A look at the clash between luxury and Christianity in medieval Europe and how the Black Death paradoxically liberated it from the church.
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Look at this.
It is one of the most iconic buildings in the world
and, for my money, best seen from the river.
Started in 1446 by King Henry VI,
King's College Chapel took over a century to build.
This Gothic masterpiece in Cambridge
is a spectacular display of public, show off extravagance.
It highlights the prestige of its four royal patrons.
But it was also a private, personal luxury.
King's Chapel was built so that priests could pray for the soul
of one man, King Henry VI, to secure his place in Heaven.
For me, King's College Chapel sums up perfectly the interconnection
between luxury, religion and power in the medieval world.
But luxury isn't always just a question of the expensive
and the beautiful for the rich and the powerful.
It's always been much more, and much more important than that.
This story of luxury is about an idea
that touches on kingship and pacifism, on social harmony
and market freedom, and, especially, the divine.
In the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans
luxury had been a kind of barometer of social status and virtue.
But in the Middle Ages those ideas were to be completely transformed
in a way that still affects how we think about luxury today.
It's an amazing story.
The Latin term 'luxuria', which had meant excess and extravagance,
now comes to mean lasciviousness and sinful, lustful self indulgence.
Luxury could damage your very soul.
It was becoming a deadly sin.
Our story starts not with prayer or gold, but violence.
The violence which ruled the Barbarian world
outside the Roman Empire.
The world of the Goths, the Vandals, the Angles and Saxons
who helped to bring it down in the fifth century AD.
This is a pattern welded sword,
the ultimate luxury of the barbarian world.
These swords were so charismatic
that they were often given their own names.
In the famous English poem, the epic Beowulf,
which conjures up the world of the barbarian victors,
Beowulf himself has his own sword called Hrunting, or Thruster.
He himself says that it was,
"A hilted weapon.
"A rare and ancient sword.
"It's iron blade with its ill boding patterns had been tempered in blood.
"It had never failed."
But these swords were more than just machines of death,
they were social objects, too.
Kings would give gave them to their supporters.
They would be handed down in wills.
They were markers of social rank.
Luxury swords like this sum up a culture in which the warrior ruled.
Might wasn't just right, it was beautiful, too.
It was celebrated on the luxuriantly decorated helmets,
golden belt buckles and jewellery
worn by the leaders of the barbarian world
as the Roman Empire disintegrated.
What made these items sought after
was the craftsmanship that went into them making them.
A pattern welded sword means hammering several bars of iron
and then folding, hammering, welding them
and twisting them again and again.
How long a process would you say that would take?
You've got to bear in mind the skill level they're working at
is considerably greater than I can claim.
But I think, even then,
bearing in mind also, they're not working alone,
even so, I would have said,
ooh, two to three months, I would have thought.
The process strengthens the blade,
but it also gives it a magical snakeskin pattern.
Unsurprisingly, these swords sent forceful messages
about authority, ancestry and power.
If you are a powerful chieftain,
the ability to command a technology,
to have the most intricate jewellery made on the most small scale,
or a sword where you require all these levels of manufacture,
these are symbolic of power, in a way,
they demonstrate what you can command as a patron.
You can tie your own destiny in with your own sword.
You have to be very powerful
to be able to take a sword like that and really use it.
But I think it's also important that people,
in terms of inheriting things,
people were often very conscious of whose sword they inherited.
That's quite important, I think, because people
can link themselves then to somebody important
from the past, and see their own destiny as carrying into the future.
-The sword chooses you, perhaps, in a way.
-Living up to the reputation of its previous owners, in a sense.
And there are less felicitous contexts, of course,
because it can be booty
and then it truly is a representation of victory, isn't it?
Smashing someone else for your own ascendancy.
It was in places like this, Bamburgh Castle in Northumbria,
that pattern welded swords were used and treasured.
The kings who ruled here
were among the most powerful in the early English world.
Now, beneath the more recent castle, archaeologists have discovered
the remains of the hall these kings built.
And they lived here in some style.
The excavations have turned up
one of the finest pattern welded swords yet found.
This was definitely a weapon fit for a king.
92 pieces of iron were blended into six separate cores,
which were then pattern welded into one magnificent blade.
There's gold, too.
The 'Beast of Bamburgh', originally perhaps a gold plaque or brooch.
It's a classic example of barbarian animal interlace style,
and it's a precious relic of the wealth
which Bamburgh once commanded.
The objects surviving here today are only a small part
of the grandeur of this place in the Anglo Saxon period.
You have to imagine a king in a tall timber hall feasting with
his nobles and companions, dispensing gold and weaponry.
From finds here and elsewhere in this period,
we know that they were probably dining off Roman silverware,
drinking Rhineland wine out of German glasses
or mead out of silver mounted horns.
This was warrior luxury.
And in a world where most of the luxuries
had disappeared with the Roman empire,
what the ability to dispense this kind of luxury
did for the King was to bind his followers to him
and enhance his power over the landscape.
The kind of warrior luxury had developed in the pagan world
outside the Roman empire.
In the uncertain early mediaeval world
violent luxury like this had a broad appeal.
But it was not unchallenged.
And that challenge would be a challenge to luxury of all kinds,
in the name of salvation.
