Consuming Splendor: Society and Culture in Seventeenth-Century England

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A fascinating study of the ways in which the consumption of luxury goods transformed social practices, gender roles, royal policies, and the economy in seventeenth-century England. Linda Levy Peck charts the development of new ways of shopping; new aspirations and identities shaped by print, continental travel, and trade to Asia, Africa, the East and West Indies; new building, furnishing, and collecting; and the new relationship of technology, luxury and science. As contemporaries eagerly appropriated and copied foreign material culture, the expansion of luxury consumption continued across the usual divide of the Civil War and the Interregnum and helped to propel England from the margins to the center of European growth and innovation. Her findings show for the first time the seventeenth-century origins of consumer society and she offers the reader an entirely new framework for the history of seventeenth-century England.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Consuming Splendor is an appropriately luxurious volume."
-The Times, T2 Supplement

"[Peck's] investigations carry her through a most impressive bibliography of references, brimming over with the most apposite quotations from contemporaries, and stiffened by multitudinous pieces of recent research...her emphasis on the wonders and the variety of the luxuries that burgeoned in the seventeenth century produce a thoroughly convincing argument....Peck's book is a magnificent survey of a luxury-ridden seventeenth century."
-The Economic History Review

"Peck is a distinguished scholar of early modern English political culture whose previous works concerning patronage, corruption and court politics… have been well received by scholars. This work, however, promises to outdo them all. It not only has a catchy title, it also makes powerful arguments that will refashion understanding of the early modern period and the rise of the modern state."

"This sumptuous book will doubtless become a classic treatment of seventeenth-century elite consumer culture in England, a volume beautifully illustrated and, in contrast to its topic, moderately priced. The author's extensive knowledge of Jacobean and Stuart courts and the careers of powerful personages, like Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, provide a unique context, with scenes richly figured by courtiers, virtuosi, and kings' favourites, their tastes shaped by Italy and France. The extensive illustrations are integral to many of the thematic sectors of the book...Linda Levy Peck addresses shopping, the cultivation of new tastes, the built environment —importantly, considering luxury expenditures on churches— and explores the exceptional influence of the continent on English exiles, visitors, and their correspondents."
-Canadian Journal of History

"...she sustains her major thesis convincingly. Her work and other recent studies have broadened the period within which modern consumption patterns can be seen to have emerged and have shown the centrality of elite culture in creating modernity in all its forms... an important contribution...."
-Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"This sumptuous book posits nothing less than a reappraisal of the standard narrative of the history of seventeenth-century England... effectively puts paid to the notion that it was the eighteenth century that invented modern consumer culture. Rather, that culture was fostered a century earlier by the much-maligned Stuart court."
-The Historian

"Beautifully illustrated and full of fascinating detail, Consuming Splendor makes important claims that should give rise to wide debate."
- Journal of Social History, Pauline Croft, Royal Holloway University of London

"Linda Levy Peck's much-anticipated study of the place of luxury, especially luxury goods, in seventeenth-century England is itself a beautifully produced publication from Cambridge University Press.... This book is an important study of the material world in seventeenth-century England and will be required reading for anyone contemplating the topics that Peck addresses here. Moreover, her work has properly placed yet another crucial development in the course of early modern England's rise to global power in the appropriate context—the early seventeenth century, prior to and during the Civil War and Interregnum."
- Journal of British Studies, Sabrina Alcorn Baron, University of Maryland

"...Peck's book offers a comprehensive, highly readable, and informative study of what seventeenth-century England desired, bought, and collected." -Rachel Ramsey, Assumption College

"This is a splendid survey of a complex issue and should inspire further interdisciplinary studies to extend the reassessment of economic politics further back into the sixteenth century." —Rebecca S. More, Brown University: Renaissance Quarterly Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521842327
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 9/30/2005
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.85 (w) x 9.72 (h) x 1.26 (d)

Meet the Author

Linda Levy Peck is Columbian Professor of History at the George Washington University. She has published extensively on politics, society, and culture in seventeenth-century England. She is the author of Court Patronage and Corruption in Early Stuart England (1990) and the editor of The Mental World of the Jacobean Court (1991).

