- Consuming Splendor: Society and Culture in Seventeenth-Century England
While not its primary focus, Linda Levy Peck's study of luxury consumption in England between 1600 and 1670 demonstrates the value of interdisciplinary [End Page 955] studies. Peck uses evidence from contemporary material culture to reassess the notion that consumer society in England originated in the eighteenth century. As a result, the book will assist scholars in a variety of fields to understand how artifacts reveal the political, social, and economic history of the period.
Peck's analysis of English consumption of continental luxury goods dispels the idea that consumer demand was merely embryonic in the early seventeenth century. Using data from three major categories — clothing, textiles, and building (including architecture, decorative arts, and landscape design) — Peck argues that luxury consumption requires reconsideration of the politics of foreign exchange. While much post-Reformation English rhetoric decried the accumulation of foreign material possessions as rendering England vulnerable to political and religious corruption by Roman Catholic Europe, her research reveals instead the strength of connections across these alleged boundaries.
In Peck's account, luxury consumption influenced social and cultural change, as well as economic transformation. Throughout a period of political anxiety about foreign intervention, civil war, regicide, interregnum, and restoration, English consumers purchased goods and ideas from abroad and participated in developing domestic industries to supply the demand for luxury. Consuming splendor brought together crown, Parliament, and tradesmen to develop and implement a political economy which transcended tensions over governance.
Chapter 1 studies shopping as a process involving both the exchange of goods and the environment in which they were exchanged. For example, the location of the 1608 New Exchange physically connected the court at Whitehall to the city. Shoppers of diverse social ranks and gender did business under elegant Italianate arcades sanctioned by royal warrants. Chapter 2 examines the "transfer of technology" in industries such as tapestries and silk production from foreign to domestic production under the sponsorship of the crown. Chapter 3 considers the role of media and travel in promoting English taste for foreign objects and design. In chapter 4, collecting luxury goods as an expression of self-fashioning was an engine for economic exchange. Chapter 5 surveys how luxury consumption was manifested in the built environment: architecture, decorative arts, and garden design. In chapter 6 the taste for luxury goods transcends the political upheavals of civil war and interregnum. With the Restoration in 1660, the consumption of luxury escalated, promoted by Royalist exiles returned from the continent and the newly established Royal Academy. The importation of a Baroque funerary monument from Italy to a modest London parish church reveals the ambiguity about the politics of foreign goods associated stylistically with the Counter-Reformation. The Royal Academy served as the nexus for international exchange of ideas about scientific development with economic impact.
In spite of her masterful use of material culture, Peck's focus on proving the existence of luxury consumption between 1600 and 1670 sacrifices an examination of how widespread the phenomenon was and how much earlier it might be observed. As most of her data is drawn from the archives of high-end aristocratic consumers with a focus on London as the epicenter of luxury consumption, the [End Page 956] national scale of the phenomenon is obscured. An accounting of the scale of consumption over time and across the country, starting in the early sixteenth century, would help the reader appreciate better the significance of the period on which Peck has chosen to focus.
Readers from other disciplines should be aware that the book presumes sufficient familiarity with the political, economic, and social landscape of seventeenth-century England to appreciate the basis for Peck's argument as well as place many of the consumers within a grid of tightly interwoven social networks. Peck might have used some longitudinal case studies of the spending habits of specific families and family groups from several social ranks and localities to demonstrate that her reassessment is based...