Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Whether Allowable to Ruin Oneself?

The political economist replies that it is!

One of our old dramatic writers, who witnessed the singular extravagance of dress among the modellers of fashion, our nobility, condemns their “superfluous bravery,” echoing the popular cry —

“There are a sort of men, whose coining heads

Are mints of all new fashions, that have done

More hurt to the kingdom, by superfluous bravery,

Which the foolish gentry imitate, than a war

Or a long famine. All the treasure by

This foul excess is got into the merchants’,

Embroiderers’, silkmen’s, jewellers’, tailors’ hands,

And the third part of the land too! the nobility

Engrossing titles only.

Our poet might have been startled at the reply of our political economist. If the nobility, in follies such as these, only preserved their “titles,” while their “lands” were dispersed among the industrious classes, the people were not sufferers. The silly victims ruining themselves by their excessive luxury, or their costly dress, as it appears some did, was an evil which, left to its own course, must check itself; if the rich did not spend, the poor would starve. Luxury is the cure of that unavoidable evil in society — great inequality of fortune! Political economists therefore tell us that any regulations would be ridiculous which, as Lord Bacon expresses it, should serve for “the repressing of waste and excess by sumptuary laws.” Adam Smith is not only indignant at “sumptuary laws,” but asserts, with a democratic insolence of style, that “it is the highest impertinence and presumption in kings and ministers to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense by sumptuary laws. They are themselves always the greatest spendthrifts in the society; let them look well after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will.” We must therefore infer that governments by extravagance may ruin a state, but that individuals enjoy the remarkable privilege of ruining themselves without injuring society! Adam Smith afterwards distinguishes two sorts of luxury: the one exhausting itself in “durable commodities, as in buildings, furniture, books, statues, pictures,” will increase “the opulence of a nation;” but of the other, wasting itself in dress and equipages, in frivolous ornaments, jewels, baubles, trinkets, &c., he acknowledges “no trace or vestige would remain; and the effects of ten or twenty years’ profusion would be as completely annihilated as if they had never existed.” There is, therefore, a greater and a lesser evil in this important subject of the opulent, unrestricted by any law, ruining his whole generation.

Where “the wealth of nations” is made the solitary standard of their prosperity, it becomes a fertile source of errors in the science of morals; and the happiness of the individual is then too frequently sacrificed to what is called the prosperity of the state. If an individual, in the pride of luxury and selfism, annihilates the fortunes of his whole generation, untouched by the laws as a criminal, he leaves behind him a race of the discontented and the seditious, who, having sunk in the scale of society, have to reascend from their degradation by industry and by humiliation; but for the work of industry their habits have made them inexpert; and to humiliation their very rank presents a perpetual obstacle.

Sumptuary laws, so often enacted and so often repealed, and always eluded, were the perpetual, but ineffectual, attempts of all governments to restrain what, perhaps, cannot be restrained — criminal folly! And to punish a man for having ruined himself would usually be to punish a most contrite penitent.

It is not surprising that before “private vices were considered as public benefits,” the governors of nations instituted sumptuary laws — for the passion for pageantry and an incredible prodigality in dress were continually impoverishing great families — more equality of wealth has now rather subdued the form of private ruin than laid this evil domestic spirit. The incalculable expenditure and the blaze of splendour of our ancestors may startle the incredulity of our élégantes. We find men of rank exhausting their wealth and pawning their castles, and then desperately issuing from them, heroes for a crusade, or brigands for their neighbourhood! — and this frequently from the simple circumstance of having for a short time maintained some gorgeous chivalric festival on their own estates, or from having melted thousands of acres into cloth of gold; their sons were left to beg their bread on the estates which they were to have inherited.

It was when chivalry still charmed the world by the remains of its seductive splendours, towards the close of the fifteenth century, that I find an instance of this kind occurring in the Pas de Sandricourt, which was held in the neighbourhood of the sieur of that name. It is a memorable affair, not only for us curious inquirers after manners and morals, but for the whole family of the Sandricourts; for though the said sieur is now receiving the immortality we bestow on him, and la dame who presided in that magnificent piece of chivalry was infinitely gratified, yet for ever after was the lord of Sandricourt ruined — and all for a short, romantic three months!