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521842328 - Consuming Splendor - Society and Culture in Seventeenth-Century England - by Linda Levy Peck


Consuming Splendor

Beginning in 1607, three years after the repeal of England's last sumptuary law, James I enthusiastically endorsed a domestic silk industry. In 1608, borrowing French policy, the King ordered all those of ability

to purchase and plant 10,000 mulberry trees at the rate of six shillings the hundred containing five score plants. There shalbe published in print a plaine instruction and direction for the increasing of the said mulberry trees, the breeding of the silkworms, and all other things needful for the perfecting of a work every way so commendable and profitable.1

Although James claimed that he would lose revenues because of reduced customs duties on imported silk, the King dismissed such concerns in the name of industry, science, honor, and plenty.2

The Perfect Use of Silk-Wormes and their Benefit, translated by Nicholas Geffe, appeared in 1607. A projector with ties to the Attorney General, Francis Bacon, Geffe argued that an English silk industry "will clothe our backs sumptuously and fill our purses royally ... our private profits and public benefit are deeply interessed therein ... we may as well be silke-masters as sheepe-masters."3 Both Geffe's work and William Stallenge's Instructions for the Increasing of Mulberie Trees of 1609, which included the King's order, contained woodcuts showing readers how to cultivate mulberries, raise silkworms, and spin silk. The project to create a domestic silk industry became, by the 1620s, a colonial enterprise, fervently pursued into the 1660s and beyond. Within this discourse, silk was described as rich and solid, not vain and luxurious. Yet the Jacobean goal of swathing English bodies in silk while promoting trade and industry contrasted vividly with the classical and biblical discourses that condemned luxury. Instead, these tracts anticipate Nicholas Barbon's A Discourse of Trade (London, 1690) and Bernard Mandeville's The Grumbling Hive, or, Knaves Turn'd Honest (London, 1705) which argued that private vices produced public benefit.

The story of seventeenth-century England is often told as a tale of the unique triumph of Protestantism, parliamentary sovereignty, and law over absolute monarchy and Counter-Reformation Catholicism through civil war and glorious revolution. Consuming Splendor tells a different story: of new ways to shop; of royal sponsorship of luxury trades and manufactures; of new aspirations, shaped by print and travel, which found expression in buying, building, furnishing, and collecting; of the reinvention of identities through new artifacts; of the transformation of meaning as objects moved across cultures and into new contexts; and of the way in which early science underpinned luxury consumption. Analyzing luxury consumption from the perspective of the early seventeenth century, Consuming Splendor stresses continuities across the usual divide of the Civil War and Interregnum. It offers an additional narrative for seventeenth-century studies,4 one that focuses on the cultural mentalities and political strategies that supported luxury consumption and sponsored cultural borrowing throughout court, city, and countryside.5 The result helped propel England from the margins to the center of European growth, improvement, and innovation.

Luxury commodities circulated throughout society from the merchant who imported them, to the retailer who sold them, the purchaser who bought them, the client who presented them to his patron, and the poor who wore them as second-hand goods. English demand for luxuries imported from Europe and Asia grew strongly from the 1540s. Sir Thomas Smith complained about imports in 1549 in ways that resembled complaints seventy-five years later.6 William Harrison's The Description of England (London, 1587), documented in striking detail the growth in the consumption of goods for the body as well as for the home. Travelers such as Thomas Platter in 1599 wrote in awe of jewelry and gold and silver plate on display at the goldsmiths in Cheapside.7 Demand for new goods and openness to other cultures challenged the negative identifications of luxury goods with the foreign, the popish, and the decadent, staples of Elizabethan prescriptive literature.8 Under James I, the contest between moralizing prescription and legislation on the one hand and demand on the other tilted in favor of luxury consumption.

