Two-part documentary which looks at the items valued or desired by men and women over the centuries, focusing particularly on the Classical and Medieval periods.
Part 1: Luxury in Ancient Greece
Luxury isn’t just a question of expensive and the beautiful objects for the rich and the powerful. It has always been much more, especially in the ancient and medieval worlds. This first episode follows the debate about luxury which convulsed ancient Greece from the beginning of the classical era. In Athens, it explores the role of luxury in the beginnings of democracy – how certain kinds of luxury came to be forbidden and others embraced. A simple luxury like meat could unite the democracy, and yet a taste for fish could divide it. Some luxuries were associated with effeminacy and foreigners, others with the very idea of democracy. Yet in Sparta, there was a determined attempt to deny luxury, and the guilty contradictions of this eventually brought its downfall. When Sparta was replaced by Macedon, Phillip II’s court set new standards for luxury as political propaganda.
Part 2: Luxury in the Middle Ages
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 and gorgeous weapons of the early medieval world. Yet the church also had its own form of luxury, in the form of 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 were suffused with Christian ideas of chivalry and gentility. But trade growth brought new luxuries to Europe, condemned in turn by the church, like exotic spices from the East – spicy food led to spicy conduct and to the sin of lechery, said the preachers. 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.