I’ve read a lot recently (and over the years) about materialism, consumer culture, conspicuous consumption, and the like. But generally the writers have focused on the social transition that accompanied the industrial revolution, contrasting the way people lived up until 1800 or so with the changes that began after that. In his book The Ends of Life Keith Thomas devotes a chapter to wealth and possessions as a route to fulfillment. What surprised me is that, except among the nobility, possessions as such didn’t really exist until late medieval times.

Before then, most people did not have much—food, eating and cooking utensils, shelter, clothing, tools—and what they had was purely functional, not at all for the sake of decoration or aesthetic pleasure. Moreover, such things were almost completely without value to them; no effort was put into making their surroundings more comfortable or into acquiring things that had qualities beyond usefulness. The shift began after the Black Death, when a much reduced labor force was able to command higher prices for their labor; those newly affluent people quickly learned to desire things whose main purpose was to display wealth and status.

What shocked me, though, was how this new acquisitiveness led to so many radical changes in how people lived, none of which strike me as positive. Once people had stuff, they had to display it to others, hence the quick creation in homes of space for visitors. Beforehand, home was a place for a family to sleep, eat, spend time privately, and extend hospitality to travelers; all socializing took place at public events in public places. And once people had stuff on display, they needed visitors to admire there stuff, which led to an entire system of people visiting people in their homes—which ended up draining the life from public social events. All this aside from the new need to work in order to acquire things for visitors to admire.

(Learning about this shift from public to private socializing helped me understand better my puzzlement over hospitality, which I think the Bible defines as making your resources available to those in need of them, i.e. a traveler in need of a meal and a place to sleep, but which these days is often used as a biblical injunction to host and attend dinner parties.)


6 thoughts on “Possessions

  1. And now with the internet we don’t even have socialize in each other’s homes. Just pull up a web-cam and “socialize.” It’s just like sitting by the fireplace chatting, without the hassle of dealing with the snow and icy roads. What could be better?

    /sarc off

  2. It would be interesting to ponder what happed in the time between the the fall of the Roman world, and the late middle ages. As anyone who has studied Roman history knows, the roman upper classes, and even the peasants aspired to more than just simplicity and were as enamored with possessions and comfort as anyone in history has been. Thousands of slaves bathed, massaged, primped, and labored to supply Rome with luxuries. then came the fall of the empire, and things went back to a simpler world. the roads, and villas slowly were left to decay. Apparently even the simple potters wheel disappeared. for centuries after in Britain, all pots were hand made with out potters wheels. Why, nobody knows. Centuries went by, and people seemed to accept a simple agrarian lifestyle, then came the late medieval period, and back came the prior lifestyle. Minus pagan worship ceremonies. i wonder if it was just that life got a little less filled with warfare, and hunger, and after the black Death’s horror of death and deprivation, people just wanted more than village fairs. Remember also that while life in the West was simple. the Byzantine empire was in it’s glory at the time. Wealth and status mattered a great deal there. Interesting things to think about.

  3. What you’re saying about Biblical hospitality does make sense, because all the instances of hospitality I can think of in the Bible have to do with entertaining wayfarers. But can you imagine inviting strangers into your home without any kind of recommendation, like Abraham and Lot did? (Hosting missionaries is different, because they come with a sort of introduction.)

    Is it a bad thing that some of these acts of mercy naturally change form with the era and location?

    I do find that New Yorkers, who have smaller homes, socialize in common spaces more frequently than suburbanites. But I don’t think it’s because there are great free public events, like village fairs. In fact, our get-togethers tend to be more expensive than in the suburbs, because we go out to dinner! Our homeschooling moms meet at playgrounds or rent space from churches, but it’s always a struggle, especially in winter, because space is usually limited. There’s always a sense in which you’re renting space, and unless you invite some friends, a public event or park will be crowded with strangers.

    Also, I’d like to make a distinction about a dichotomy that perhaps you didn’t even mean to conflate. I don’t think that having fewer belongings necessarily means they are less aesthetically pleasing, or that having more possessions means having more aesthetic sense. But I understand your point that entertaining more (as opposed to socializing in public or hosting those in need) might in some cases go hand in hand with having more possessions on display. Personally, I head straight for people’s bookshelves and photos!

    And one last remark in this extremely disorganized comment: Lately I’ve been rereading John Taylor Gatto’s “Why We Need Less School, Not More.” He would say that we’ve lost our communities (and no doubt with them, true public socializing of the sort that has little to do with possessions) in part because we lock up the old and the young. Now we are left with networks instead, and they don’t address the whole person. If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy it from the perspective of your present reading. It’s on the web.

  4. Before then, most people did not have much—food, eating and cooking utensils, shelter, clothing, tools—and what they had was purely functional, not at all for the sake of decoration or aesthetic pleasure.

    I believe that this is historically false as well as creationally impossible. First, we have many, many examples from the various “barbarian” cultures, which show plenty of enhancements for purely aesthetic purposes….and these were generally very simple agricultural societies. A simple wooden spoon, for example, would be shaped and carved with features and decoration having nothing to do with pure function. Second, man as Image Bearer has, and always will, do things to the simplest of items for pure aesthetic pleasure. It is innate. Even pagans recognize this…see Yanagi’s The Unknown Craftsman

  5. Jeff,

    what they had was purely functional, not at all for the sake of decoration or aesthetic pleasure.

    I phrased that very badly. What I should have said was possessions were not considered valuable solely because of their decorative or aesthetic qualities, in contrast to, say, Caroline Wilder’s china shepherdess figurine.

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