This book addresses why the English became enamored of foreign wares and how they appropriated artifacts and skills from abroad in ways that transformed their economy and culture. It studies the acts and meanings of consuming, the knowledge and agents that made it possible, and its effect on the expression of the self, gender, social relationships, ideology, and the economy. Examining the period from c. 1600 to c. 1670, before "the long eighteenth century," it offers a new time frame and a different set of agents to explain this transformation.9 Within this larger agenda, Consuming Splendor focuses on London, the hub of national and international networks of exchange, the center of political power, the locus of luxury shopping, and promoter of technical and scientific improvement. It draws attention to but does not address in detail the very important issues of local consumption of luxuries, already studied by Joan Thirsk, Craig Muldrew, Margaret Spufford, Ronald Berger, and Nancy Cox.10 Furthermore, the significant relationship of luxury and the church warrants closer study than has been possible here. As we shall see, the church's teachings were generally hostile to luxury consumption. Yet in the early

Image not available in HTML version

1. Cheapside, filled with goldsmiths' shops, was the most important shopping street in the City of London. Hugh Alley, who painted the food markets of London at the end of Elizabeth's reign, shows vendors selling food in the middle of the avenue.

The Folger Shakespeare Library Ms. V. a. 318, f.15, Hugh Alley, A Caveatt for the citty of London. "Cheapside,&8221; Manuscript, 1598.

Image not available in HTML version

2. Silver vessels exhibited on the buffet displayed the status and wealth of their owners. These flagons, once thought to have belonged to Sir Edward Coke, were represented in the famous painting by Gerritsz, "Still Life of the Paston (Yarmouth) Collection."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Metalwork, Silver-English, London, 16th century, pair of flagons, silver gilt, H. 12 1/4 in. (1597), that belonged to the Coke and Paston families. Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1968 (68, 141, 142, 143). Photograph, all rights reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Neg. #193576.

seventeenth century, clerical emphasis on the "beauty of holiness" and church building, and the laity's practice of donating silver plate and lavish textiles for worship and building elaborate pews and tombs for display, made the church an important site for the consumption of luxury goods. Finally, throughout this work, luxury denotes "the habitual use of, or indulgence in what is choice or costly, whether food, dress, furniture, or appliances ... or surroundings," definitions that were current in the seventeenth century.11


The ancients and early Christians subjected luxury and luxury goods to withering attack as the scourge of virtue: decadent, effeminate, sinful, and subversive. In The Idea of Luxury, Christopher Berry points out that the traditional moralistic view, from Aristotle to the early seventeenth century, differentiated between needs and wants, privileging the first and casting a dubious eye on the second.12 The Stoics located luxury in a discourse of war and peace, arguing that luxury took root at a time of peace and prosperity marked by the influx of goods from Asia to fill houses and banqueting tables. Pliny the Elder worried that luxury goods brought by conquest might lead to corruption and the decline of the Roman Empire.13 Classical and biblical sources associated luxury with the subversive influence of the "other": women, favorites, foreigners, and upstarts.

At the same time, Roman moralists believed that luxury undermined office and hierarchy. Because luxury raised fears of both social mobility and the corruption of the state, sumptuary legislation from the Romans to the Elizabethans sought to maintain sharp distinctions between status groups. Thus, in 1337 no man was allowed "to wear any facings of silk or furs but such as could expend an hundred pounds a year." Two centuries later in 1566 "No man under the degree of a knight or of a lord's room ... shall wear any hat or upper cap of velvet ... on pain to forfeit ten shillings."14

The condemnation of luxury because it undermined virtue, military strength, and hierarchy continued into the seventeenth century and beyond. For instance, English writers expressed unease about collecting arts and antiquities, even those, such as the diplomats Sir Henry Wotton and Sir Thomas Roe, who were its keenest promoters. Wotton feared that interest in continental art and architecture would be thought popish, morally corrupt, and identified with Counter-Reformation Italy. Roe expressed concern that collecting might be perceived as effeminate. Sending antiquities to the Earl of Arundel, he wrote defensively that the Ottomans "deliver them to us for our corruption to divert us from the thought or use of arms. But they are absurdly mistaken; for civility and knowledge do confirm, and not effeminate good and true spirits."15