For nearly 300 years under the Romans
this villa at Lullingstone in Kent was a luxury home.
Most of what you see here dates from the last decades of the empire.
In the 4th century AD there was little to suggest
that the classical world was on the slide.
They were renovating here,
redecorating, and yet in the 5th century AD,
just a few decades after this place was finished,
Lullingstone villa burnt to the ground.
It became what it is today, a ruin.
We can't say for sure
that it was the barbarian invaders from overseas that did it,
but it seems fairly likely.
And the destruction here
coincides with a much wider social catastrophe,
the Roman empire disappearing, and with it all its luxuries.
Not just central heating and the baths, but the use of writing,
money, and even sophisticated wheel made pottery.
But one thing did survive,
and some of the earliest evidence for its existence
is right over here.
Down here the excavators found something unusual,
a room with access to it not just from the house, but from outside.
It was semi-public, semi private and it contained a fabulous treasure.
When the archaeologists excavated here
they found hundreds of fragments of painted plaster
that had fallen onto the basement floor
from the back wall of the room above.
After huge amounts of painstaking work,
the archaeologists managed to put all these fragments back together
and what they found surprised everyone.
On the west wall of the upper room the reconstruction
revealed a line of people praying in a classical arcade.
And on the east wall was the unmistakeable symbol
of the God they prayed to, Christ,
made of the first two letters of his name in Greek, Chi and Rho.
This was a Christian chapel.
These paintings are a miraculous survival
from the late 4th century.
They're one of the few examples
which show the emergence of Christianity in Britain
from the shadows of the pagan world.
The rise of Christianity
is important for our understanding of luxury
because Christianity brought with it a set of values
very different to those of the classical world.
For Christians, your soul was constantly in balance
between Hell and salvation,
and a luxury very definitely tipped the balance towards Hell.
Despite the fall of the Roman world, Christianity survived,
and during the seventh century came to dominate Britain.
And battle was joined over luxury.
For Christians, luxury was a dangerous roadblock
on the path to Heaven.
Christians were told to forgive their enemies,
to abandon worldly pleasures, to scorn material wealth.
That was the opposite of the pugnacious outlook
of the early mediaeval world.
From 670 the warrior king at Bamburgh was called Ecgfrith,
but he was a Christian, too,
and every time he looked out from his hall he would have been reminded
of his Christian duty
because out there in the North Sea,
fulminating against luxury and all the immorality that went with it,
lived one of early England's greatest heroes,
not a warrior, but a monk,
Cuthbert had been a monk at Lindisfarne
and his fame was such that Ecgfrith had him consecrated bishop.
But no sooner had he done so than Cuthbert retreated to a cell
on the deserted island of Inner Farne, just off Bamburgh,
to live as a hermit.
It was a regime of no luxury at all, instead abstinence.
No sex, little food,
physical privation and permanent religious devotion.
But his privations brought him something else, respect,
enormous spiritual authority.
With it he could combat the luxury warrior ethos across the water.
I've come with Michelle Brown,
a leading expert on Cuthbert, to the site of his cell.
So St Cuthbert, having worked on Lindisfarne,
decides to retreat here to Inner Farne as a hermit.
What provokes that? How do we understand that?
Well, this is the place of renewal.
We're used to thinking of hermits
actually bricking themselves up behind walls
like Julian of Norwich,
This is actually where you come, as powerhouse,
to draw energy to recommit to the world.
Cuthbert said, "If only I could build a cell with walls so high
"that all I could see was the sky,
"I'd still be afraid that love of money
"and the cares of the world would snatch me away."
So when the King makes him bishop, part of his responsibility
is that he has to keep the secular authorities on a moral path.
Almost immediately, he says,
"I am going to go on to the Farne Islands as a hermit."
He doesn't choose the most remote island,
he chooses the one outside the king's bedroom window.
You're withdrawing, but making yourself even more in the spotlight.
Yeah, yeah. So every time Ecgfrith, intent on warfare, genocide,
ostentatious consumption of wealth
at a time when his people are dying in droves,
he's got the symbol of that little cell and he knows that inside it,
and everybody knows that inside it,
is this vulnerable, emaciated, ascetic, Ghandi like figure.
All of that rolled up together, a positive signal of the fact
that there are responsibilities that come with wealth and power.
Cuthbert's life was the opposite of luxury.
His actions were a deliberate provocation to the King
and his followers.
Too much luxury, he said, would bring them to damnation.
But that didn't mean the Church
couldn't have its own kind of luxury.
After all, bishops were important people
and churches were rich places.
So luxury was OK if it was in the service of God.
From the very beginning Christians had spared no expense.
Across the Mediterranean
their churches gleamed with gold and mosaics.
Here in the North they glowed with paint and stained glass.
Many of those beautiful things from that time,
not just architecture put objects as well, have not survived,
destroyed by war or decay, but some have,
and they allow us to glimpse
just how glittery this supposed Dark Age actually was.
Protected by a tidal causeway,
the monastery at Lindisfarne was the religious capital of Northumbria.
When Cuthbert died in 687
the monks created an astonishing monument to his memory.
It's called the Lindisfarne Gospel.
It is, perhaps, the most spectacular treasure of early Northumbria.
