Sumptuary legislation, material culture and the semiotics of ”vivre noblement” in the county of Flanders (14th – 16th centuries)

Frederik Buylaert, Wim De Clercq, Jan Dumolyn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


Scholars agree that before the Habsburg legislation of 1595-1616, nobility was essentially a social phenomenon in the Southern Low Countries, but the conventions that structured that social consensus are still subject to debate. This paper challenges the established opinion that being or becoming noble was a matter of mastering the so-called "vivre noblement", namely a distinct lifestyle that included large-scale landownership, military service, a patrilineal family structure and a specific material culture that entailed amongst others clothing, riding horses, carrying swords, hunting, the use of heraldry and specific behavioural patterns in speech, posture and consumption. In-depth research shows that the discourse of noble exclusivity in lifestyle only emerged in the sixteenth century under impulse of the Habsburg government and that in the late medieval county of Flanders (the most important principality of the Southern Low Countries), the various elements of the "vivre noblement" were widely accessible to the many wealthy commoners in town and countryside. Instead, a study of the medieval discourse on nobility and a quantitative analysis suggests that nobility was in fact tied to a limited number of seigniories, that is, private property rights which entailed the exertion of public power over village communities. The concluding section of this article draws on social semiotics and anthropological studies on the value of objects to discuss how the ownership of similar objects and symbols by noblemen and wealthy commoners carried different meanings, depending of the social context of its use.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)393-417
Number of pages25
JournalSocial History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • Social mobility
  • Nobility
  • Sumptuary legislation
  • State formation
  • Social semiotics
  • Late medieval Flanders


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