To many contemporaries, the peace and prosperity of the Jacobean regime that began in 1603 proclaimed weakness rather than strength. Thomas Mun, the most famous contributor to the economic debate in the 1620s, wrote that "silks, sugars, and spices" were "unnecessary wants ... piping, potting, feasting, fashions, and mis-spending of our time in idleness and pleasure contrary to the law of God, and the use of other nations hath made us effeminate in our bodies, weak in our knowledge, poor in our treasure, decline in our valour, unfortunate in our enterprises, and condemned by our enemies."16

Yet even among the Stoics, the notion of decorum called for appropriate consumption according to status. By the sixteenth century, Roman decorum, or what the English called "state," created a space for magnificence and splendor. Magnificence became a term of praise associated with office, title, and state in which elaborate buildings, clothing, plate, and retainers defined high-ranking nobles and officials, almost always male.17

Magnificence, praised by fifteenth-century Northern humanists, continued to be celebrated in the seventeenth century.18 Indeed, magnificence and splendor were matched virtues: "magnificence is manifest in public architecture, splendor expresses itself in the elegance and refinement with which one lives his life within buildings."19 Giovanni Botero's The Magnificence of Cities was translated into English in 1606.20 In 1634 Giles Fleming exhorted contributions for the repair of St. Paul's in a sermon entitled Magnificence Exemplified.21 In 1654 John Ogilby appropriated "magnificence and splendor" to advertise his new edition of Vergil.22 Balthazar Gerbier, Caroline tastemaker, merely repeated this language forty years later in his On Magnificence in Buildings (London, 1662).

If magnificence, signifier of high estate and office, called for the public display of lavish clothes, retainers, houses, and plate, luxury goods, often available to anyone who could pay, remained suspect to critics. Did luxury, as a product of an expanding economy, undermine magnificence and splendor, the marker of hierarchy? Such a simple developmental model appears problematic when we listen closely to contemporaries, as we shall see throughout this book. Instead, as the range of luxury goods expanded alongside the section of the population who felt entitled to use them, luxuries found acceptance when they were re-labeled as rich, new, innovative, curious, rare, fine, refined, polite, comfortable, and imported.

Christopher Berry argues that a demoralization of luxury took place in the second half of the seventeenth century as it was increasingly placed in a discourse of trade and commerce. As luxury loses its immoral overtones, Berry suggests, "luxury and fashion are acceptable because they stimulate consumption, which in turn generates trade and employment."23 Thus, in 1690 Nicholas Barbon criticized Thomas Mun for upholding sumptuary legislation. Barbon stressed the economic importance of consumption, especially the clothing and the building trades. Clothing, Barbon wrote, provided work for "the glover, hosier, hatter, seamstress, tailor, and many more, with those that make the materials to deck it; as clothier, silk-weaver, lace-maker, ribbon-weaver, with their assistance of drapers, mercers, and milliners, and a thousand more." Building offered work for even larger numbers: "the chiefest promoter of trade; it employs a greater number of trades and people, than feeding and clothing."24

This study demonstrates that the demoralization of luxury had already begun in Jacobean England. Luxury and necessity, wants and needs, which stirred theoretical debates in the eighteenth century, were, after all, always matters of interpretation. Elizabeth, Lady Compton, heiress to Sir John Spencer the City merchant and Lord Mayor, saw luxury goods as a carefully calibrated expression of wealth, status, and personal autonomy, available to women as well as to men. She specifically identified her own honor with clothing, servants, coaches, jewelry, charity, and splendid interiors, many of which usually formed the trappings of magnificence.

When her father died in March 1609/1610, Lady Compton wrote a long letter to her husband describing the change in spending that their new wealth required. She wanted a larger allowance of L1,600 a quarter, twenty gowns, "six of them excellent good ones, eight of them for the country, and six other of them very excellent good ones," and L600 quarterly for charity. She wanted horses of her own and additional servants, two gentlewomen, eight gentlemen, and two footmen. She required two coaches drawn by four horses: her own coach had to be lined with velvet and laced with gold, her gentlewomen's coach laced with scarlet. Her gentlemen usher required his own horse so as not to crowd her in her coach. Lady Compton requested L2,200 in cash, payment of her debts, and new jewelry. "I would have L6,000 to buy me jewels, and L4,000 to buy me a pearl chain." Then she turned to house and home to describe rich and elaborate furnishings far from the gloomy interiors often labeled "Jacobean."