The manuscript was created to sit on the high altar
of the monastery church where Cuthbert was buried.
And it is an object of astonishing luxury.
It is made of the highest quality vellum,
from calfskins which had been soaked, stretched and scraped clean.
The binding, now lost, was probably made of gold,
silver and jewels, a kind of reliquary.
But all this luxury was not a statement of personal power and wealth,
it was a work of spiritual devotion.
Starting from the point of view of the materials, it's a vellum page.
How many animals have gone into producing that,
or providing that amount of material?
The vellum is undoubtedly the most important and expensive part.
There are at least 300 skins of yearling cattle
that would've been used here.
Most books in the Middle Ages on prepared animal skin
have holes and blemishes in the vellum.
If you're in the field as a cow, something bites you,
when you stretch the skin, it's going to open up as a hole.
Here there are only three tiny holes
and they're right down in the gutter.
It's important that it looks perfect in the eyes of the Lord.
They must have had many more skins to choose from.
What's then so amazing, where as library books undecorated
might have six or seven scribes
all taking their turn at doing the writing,
this, the most complex is the work of one person.
They do all the script, all of the decoration.
It's a Leonardo moment.
That person is the one who's conceived the vision
and who's actually living the work of prayer and dedication.
The person who made it was one of Cuthbert's successors
as Bishop of Lindisfarne, Bishop Eadfrith.
Not only is he a consummate theologian
and a consummate artist and scribe, he's a practical chemist.
I led a laser pigment process project based at the British Library
to study the actual composition
and we found that this incredible array of pigments,
about 90 of them it seems,
even the Mediterranean with all its traders would
struggle to compete with.
Photoshop has trouble colour balancing it all.
They're all made from six locally available plants and rocks.
This person is so attune with his natural environment,
he knows that if you boil up Ochil,
which is a lichen that grows on the rocks,
that you can get 40 shades of purple from red to blue
by varying the acidity or alkalinity.
It gives you a really nice rich ruby red. Natural substances.
To produce the book, Bishop Eadfrith made a retreat each Lent
to a cell on another island close to Lindisfarne.
The work was itself an act of Christian devotion.
The first time you write with a quill,
with iron gall ink on vellum,
it's an almost religious experience.
Your heart stops, everything, you feel it's right.
When you're looking at something like Lindisfarne gospels,
whoever was preparing it must have been truly exceptional.
It's a huge undertaking.
Just the planning to get the skins alone
is an undertaking in itself.
As you started to prepare them, depending on when you prepared them,
if it was humid, the skin would start to come alive.
That's the great thing about working with materials that are organic,
they still behave organic, so the skin still behaves alive.
If you leave it alone, it will roll up because it's humid.
Doing calligraphy when it's quiet,
it's so meditative, it really feeds you.
If you think of the rhythm of the writing,
the period they're writing in,
What time of day are they writing?
The day was split up into nine specific hours of prayer.
Was there chanting,
was there singing happening while they were writing?
The singing will affect the rhythm of the script.
Immediately, you go into this trance,
so it's quite a fascinating experience
that unfortunately a lot of people just won't get!
All this effort and expense was legitimate
because it served God's purpose.
The book's very luxury was itself
a means to make God's purpose a reality.
So we've got a product which is being produced by a local community,
using resources from that local community,
particularly in the colours as well as the actual vellum.
Being produced as an act of devotion by one individual.
An extraordinary event.
And, I mean, the letters and images themselves
are doing a similar job, amalgamating worlds together.
If you imagine, you have queued as a pilgrim,
dragged your granny 250 miles for that miracle of healing,
and you get your moment in front of the Gospels,
you won't necessarily understand the words,
but you'll see things that, visually, mean things to you.
So for example, I as somebody of Irish ancestry would be drawn
immediately by the Celtic La Tene spiral work here,
which reminds me of the brooch I inherited from my Irish grandmother.
Whilst you might be drawn by this garnet cloisonne work here,
which reminds you of the belt buckle that your Germanic father had
when he was a federal auxiliary in the Roman army.
And so, in the lettering forms...
Because I'm being attracted by the Greek alphas as well!
You've got Greek letter forms, you've got Latin capitals
of the sort that you would see on monumental Roman inscriptions,
things that look stylistically like Irish and Celtic.
And so, all this, really, is saying that everything comes together
and that the ultimate thing that underpins all of that is Logos,
the idea of the word, the thought, being the prime mover.
What we've seen here is a sophisticated, ornate,
and yet understated luxury
borne out of many man hours of devotion
that delivered the Church's message of peace, friendship and unity
in an otherwise very dangerous and insecure world.
Indeed, it's a miracle that the Lindisfarne gospel books
survived that world, for, in 793,
less than 100 years after they were created,
the Vikings invaded this very island
in a raid that echoed across Europe.
It seemed as if Christian luxury had lost the struggle with the warriors.
But the churchmen never gave up
their efforts to tame the violence of the age.
And what's fascinating is that the barbarian warrior principle
and Christian values did come together in the end,
around one of the greatest luxuries of the mediaeval world.
Mediaeval people liked to think of society as being divided,
as King Alfred the Great once put it, into those who worked,
those who prayed, and those who fought.
Each was indispensable.
But by the 11th Century, it was the man who fought on horseback,
the knight, who was boss.
