, by looking at a man, whether he was your superior, your inferior, or your equal.

In case you’re wondering, this did not work very well. 

But in the long run, it didn’t have to work very well, or for long.  The plague receded.  The population was replenished.  Eventually, the population of skilled workers went up enough so that their wages went down enough that nobody had to worry about them buying velvet and silks.

What has always interested me about this, however, is the extent to which the issue was framed as “being able to know on sight” who occupied which place in the social hierarchy.

One of the geniuses of capitalism is that it is a constant corrosive against just this–anybody who can scrape the money together can wear Tiffany diamonds, or buy a Lear Jet, or send the kid to Harvard.  Anybody who can scrape up less money can wear Armani and get married in a Carolina Herrera wedding gown.

I have a suggestion to make.

I think that the constant effort to define class–and especially “in” groups and “out” groups–by taste in things like music, reading material and art is a direct result of the fact that we cannot install sumptuary laws in a capitalist world.

We fight our class battles out on the level of taste because we have no other way to “know on sight’ who people are and what place they occupy in the social hierarchy.

And since taste is not something that depends absolutely on material means, it also becomes a way to get out from under the logic of capitalism altogether–to divorce social status nearly absolutely from the money calculus.

Class comes to depend, then, not on how much money you have–although if you want to play the game well, you’ll have to have some–but on whether you can walk the walk and talk the talk. 

It doesn’t matter if the kid you hated in high school started a successful plumbing business and now makes three times as much as you do with your Wesleyan degree and your job at the art gallery.  He may have money, but he’s just so obviously–not.

The real question, of course, is why people want to do this–and they do want to do it.  Almost everybody wants to do it.

And not only do most of us want to do it, most of us have to do it, if we’re not going to make a mess of things in day to day life.

When someone comes along who doesn’t comform to outwardly to our understanding of how to judge status, what results is often upsetting in the extreme.  No matter how often we tell ourselves that we treat everyone the same, we don’t. 

And we don’t all expect to be treated the same, either.

In some cases, not conforming to the expected outward appearances can be positively dangerous.  If the cop stops you in an old beat up car wearing dirty sweat clothes and a hoodie, it won’t matter that you’re Warren Buffet.

It is still something of a puzzle to me as to why this is so important to almost all of us.  Why does it matter if we know the exact social status of the people we work for, or the people we see at the movies?  Why do we need to signal our own and to signal it unambiguously?

Most of us try to present ourselves as a little higher in the hierarchy than we actually are, unless we’re running for public office and want to appear to be “just like one of us” to a lot of people we would normally think of as our social inferiors.

We also keep trying, and failing, to price the riff raff out of the market for upper class markers. 

And in every group everywhere, status markers emerge in no time at all.

Some of you don’t much like the books of Henry James, or F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I don’t know how you feel about Proust.

But those were three writers nearly obsessed about the status markers that take up so much of our time.

There has to be a reason for this that goes past the “people suck” and Original Sin varieties of explanation.

I keep trying to figure out an evolutionary story for it, and can’t quite.

Written by janeh

May 10th, 2012 at 8:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Out, Damned Spot'

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  1. I could follow you with the medieval stuff, but have difficulty with the modern bits. There are people who are obsessed with status and money and clothing, just not everyone. And yet….as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the importance of, not quite keeping up appearances, but projecting the right image to get the right reaction. I’m pretty bad at most aspects of this, but I can see that someone dressed like a professional and speaking in an educated manner gets a different reaction than I do, when I’m in my casual, might be one of those innumerable aging women on social assistance or holding down a minimum wage job, attire. Comfortable, yes. Likely to impress people wih the idea that they should listen to me, no. I do get into a lot of conversations with other people who dress like that, though!

    As for the reason – we’re social creatures. It’s essential to us, bred in our bones, that we fit in somewhere, that we have a place, even if this drive is opposed by our individuality, our desire to make our personal wishes the centre of the universe. So we need to know who’s likely to accept us as part of a group, and who isn’t. And we need to do in it a society in which we DON’T know the family history of everyone we meet back to Adam, nearly. So we need other cues – style of dress and of language, manners, etc. There’s probably a certain amount of envy and greed involved – factors that are actively promoted. I saw an ad recently showing a sad little girl with a slogan saying the Obama’s daughter got healthy school lunchs, why shouldn’t she? I was flabbergasted at the assumption that what Obama’s daughters do or do not eat should have anything to do with this poor child getting something to eat at lunchtime, but the general approach is commonplace. So-and-so has a diamond necklace, why don’t I? This is nothing new – was de Maupassant who wrote the short story? – and I think it’s really not as important for most people as the drive to belong – I have Sally Star’s necklace, she and I are like sisters….And that makes sense as something that would have survival value. If you belong, others help you survive, and you help them. If you are rejected, you starve. Or, today, go around trying to construct a group to belong to out of the entertainment news.


    10 May 12 at 9:21 am

  2. Ummm. Sumptuary laws date back to Grece and Rome? Happened in East ASia? Predate the Black Death by two generations, and went on as late as colonial Massachusetts? Wickipedia to the contrary, I’m pretty sure they were still on the books and sometimes enforced under the early Stuarts–and into the 18th Century in France.

    Sometimes for good practical reasons. The laws and tax codes treated the French nobility differently, and acting like a nobleman was one way to get to be one. But also for the excellent reason of keeping those people in their place. You can’t have some merchant’s son walking around with two swords as though he were a samurai or some greengrocer’s daughter wearing silk.

    But let’s not forget pure benevolence. Remember the poor stupid little people are always wanting things taht aren’t good for them–like children. And it’s the duty of the wise kindly paternal government to keep them from wasting their substance on things they really ought to know better than to buy.

    And if you think THAT idea passed from the scene with Charles I, I’ve got a stack of books and magazine articles on gas-guzzling cars, the need for higher tobacco taxes and the evils of the suburban free-standing home with lawn to sell you.

    Beating back sumptuary laws is like defeating censors. Enjoy your victory fully and quickly, because it’s not going to last.

    Oh. And only the snobs signal social status. What we ALL signal is group membership. Which is why there’s a BPRD patch on the shoulder of my windbreaker, and I’ll try again next week to recover my “John Loves Dejah” button from the garage.


    10 May 12 at 7:31 pm

  3. We need group membership, but we also need hierarchy. I find the wolf pack analogy works tolerably well for a university faculty.

    I agree with Cheryl that the group membership makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, but I think hierarchy does too. Around here, we call it “lifeboat rules.” If you don’t know who’s in charge in an emergency, you increase mortality of the members of the group.

    Cathy F


    11 May 12 at 2:14 pm

  4. I wonder if leadership can be learned? Surely some aspects can, and yet… When I was doing education courses, the number one anxious questions in the ‘methods’ classes were about classroom control, and I never did hear a really good answer. Getting a group of people to do more or less the same thing at the same time is tough, and yet it needs to be done. Even peasant farmers need someone to start things off organizing a market or raising barns or something, and in our more complex society, we do practically everything in groups. Well, perhaps not write mystery novels! That’s more solitary. But your average office where the group has to somehow get along together sufficiently well so that the widgets get made or the researchers’ equipment gets ordered and paid for or the records are in such a state that proof of anything from the last thirty years can be hauled out of the files at any time…there’s always someone who’s in charge. Someone who placates, calms, reprimands (but somehow without setting up lifelong resentments) and without whom nothing gets done.

    I’m not a fan of the ‘group assignment’ in which there either isn’t such a person, or the group has decided to be all cooperative and not have one. In my experience, this means one or two people do all the work and the others share the credit,


    12 May 12 at 8:04 pm

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