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Alison V. Scott, Literature and the Idea of Luxury in Early Modern England
by John Staines

Scott, Alison V. Literature and the Idea of Luxury in Early Modern England. Farnham, Surrey, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015. 237 pp. ISBN: 978-0754664031. $110.00 cloth.


Alison V. Scott investigates ideas of luxury in the period before the eighteenth century’s revaluation and redefinition of the term. That reversal of Christian and classical concepts transformed luxury from a vice that destroys not only the self but potentially entire societies and polities into a good that serves society by stimulating trade. Its origin is usually traced to Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714), with arguments like David Hume’s in his Essays, Moral and Political (1741) continuing to rethink and reconfigure the concept throughout the century. The result was an idea in line with modern capitalist values, viewing luxury as an economic and social good with only potential moral dangers for an individual. Scott’s innovation is to look at a period in which the word luxury retained its strong sense of moral opprobrium even as economic and social developments were putting pressure upon those traditional moral assumptions. Her work combines current research into economic and material history with an approach to the history of ideas associated with Quentin Skinner. Her book includes a chapter devoted to Book Two of The Faerie Queene, using the figure of Luxuree to provide a new understanding of the simultaneous contradictory feelings of attraction and repulsion readers feel in the Bower of Bliss. Spenser scholars will find her reading of that episode particularly helpful.

Scott opens her study with a look at the meanings of the word available to Early Modern writers. She sees the medieval Christian understanding of luxury as a synonym for lust, lechery, and concupiscence merging with a classical humanist discourse where luxuria represents “larger temptations—not merely of sex or lust, but also of ease, political withdrawal, and softness of will” (5). Luxuria encompasses all the material pleasures that undermined the civic virtues of the Roman Republic, with Scott’s analysis being grounded in the paradox that the very wealth and pleasure won by Rome’s greatness inevitably leads to the decline of the values that brought its strength. The Latin word luxuria was thus less frequently translated into English as luxury than as riot, a word that (in its Early Modern usage) conveys both personal and political disorder.

Scott grounds her methodology in Skinner’s observations that there are histories of words and histories of concepts, which, while they overlap, are nevertheless distinct. She then seeks to analyze the “rhetorical uses of ideas in literary or mimetic texts” (8). To do this, she and her readers have to keep two things in mind at all times, the actual word luxury as used in Early Modern English and our modern conceptions of luxury. This leads to some problems since no Early Modern person would have used the word luxury to express most of the positive ideas we today associate with luxury. Scott consistently finds ambiguity and paradox in the concept of luxury—that is, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century attitudes towards wealth and pleasure—but it can be easy to confuse that with ambiguity in the word luxury. In practice, however, there is little ambiguity in the word, which maintains a highly negative charge, though there is ambivalence in attitudes towards the things we would identify as luxurious.

We can see this potential for confusion in a claim like this made about how Hobbes and Montesquieu defend acquisitive desires and passions: “If the concept of luxury were in fact contained by Christian and moral frameworks in early modern England as has been commonly assumed, contemporary literature should not negotiate luxury in these relative and economic terms, but that is not the case” (175). Her first use of the word luxury describes critics and historians who see the word luxury being used by Early Modern writers to express a Christian, moral concept, while her second use refers more generally to modern ideas of the luxurious (luxury goods, for instance) explored by writers who don’t actually use that word in their analyses. Moreover, while Scott shows important changes to the idea of luxury in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly in the contribution of ideas from civic humanist writings on Rome’s decline and mercantilist writings on trade, she can leave the impression that positive attitudes towards what we think of as luxury are purely modern, opposed to an older “Christian and moral framework.” However, even though medieval Christian writers used luxury to condemn misuses of wealth and pleasure, they were certainly capable of enjoying what we would call “luxury.” Silk dresses, imported spices, fine woven tapestries, and even priests’ vestments with gold thread, which we might call “luxury goods,” did not earn universal condemnation, though they might in some contexts raise serious moral problems. A text like Marie de France’s lai “Lanval,” for example, uses the appreciation for luxury goods as one sign of courtesy and civility, and the protagonist is rewarded with all sorts of luxurious pleasures—food, drink, clothing, gold, even sex—without moral condemnation. Lanval’s fairy lover is no Acrasia figure. That is not to deny that such luxurious pleasures present real potentials for moral danger, but just to suggest that the ambivalence over luxury long predates the eighteenth century’s redefinition of the word. Likewise, modern writers from Hume onward admit the dangers of a misused luxury, a category that has always been a place of conflict even if the word was not.