CLATTERING OF HOOVES
Horses were unmatched as instruments of power in medieval Europe.
Expensive to buy and even more expensive to keep,
they were indisputable symbols of status, nobility and wealth.
Warhorses were specially bred for their strength and agility
and like the modern-day battle tank, could be devastating in the field.
In a society organized mainly for war,
having fully-equipped soldiers living off the land
and dominating politics was a recipe for trouble.
And trouble there was. Fighting was endemic.
In some parts of Europe, it was even legal
to declare private war on your neighbour.
Murder, rape, plunder, sin incarnate
all made possible and worse by the luxurious warhorse.
All this was anathema to the church, which inveighed against the violence
and greed of the knightly class.
But the church found a way to tame the knights
with a new honour code. Today we call it chivalry.
The word comes from the French word for horseman, chevalier.
From now on, a knight was expected to be more than a soldier.
He must school himself in virtue and avoid pride, idleness, and lechery.
Now Christian values had colonised
the most iconic of warrior luxuries - knighthood and the war horse.
At the heart of chivalry is an ethical code constraining violence.
The aristocratic tendency to mete out violence
which is expressed symbolically in swords and shields and so on,
is something that is controlled and contained.
So it's a kind of, as it were, a Christian ethos of containing a force
that is legitimate under some circumstances.
Chivalry is positioned on the one hand between rough power,
and the reality power is rough, and yet, on the other hand,
there's a softening process whereby you can write it down,
you can codify it.
You can talk about gentility, you can talk about gentleness.
"The very parfit gentle knight", and so on.
ANNOUNCER: 'Now, before we begin, Sir Nigel will raise his rod.
'As he does so, you may join in and acclaim.
'Right, so they've got him...'
Gentle-born they may have been,
but knights still retained their appetite for violence,
and from it developed a new chivalric luxury.
The need to train,
and the natural competitiveness of the knightly class,
produced an even more sophisticated luxury - the tournament.
Knights would gather in mock battles,
sometimes lasting several days.
Now, today, we think about a jousting tournament
as two knights competing,
but initially these things were more like good-natured free-for-alls,
which eventually developed into a more official sport.
Even so, kings kept a close eye on occasions such as this.
Because plots could develop against them here, and even small wars.
In fact, Kenilworth Castle, here, was one of the few places
where such competitions were allowed to take place.
Just as today, this was a popular spectacle.
Mock war, it was thought, was better than real war.
Scenes like this became the Formula 1 or Premier League of the Middle Ages.
And they developed a similar community of rich sponsors,
expert managers, captains and star players.
Above all it was a great opportunity
for the quality to show off.
You needed armour, spare weapons, and the servants to look after them.
And you needed the money to pay a ransom to another player if,
by chance, you were captured.
Most of all, you needed the free time to take part.
All this was a huge expense.
This was a leisure sport for the lucky few.
These meetings were intensely glamorous.
The leading nobles took to them like a duck to water.
It gave them a chance to make a name for themselves,
upstage their rivals and show off their chivalric prowess.
Even if people weren't rich
they could get the sponsorship of a local lord,
like a polo player, champion jockey or racing driver today,
make a name for themselves and get famous, and many did.
Of course, the church took a dim view of it all.
One man stands out amongst them all. St Bernard of Clairvaux.
He said, "You cover your horses with silk,
"and plume your armour with I know not what sort of rags.
"Are these the trappings of a warrior, or are they not,
"rather, the trinkets of a woman?"
Instead, according to St Bernard,
a knight should put himself and his luxury warhorse
to the service of God and go on Crusade
or even become a knightly monk,
like the Knights Templar or the Knights of St John.
Like chivalry, these Godly alternatives,
channelled the enthusiasm of all the young bloods.
There's another fundamental feature about chivalry,
the extent to which this culture is a youth culture,
it is a culture of young people going through transitions.
So when you speak of the vigil, the quest, the test,
they're all, as it were, processes which people go through
which are to do with a young, erotic, often quite courtly audience,
so the symbolism of heraldry, the trappings of heraldry,
the shield, the sword.
Just look at how heraldry becomes a feature of building, art,
any kind of decorative, luxurious display.
So that war becomes something that,
if you look at any late Medieval English parish church
or indeed if you look at an Oxford or Cambridge College
they're covered in battlements and arrows that are totally useless.
The key feature of late Medieval chivalric culture
is that it is an effective, inward, romantic and arty thing.
PIPER PLAYS JAUNTY MEDIEVAL TUNE
In the sixth century AD, Pope Gregory the Great put pride
at the top of the list of the seven deadly sins.
In the 600 years since, the Church struggled constantly
against the pride of the barbarian warrior.
It's no surprise that the stock image of this sin
was that of a knight falling off a horse.
Now, finally it seems as if the church had managed to tame
this violent and sinful luxury.
But new luxuries were springing up for the church to condemn.
Just as there always are.
In the first Crusade in 1099
an army of knights from Western Europe had conquered Jerusalem.
It was the signal for an explosion of trade with the exotic East.
New luxuries arrived. A long boom began.
And to pay for it all, there were new kinds of credit
including the forerunners of modern banks.
And everywhere, wealth began to be measured
not just in terms of land or military power, but of money.
