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Failed Censures: Ecclesiastical Regulation of Women’s Clothing in Late Medieval Italy

Failed Censures: Ecclesiastical Regulation of Women’s Clothing in Late Medieval Italy


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Failed Censures: Ecclesiastical Regulation of Women’s Clothing in Late Medieval Italy

By Thomas M. Izbicki

Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Vol. 5 (2009)

Introduction: Beginning in the eleventh century, reforming clergy attempted to bring the sobriety expected of monks and nuns to the lives of secular clerics and the laity. These efforts had mixed success, especially in the regulation of clothing. Popes and bishops tried again and again to check excesses of clergy who wore expensive cloth, gaudy colors, revealing cuts, and accessories more fitting to knights than to their religious calling. Efforts to curb excess in the creation of lay garments and fashionable accessories usually fell to preachers like the Franciscan St. Bernardino of Siena and the Dominican reformer Girolamo Savonarola or to confessors. Here too campaigns against vanity of dress and excessive display, although they might have short-term success, failed in the long run. The laity, men and women alike, continued dressing according to the fashion of time and place.

Some theologians, like the Dominican observant Archbishop Antoninus of Florence, even were willing to bow to local custom and the social status of the lay people involved. Prelates rarely legislated on this matter. When they did, in late medieval Italy, their efforts were largely unsuccessful. The earliest surviving evidence for this effort is found among the legatine statutes of Cardinal Latino Malabranca.

In 1278–79, Latino Malabranca, cardinal bishop of Ostia and Velletri, served as legate for his uncle, Pope Nicholas III, one of the Roman Orsini clan, for much of northern Italy. Cardinal Latino, a Dominican friar, was the only member of the Malabranca family to attain so high a dignity despite the family’s place in the ranks of the Roman nobility.

As one of his official acts, the cardinal held a legatine council in Bologna at the end of September 1279. On the kalends of October (October 1), the council issued decrees concerning the unjust seizure of churches, the visitation of monasteries, clerical concubinage, penances, and indulgences that were to apply in Lombardy, Tuscany, and the Romagna. The sixth decree was an enactment concerning women’s dress, De habitu mulierum. This decree was modified by Cardinal Bernard du Poujet, legate for Bologna from 1319 to 1334, but it remained nominally in effect until it was revoked—at least for the city of Padua—by Pope Nicholas V in 1454 as not fruitful for the salvation of women’s souls, according to Bishop Fantino Dandolo.


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