Also I will have all my houses furnished, and all my lodging chambers to be suited with all such furniture as is fit; as beds, stools, chairs, suitable cushions, carpets, silver warming pans, cupboards of plate, fair hangings, and such like. So for my drawing chamber in all houses, I will have them delicately furnished, both with hangings, couch, canopy, glass, carpet, chair, cushions, and all things there unto belonging.

She concluded "I pray, when you be an earl, to allow me L1000 more than now desired, and double attendance."25 It is said that, shortly after he inherited his father-in-law's wealth, Compton had a nervous breakdown. He recovered to become Earl of Northampton in 1618. One observer noted that Compton had transformed his father-in-law's house in Bishopsgate "into a gay court, the old usurer himself being forgotten."26

In addition to labeling luxuries as excellent, suitable, and delicate, contemporaries re-labeled some luxury imports as staples of the English economy instead of foreign commodities. Indeed, in 1641, in a debate on trade in the House of Commons, Sir Thomas Roe, longtime ambassador to the East Indies and to Turkey, praised the East India direct and re-export trade as the key to England's economic health. "Nothing exported of our own growth hath balanced our riotous consumption at home but those foreign commodities which I call naturalized, that is the surplus of our East India trade, which being brought home in greater quantity than are spent within the kingdom, are exported again and become in value and use as natural commodities."27

In contrast, some contemporary moralists continued to rail against luxury, effeminacy, and the commodification of honor from the pulpit to city comedies despite the increasing importance of worldwide trade to the economy. Sumptuary bills continued to be introduced in parliament up to 1640. One member of parliament in 1621 argued on behalf of sumptuary legislation by saying that "God did not attire our first parents with excrements of worms."28 But none passed. Instead of statute, the Crown turned to prescription. In 1610 James I noted "the necessity of taking some politic order gainst excess of apparel."29 While Francis Bacon advised the reintroduction of sumptuary legislation, the Privy Council in 1622 settled for hopes of "less vanity in the expence of silks and foreign stuffs."30 The King's subjects eagerly embraced the new, the rare, the curious, and the modern in the early seventeenth-century England with the partial blessing of the Crown.


The history of consumption has been connected to issues of power, gender, colonialism, construction of the self, the transformation of the domestic and public spheres, and the relationship of art and the economy.31 Werner Sombart famously argued that luxury consumption led to the rise of capitalism in early modern Europe.32 European historians, such as Richard Goldthwaite and Lisa Jardine, have placed luxury consumption

© Cambridge University Press

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Table of Contents

1. 'I must have a pair of Damasked spurs': shopping in seventeenth-century London; 2. 'We may as well be silk-masters as sheep-masters': transferring technology in seventeenth-century England; 3. 'What do you lack? What isn't you buy?': creating new wants; 4. 'Anything that is strange': from rarities to luxury goods; 5. 'Examine but my humors in buildings, gardening, and private expenses': cultural exchange and the new built environment; 6. 'The pictures I desire to have … must be exquisitely done and by the best masters': luxury and war: 1640–1660; 7. 'Rome's artists in this nature can do no more': a Bernini in Chelsea; 8. 'The largest, best built, and richest city in the world': The Royal Society, luxury manufactures, and aristocratic identity; 9. New wants, new wares: luxury consumption, cultural change, and economic transformation.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2007

    Illuminating look at consumerism, 1600-style

    If you think conspicuous consumption is a modern trend, or that globalization and outsourcing are recent phenomena, historian Linda Levy Peck has news for you. In this study, she explains that the English folk of four centuries ago were ever eager to keep up with the Joneses by blowing some of their disposable income on silks, paintings, chocolate and other pricey items that weren't exactly necessities. Indeed, their appetite for the finer things helped pave the way for today's mass materialism and international trade. A taste for fancy goods isn't so new, nor is debate over what shopping means to the structure of society. Levy Peck's professorial prose is dense, but her theme is eye-opening. We recommend this overview to anyone who'd like to understand what motivates consumers now and has motivated them for centuries.

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