I mean, there are those that fight and those that pray,
there are those that work and finally, there are those that bank.
And from the 13th Century the rise of the banking class,
becomes a major feature on the world stage.
Economic growth galvanized the luxury market
as appetites became more sophisticated.
And, of course, the church criticised.
The change was so great that pride,
the overwhelming concern of warriors and conquerors,
got toppled from the top of the list of the seven deadly sins.
From about 1000 AD, its place is taken by avarice or greed.
The sin, par excellence, of a community
increasingly involved with trade,
where fortunes could be won or lost overnight.
But the church could not stop the march of luxury.
Just as today, bankers had a major part
in the anxiety about money and luxury.
For some, they were the epitome of avarice and luxurious sin.
But they weren't the only sinners.
By 1200 AD, the market here in Southwark was flourishing.
And it was in places like this
that the new battle between luxury and the church was to be fought.
Then, as now, luxuries are on sale.
Back then, they were importing vast quantities of wine from Bordeaux,
then a possession of the English crown.
But if you want to see what really attracted medieval buyers
you have to go this way.
Medieval buyers were after spices
and sometimes they could be very expensive.
Not least because they travelled from so far away
but also because some involved a huge amount of labour.
Back then, even pepper, to begin with,
was an extraordinarily expensive spice.
Excuse me, hi, what's the most expensive spice you have on sale?
Saffron. One ounce of saffron.
Whereabouts can we find it? Where is it?
OK, over here.
Usually, you get three countries in the world that produce saffron.
There are many more, but three very known, I suppose.
Spain is one of them.
Iran is the other, and from India, in the region of Kashmir.
But what I have here today is Spanish saffron.
Saffron is actually more expensive than gold.
So, it's very labour intensive and that's why it's so expensive.
This trade was so lucrative that, in the medieval period,
they'd try to fake these imported goods with something home-grown.
So, radish seeds would be replaced for mustard seeds
and saffron, they would try to grow in East Anglia.
That's where we get the place, Saffron Walden.
But nothing could replace the real thing.
Authentic spices from the East brought a taste of the exotic
to mediaeval meals.
They joined other luxury imports like cheeses and fine wines
on the tables of the aristocracy, and, increasingly, in humble homes.
Trading ports like Southampton thrived
as the new luxury goods poured in.
Demand was such that people could make big money.
One Southampton merchant, John Fortin,
made his money in the Bordeaux wine trade
and built this house on the proceeds.
But for the church,
the new luxuries provoked more than just avarice or gluttony.
Just by themselves, these foodstuffs could hold moral dangers.
I think all consumption comes with a moral charge.
There are foods
that it is good for you to eat and foods it is bad for you to eat.
There are foods, particularly meats, which are a fleshy substance
which encourage lasciviousness.
In fact the word "luxuria" in medieval Latin
quite literally means lechery, so these are definitely to be avoided.
Equally, you may take on some of the qualities of the foodstuff itself.
Medieval sensory perception - taste is a part of that -
works in a very different way to our assessment of the senses.
We have a very closed model of them.
If, for example, I touch this table,
all I do is I feel that table's presence, and I can push against it.
If I were living 600 years ago,
I would absorb the moral qualities that came from that table.
So when I consume food, I also absorb the moral qualities of these things.
This is one of the reasons why, particularly medieval women,
there are some groups who try to consume the Eucharist a great deal,
it's eating truth, it's tasting truth
and this is one of the things that comes with it.
Equally there are animals -
all things are made up of different humors and characteristics
and you absorb those when you consume them as well.
The church leaders were determined to keep a lid
on the moral dangers of this new cookery.
That was why the church calendar was already strewn
with days of abstinence,
which banned the consumption of dangerous foods, like meat.
But the new spices constituted a particular danger. Lechery.
The church condemned the avarice of the trading classes
as it condemned the luxuries they brought to market.
Spices and food were part of a general moral crusade
against sin and luxury.
And of course, quick off the mark, as you might expect,
was St Bernard of Clairvaux.
Writing to a cousin, he complained about how
spices and alterations of food tastes were a sin.
"Ginger, cumin and a thousand seasonings of this sort
"not only stimulate the appetite in an unseemly way
"but increase sexual desire."
It seems that one form of sin, gluttony,
inevitably encouraged another, lust.
And that connection was reinforced by the fact that spices
were being used in aphrodisiac potions.
So for St Bernard, spicy food led to spicy conduct.
And here in Bankside, just a stone's throw from the market,
was London's red light district.
In 1161, King Henry II laid down regulations
concerning the conduct of the women, venereal disease,
and the prevention of disorder.
They lasted 400 years.
The brothels were known as stews.
Even today, five centuries since the system was abolished,
the street names reflect the district's murky past.
One of the stews stood on this corner.
It was called the Castle on the Hope.
We're told that in 1506, its owner, John Sandes, was in court
not for running a brothel, but for keeping it open on feast days.
It's a long way from the glories of Lindisfarne
and the extravagances of the tournament knights
to a bawdy house like this.
But then luxury in England has always had this kind of reputation.
When modern English first emerged in the late Middle Ages
luxury meant not excess or extravagance, but lust itself.
