Academic journal article Albion

Luxury and War: Reconsidering Luxury Consumption in Seventeenth-Century England *. (Presidential Address the North American Conference on British Studies)

Academic journal article Albion

Luxury and War: Reconsidering Luxury Consumption in Seventeenth-Century England *. (Presidential Address the North American Conference on British Studies)

Article excerpt

Since the horrific bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the declaration of war against terrorism, policy makers have repeatedly urged us to spend. The Federal Reserve cut interest rates to encourage home sales and purchase of "big-ticket" items. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani suggests that we travel, go shopping, seek entertainment, attend plays, rather than, as in World War H, buy bonds, recycle tin, and ration consumer goods.

Yet the current connection of luxury and war frames a historical paradox. Medieval and early modem prescriptive literatures link luxury not with times of war but with peace leading to decadence. The de-moralization of the idea of luxury, historians of consumption argue, only took place in the later seventeenth century when writers such as Nicholas Barbon and Bernard Mandeville recognized the importance of luxury to the economy. (1) Eighteenth-century luxury consumption, fueled by new wants and new wares purchased by middle-class consumers, it is argued, marked a sharp departure from the court centered consumption of previous centuries. (2)

Today I want to question these arguments. I will argue that luxury consumption grew unevenly from the sixteenth century on; that the seventeenth century saw important innovations by the court, aristocracy, and merchant communities that laid the groundwork for increasing consumption; and that there was little or no break in that growth of luxury consumption during war. This paper is part of a larger project that analyzes the relationship of luxury consumption and the appropriation of continental material culture to identity, mentality, policy, and economic change in Great Britain from 1600 to 1670. To examine luxury consumption during the English Civil War, I will look briefly at the continuing importance of London as a center of shopping and conspicuous consumption, the cultural borrowings by royalists at home and abroad, building, and the art market. Finally I consider the political implications of the Commonwealth and Protectorate's behavior toward luxury consumption.

Let me begin by laying out my larger argument. British consumption studies locate the arrival of new goods, new modes of shopping, and the reshaping of identities through consumables, in the "long" eighteenth century, underlining the connection of the consumer revolution to the industrial revolution. Maxine Berg's Luxury Project at the University of Warwick has done wonderful work exploring many aspects of eighteenth-century luxury consumption. Jan de Vries, drawing on the Enlightenment Debate over luxury, contrasts "Old" and "New Luxury" in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. (3) New luxury consumption differed from earlier forms of consuming, he suggests, because its middle-class exponents aimed at sociability and comfort rather than aristocratic distinction and display. New Luxury consumption was urban not courtly; "not a mark of distinction but of exchange." New Luxury was based on innumerable choices presented by a growing economy, and consumption choices made by many more people. The Dutch did not s quander money on servants and clothes, they had Delft tile not porcelain.

But categories of "Old Luxury" and "New Luxury" are difficult to overlay on seventeenth-century English consumption where they existed side by side. Indeed, overlapping relationships of old luxuries and old consumers; old luxuries and new consumers; new luxuries and old consumers; new luxuries and new consumers; all suggest that the binary division of old luxury and new is too simple.

Twenty years ago, Joan Thirsk showed that popular consumer industries expanded in the English countryside in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. (4) More recently Craig Muldrew explored how credit underlaid that consumption. (5) Lorna Weatherill and Carole Shammas documented the diffusion of modest consumer goods in early modern England and America. (6) Nevertheless, studies of the proliferation of luxury goods as a "new thing" continue to focus on the eighteenth-century market. …

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