The first section of Scott’s book establishes the tensions among the different conceptions of luxuria in classical, philosophical, and Christian moral traditions. Chapter 1 focuses on The Faerie Queene, Book II, reading its gendered conception of the conflict between luxury and temperance as an exploration into the complex meanings of the idea of luxury as “Roman luxuria (self-indulgence) and Christian luxuria (concupiscence), and as a simultaneous failure of Aristotelian moderation and stoic self-containment” (26). She argues that luxury in the Bower of Bliss is best understood not “in terms of immoral excess or ornament” but as “more precisely a process of self-abandon and consumption” (46). In answering Stephen Greenblatt’s argument that Guyon’s destruction of the Bower is “a moment of self-forgetting,” she concludes that it is “rather a remembering of self—a systematic attempt to erase the objects that have led men to self-forgetting in luxury, and to redirect masculine energy to productive rather than wasteful ends” (50).

This problem of how to use riches and wealth—and the pleasures and (we would say) luxury goods they can purchase—for productive good rather than waste is the underlying concern behind the other literary texts Scott explores in the remainder of the book. If Chapter 1 looks at Acrasia as an exploration in allegorical terms of the lure of luxury’s misuse, Chapter 2 then looks at Cleopatra in historical and political terms. Beginning with the Roman mythologizing of Cleopatra as the figure for the luxuria that destroyed the Republic, Scott gives a history of the various ways Cleopatra figures in ancient and Early Modern texts. She concludes with a reading of Shakespeare’s tragedy that argues that Shakespeare unveils how Rome created the myth of the Cleopatra-Luxoriosa who “threatens the state with disorder and decay” while simultaneously presenting a paradoxical vision of a Cleopatra who is an aesthetic pleasure that is life-giving, transformative, and creative (82). Cleopatra thus offers an alternative bounty, a vision of an economy where luxury sustains the state, just as the eighteenth century will argue.

The book’s second section continues to explore the materiality of luxury, particularly in relationships between persons and things in a developing consumer culture. Chapter Three concentrates on London satire, beginning with the ways that the increasing urbanization of England initially brought a backlash against luxury. London represents the economic paradox that the idea of luxury encompasses: its growth in wealth, strength, abundance, and magnificence is the sign of national triumph, while all those qualities also threaten the nation with “a perverted cornucopia in which plenty is infected with excess” (94). Chapter Four takes those observations about verse satires and applies them to the riotous luxury of the London city comedies. Ben Jonson “affirms luxury’s threat to virtue, but he also reveals its perversely productive role in the city’s economy and society” (112). The satirist condemns the corruptions of luxuria while simultaneously dramatizing how the market life of the city, driven by the pursuit of luxury, creates modern selves. Riot is the key word, the aspect of urban life that Jonson’s comedies and Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens all condemn even as they show it to be the inescapable productive force of the urban economy.

The final section then looks at political and economic ideas of luxury in seventeenth-century culture, particularly in connection to social distinction. Using Bourdieu’s concept, Scott explores how luxury creates markers of social class. It is worth noting that Hume first entitled his essay on luxury, “Of Refinement in the Arts,” and indeed luxury in the sense of refined pleasure has served as the marker of social class, of courtesy and civility, from Rome through medieval and Early Modern culture to the present. Chapter Five thus uses mercantilist writings to show how the economic language and logic of trade open a space for reconceiving the idea of luxury as a social good even if the word itself is not yet reformed. Scott concludes that chapter with a reading of Jonson’s Entertainment at Britain’s Burse where his ambiguous praise of and warnings against trade and commodity culture reflect the century’s conflicted attitudes towards the developing luxury economy, a praise of a marketplace that is simultaneously a satire of consumer culture. The final chapter then concludes the book with readings of Jonson’s Catiline and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus where luxury is the tragic flaw that destroyed Roman civic virtues from within and threatens to do the same to London.

Scott’s book raises important questions about how the economic changes brought about by early capitalism affected traditional moral and political ideas about luxury. Her blending of classical and Christian concepts with contemporary literary theory is original, and she implicitly challenges the assumption that Enlightenment discourses produced modern social and economic ideas. Spenserians will appreciate the new perspective she offers on Guyon’s responses to the luxurious temptations of the Bower of Bliss.


John D. Staines
John Jay College, City University of New York



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Cite as:

John Staines, "Alison V. Scott, Literature and the Idea of Luxury in Early Modern England," Spenser Review 45.3.14 (Winter 2016). Accessed March 19th, 2018.
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