As one contemporary put it,
"Leude touchinge and handelyng
"makithe folke falle into the horrible synne of luxurie."
Luxury is about stimuli. It stimulates the senses.
And again there are very ancient theories about
how sense, body and mind operate
so clearly, being around beautiful things,
hearing beautiful things, touching, tasting and so on,
all this has to do with your state of mind.
So luxury and concupiscence and sexual wiles are all bound up
very, very powerfully in the discourse about women
and in poetry about women throughout the Middle Ages.
So it's really interesting how early the preoccupation is,
and how with luxury, sexuality, virginity and femininity.
There was also a kind of belief,
that real, uncontrollable sexual desire came from women.
Well, definitely the understanding of the female body was such that
you could explain a sort of unbridled sexuality much more easily, yes.
Because women are held to be carnal in a way that men aren't.
From Totalian onwards, that's the central doctrine, women are fleshly.
You have whole treatises on virginity,
how you're supposed to operate. In fact in the Anglo Saxon period
Altham criticised nuns who are too quick to wear beautiful clothes
or make-up, which he thinks is some diabolical invention.
-It's the first step down the line.
-It's the first step down that path.
By 1300, the church had been struggling for centuries
to direct the universal taste for luxury away from sin
and towards the service of God.
And it had done so with some success.
It's time to call one of the age's great sinners into the witness box.
His name was Henry of Grosmont,
first Duke of Lancaster, Earl of Derby, Lincoln and Leicester,
steward of England, and Lord of Bergerac and Beaufort in France.
Henry was a cousin of King Edward III's.
He was born in around 1310,
and probably the richest man in England after the King.
He owned 23 castles, including this one,
and had land in 30 English counties.
And he behaved accordingly.
In four short decades, he managed to make a splash
in pretty much every department of mediaeval luxury.
He was an enthusiastic tournament man,
captaining a team which held annual events at his castle at Lincoln.
He tells us that he was good-looking in his youth,
but that he "lingered in the mud of the vile sin of pride",
taking excessive pleasure in his appearance.
It wasn't just tournaments.
He liked rich food, well-spiced and with strong sauces
and he liked his wine, often over-indulging quite a lot.
He was also one for the ladies,
and not just the great ladies of society, but women from any class
or station, whom he went after with "overwhelmingly lecherous pleasure".
Amazingly, we know all this because he told us so himself.
In his later years, like so many of us,
he began to regret his youthful indiscretions.
But more than that, he tried to make amends.
I've come to Corpus Christi College here in Cambridge
in search of a very rare manuscript.
It's not a grand bible or a weighty chronicle.
It's much more personal than that.
It's a book written by Henry of Grosmont himself.
And, astonishingly, it's a confessional.
And this is it.
Not the original written by Henry himself,
but most probably a copy that he himself owned.
And here in the back is a post-script.
It says, "This book was begun and finished
"in the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ 1354
"by the poor and miserable sinner Henry, Duke of Lancaster.
"May God pardon his sins."
And the name is actually written backwards in a gesture of humility.
It's called The Book of Holy Medicines.
In it, Henry writes of himself as a sick body with seven wounds,
one for each of the seven deadly sins,
and explains how he fell foul
of each of them during the course of his life.
"Lord, I have often sinned in lechery by means of the wicked feet,
"for I had gone to extreme trouble
"to make myself elegant in shoes or boots,
"and all of this has been with the aim of further inflaming
"evil lechery in some flighty woman.
"And that was why I would so stretch out my stirrups at jousts,
"and elsewhere would dance nimbly with my feet, and everything was
"done out of wickedness, whether in thought or in deed."
Henry's intensity here is really quite something.
Here's one of the greatest peers in the realm,
a man used to luxury all his life.
And yet here he is, racked with anxiety about it.
This is so much more than a modern kiss and tell autobiography,
this is about how to find your way back from that period of excess.
And this book was meant to be read.
It was copied and passed out amongst Henry's friends.
But Henry little knew, he could not know, that he was writing
at a time when attitudes to luxury were about to be transformed.
In 1348, a horrific epidemic reached Britain - the Black Death.
Its first impact was devastating -
between a third and a half of the population died.
But it also set in motion a train of events
through which British attitudes to luxury would change forever.
We can't say for sure, we just don't have the evidence,
but it may be that the founding of this college and Henry's book
were both reactions to the deadly impacts of the Black Death.
The founding of this college by the townsmen of Cambridge,
with Henry's help,
happened just three years after the first impact of the disease.
And Henry's book itself was finished just three years after that.
So it is tempting to see both ventures
as attempts to ward off further divine punishment.
But, for our story, the impact of the Black Death goes further.
And it's not about the people who died and their immortal souls,
what's crucial is to think about those who survived.
It's hard to believe that a disease which kills half the population
can have an upside, but it did.
And the reason is that,
at all levels of society, those who survived
found themselves much better off
and able to aspire to luxuries of their own.
The age of relative luxury had arrived.
Because there are fewer people consuming, because the price
of food goes down, ultimately,
then those who have land and money to invest,
invest it in a much wider way, they diversify their activities.
So, in a way, the diet and what is purchasable in England
becomes much more diverse
and that trickles down quite low in the population.
So if we can introduce the concept of relative luxury,
we'll find people out there, working people,
having relative luxuries they might not have had before -
fish, meat, cheese and so on.
You get Yeoman farmers who basically assemble the estates
of the dead men around them.
And they know that this is morally difficult,
you know, the fact that, well, I grew rich, I can't take it with me
but I grew rich at the expense of other people who didn't make it.
So it's that survivor mentality that is clearly very important.
But undoubtedly, if you are a skilled labourer,
if you are particularly a mason or somebody who builds buildings,
we know that wage rates go up
and continue to rise throughout the late 14th Century.
Some people are becoming pretty rich on the back of this,
they're doing quite well.
With the population almost halved, labour was in great demand.
For once, The ordinary people of England were in the driving seat.
They wanted more and were determined to get it.
Eventually, in 1381,
just over thirty years after the plague struck,
the unrest exploded in what we call today the "Peasants' Revolt".
A vast crowd of country people descended on London to protest
about a swingeing poll tax and call for an end to serfdom.
And some of them had it in for the gentry.
"When Adam delved and Eve span," asked one of the leaders,
"Who was then the gentleman?"
The climactic events happened here
at Smooth Field, on the edge of the City,
where the protesters' leader, Wat Tyler,
tried to stab King Richard II and was cut down
by the Lord Mayor of London.
In the short-term, the King's government prevailed,
but in the long-term, it was serfdom that was pushed to extinction.
And at the same time the social effects of the Black Death
were rippling out across the country,
causing great unease for the noble class.
And it was access to luxury that was at the heart of it.
Just as today, clothes and fashion
were the barometers of social change.
In the 1350s, elite fashions were transformed.
Tunics got shorter and were fitted more tightly to the body,
clothes were tailored in more complicated and fanciful shapes.
The moralists complained
that they were too revealing and ostentatious.
And one trend in particular bore the brunt.
Shoes are a great way into understanding the problem,
and it's this is the kind of shoe that caused all the trouble.
It's a poulaine, a type popular in the 14th and 15th centuries,
with what they called a 'piked', or pointed, toe.
And that is the moss that they used to stuff the toe with
to keep it firm when it got wet.
But the real problem was not that these clothes were too showy,
but that the wrong kind of people were getting into them.
Now that the lower classes were better off,
they could start to copy the rich.
What are we going to be looking at here?
We're going to be looking at
some medieval knife sheaths.
And these are the leather covers
that people would have worn attached to their belts
with their knife in them.
These date to the 14th century and they were the main eating implement.
And this one shows the use of heraldic devices,
which became very fashionable in the 14th century.
The lines were made by soaking the leather in water
and then impressing the lines into it,
so it is quite a simple way to decorate it.
Some of these undoubtedly would have belonged
to members of royal or aristocratic households.
So real heraldic display.
Exactly. But as times go on and things become fashionable,
everybody wants one.
It's a bit like today wanting your Louis Vuitton
or Yves St Laurent handbag.
And having a knock-off instead!
Absolutely, going to the market to get it.
Social boundaries were being blurred.
It was no longer possible to tell just by looking
who was a gentleman and who wasn't.
For the elites, this was intolerable.
So the government stepped in.
In 1363, an Act of Parliament, the Act of Apparel.
It condemned "the outrageous excessive apparel of divers people,
"against their estate and degree."
It specified for every class of citizen what they could wear,
from the Peer of the Realm to the ploughman,
so, for ordinary working folk,
"No clothes costing more than two marks,
"nothing in gold, nor of silver embroidered,
"nor of silk."
And to make it clearer, it also forbade the common people
from having more than two meals a day
and eating meat or fish more than once a day.
Did it work?
Given that sumptuary legislation begins, I think, in the 1330s
and ends in the 17th Century,
one has to say there was an underlying problem,
The wrong people wore fur, the sort of symbols of rough power,
that you own land and therefore you have a lot of dead animals
and fur becomes the way of displaying that.
And that's what concerns them -
whether squires are eating the right stuff,
who can wear pointed shoes?
It is a far reaching mode of social control,
which does reflect an anxiety
about the sort of solvent effect of money on the feudal order,
which is wobbling.
The social order was changing fast, and luxury,
and the idea of relative luxury, played a key role.
If you could pay for something, you could have it.
So while kings and peers built spectacular churches
and put fireplaces into their draughty castles,
lesser people made for comfort too, and on a big scale,
building solid houses, many of which still survive.
Inside, the aspirational could enjoy items once monopolised
by the aristocracy.
And they could even do so with the church's approval.
Books of Hours provided the texts
for people to carry out their daily religious observance.
But they were luxury items too.
They were produced on the continent in huge numbers,
and imported into this country, peaking in the years after 1400.
Some of them are lavishly illustrated, with illuminations
which sometimes rival the best masterpieces of the Renaissance.
This is a book made in the 15th Century for an Italian aristocrat.
We're over 700 years on from the Lindisfarne gospel,
and still the church is using luxury in the service of devotion.
But there is a difference.
This is not an almost uniquely brilliant manuscript for public use.
This is a private possession for display, but also for private use.
This belonged to a devout Christian, who was comfortable in practising
and displaying their faith in the most luxurious way
their personal wealth would allow.
Luxury and faith had become entwined
at not just the public, but the personal level.
But these books weren't just for people at the top.
This contemporary French-made one isn't so lavish,
but it's still very beautiful.
It was made not for a duke, but for an ordinary monk.
And these books had now penetrated even further down the social scale.
This one is even more modest, a standard model if you like,
with no extras, but it was still a bit of a luxury.
All books were.
With books, just as with food and clothing,
you can see that products were created for every level of society,
their luxurious quality equivalent to their cost.
Books are particularly important because in the 15th Century
you see a massive explosion in education and literacy.
The invention of print after 1450 speeds that process even further.
Books of all sorts, about all sorts of things,
at all levels of affordability.
It was a sign of things to come.
Political and religious debates
and disagreements about luxury would continue.
But the integrated markets of Europe,
were creating the forces of consumption that define our lives.
This is the cusp of the modern world.
Ever since the late middle ages, our luxury consumer economy
has grown, whatever the church or the authorities had to say.
Luxury after luxury has arrived from all over the world,
had its place in the sun, and been supplanted by more exotic pleasures.
Pepper was replaced by cloves and chillies, sugar by chocolate,
then coffee or tea, fine woollen broadcloths gave way to silks,
calicoes, horses by railways, private cars and planes.
Now even the desire for things has been replaced
by the desire for experiences, of open space, tranquility and calm.
In the process, luxury has lost its connotation
of sinful licentiousness.
But never its power or attraction.
Christianity no longer has the direct impact
on ideas about luxury that it once did.
Instead some people argue that the place of religion in our lives
has been taken by the wants of consumers
and, ultimately, luxury itself.
Shops like this are a great example.
It's a museum of luxuries past and present,
a temple to modern day consumerism and a beacon of everything
that is best and most expensive in our society.
The luxuries on sale here are sometimes ungettable anywhere else,
and sometimes they're just much more expensive versions
of what we can now get anywhere, like tea and coffee.
So if luxury, powerful and attractive as ever,
now sits at the heart of our world,
the question becomes, what purposes does it, can it,
should it continue to serve today?
One thing is sure. The centuries when the church
attempted to control luxury have left their mark.
We still talk of wicked temptations. We're still a little anxious.
We still think luxury is divisive. And the debate still goes on.
Today in London, Tim Richman-Gadoffre
makes his living as a luxury consultant
for a range of contemporary clients.
There's an increasing amount of questioning about what luxury is.
Is it defined by price?
Is it defined by the preciousness
of the raw materials used in the actual finished piece?
Back in the '80s it was very much about
how people wanted other people to see them.
So it was about making impressions that don't last
on people you don't care about - it was very outer directed.
And what we're seeing now is, in the west,
so in the sort of north Atlantic, western world,
the traditional luxury markets,
there has been a significant shift since 2008 and the market downturn.
The sentiment against bankers with big bonuses,
namely the people who actually do buy the majority of luxury goods,
has had a massive impact on behaviour.
So there's definitely a shift, an underlying groundswell of empathy.
And that has had an effect on making ostentatious luxury unacceptable.
I think that's a healthy thing.
If people do become embarrassed by luxury, it won't be the first time.
But the idea of luxury won't disappear either,
of that we can be sure.
It's too important to human society.
Since the beginning of human history, luxury has had many faces.
A simple luxury like meat could unite could unite a democracy.
And yet a taste for fish could divide it.
While the determined attempt to deny luxury completely
brought a powerful state to its downfall.
Absolute luxury could underpin
the divinity of one of the greatest kings in the world,
while 1000 years later a different kind of luxury
could point instead to the Kingdom of God.
And a few centuries after that, another kind of luxury,
exotic spices, seemed to lead people to lust and sexuality,
a connection which still lingers.
The fact is that luxury has always been a cause of dispute,
and always will be.
But for me, the most surprising thing about luxury is this.
We all know it when we see it,
and yet it's almost impossible to define.
Everyone has their own idea of what a luxury is
and what it means to them.
And that makes it, ultimately, an idea owned by everyone.
So what's my luxury? Oh well, that's easy.
As a classical historian,
I always think of Odysseus in book nine of the Odyssey,
the king, the man who had travelled the world,
seen it all, done it all,
had it all, lost it all, and found it all again.
And what's his ultimate luxury?
A good dinner with good friends, good food and good wine.
And that sounds good to me.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Luxury isn't just a question of expensive and the beautiful objects for the rich and the powerful. It has always been much more important than that, especially in the ancient and medieval worlds.
This second episode follows the clash between luxury and Christianity which convulsed medieval Europe. Luxury was a roadblock on the road to heaven, so the church was quick to condemn the jewellery, gorgeous weapons and pattern-welded swords of the early medieval world. Yet the church also had its own form of luxury, in the form of spectacular manuscripts designed to do the work of God through astonishment and display. And to some extent it worked, as by 1200 medieval boys' toys like warhorses and tournaments came to be suffused with Christian ideas of chivalry and gentility.
But by that time the growth of trade had brought new luxuries to Europe, condemned in turn by the church, like exotic spices from the East. Spicy food led to spicy conduct, said the preachers, and to the sin of lechery. But soon the Black Death paradoxically liberated luxury from the church by initiating a new world of relative luxury and consumerism - the luxury world we inhabit today.