This story of the chivalric period may amuse. A pas d’armes, though consisting of military exercises and deeds of gallantry, was a sort of festival distinct from a tournament. It signified a pas or passage to be contested by one or more knights against all comers. It was necessary that the road should be such that it could not be passed without encountering some guardian knight. The chevaliers who disputed the pas hung their blazoned shields on trees, pales, or posts raised for this purpose. The aspirants after chivalric honours would strike with their lance one of these shields, and when it rung, it instantly summoned the owner to the challenge. A bridge or a road would sometimes serve for this military sport, for such it was intended to be, whenever the heat of the rivals proved not too earnest. The sieur of Sandricourt was a fine dreamer of feats of chivalry, and in the neighbourhood of his castle he fancied that he saw a very spot adapted for every game; there was one admirably fitted for the barrier of a tilting-match; another embellished by a solitary pine-tree; another which was called the meadow of the Thorn; there was a carrefour, where, in four roads, four knights might meet; and, above all, there was a forest called devoyable, having no path, so favourable for errant knights who might there enter for strange adventures, and, as chance directed, encounter others as bewildered as themselves. Our chivalric Sandricourt found nine young seigneurs of the court of Charles the Eighth of France, who answered all his wishes. To sanction this glorious feat it was necessary to obtain leave from the king, and a herald of the Duke of Orleans to distribute the cartel or challenge all over France, announcing that from such a day ten young lords would stand ready to combat, in those different places, in the neighbourhood of Sandricourt’s château. The names of this flower of chivalry have been faithfully registered, and they were such as instantly to throw a spark into the heart of every lover of arms! The world of fashion, that is, the chivalric world, were set in motion. Four bodies of assailants soon collected, each consisting of ten combatants. The herald of Orleans having examined the arms of these gentlemen, and satisfied himself of their ancient lineage and their military renown, admitted their claims to the proffered honour. Sandricourt now saw with rapture the numerous shields of the assailants placed on the sides of his portals, and corresponding with those of the challengers which hung above them. Ancient lords were elected judges of the feats of the knights, accompanied by the ladies, for whose honour only the combatants declared they engaged.

The herald of Orleans tells the history in no very intelligible verse; but the burthen of his stanza is still

Du pas d’armes du chasteau Sandricourt.

He sings, or says,

Oncques, depuis le tempts du roi Artus,

Ne furent tant les armes exaulcées —

Maint chevaliers et preux entreprenans —

Princes plusieurs ont terres déplacées

Pour y venir donner coups et poussées

Qui out été lá tenus si de court

Que par force n’ont prises et passées

Les barriers, entrées, et passées

Du pas des armes du chasteau Sandricourt.

Doubtless there many a Roland met with his Oliver, and could not pass the barriers. Cased as they were in steel, de pied en cap, we presume that they could not materially injure themselves; yet, when on foot, the ancient judges discovered such symptoms of peril, that on the following day they advised our knights to satisfy themselves by fighting on horseback. Against this prudential counsel for some time they protested, as an inferior sort of glory. However, on the next day, the horse combat was appointed in the carrefour, by the pine-tree. On the following day they tried their lances in the meadow of the Thorn; but, though on horseback, the judges deemed their attacks were so fierce that this assault was likewise not without peril; for some horses were killed, and some knights were thrown, and lay bruised by their own mail; but the barbed horses, wearing only des chamfreins, head-pieces magnificently caparisoned, found no protection in their ornaments. The last days were passed in combats of two to two, or in a single encounter, a-foot, in the forêt devoyable. These jousts passed without any accident, and the prizes were awarded in a manner equally gratifying to the claimants. The last day of the festival was concluded with a most sumptuous banquet. Two noble knights had undertaken the humble office of maîtres-d’hôtel; and while the knights were parading in the forêt devoyable seeking adventures, a hundred servants were seen at all points, carrying white and red hypocras, and juleps, and sirop de violars, sweetmeats, and other spiceries, to comfort these wanderers, who, on returning to the chasteau, found a grand and plenteous banquet. The tables were crowded in the court apartment, where some held one hundred and twelve gentlemen, not including the dames and the demoiselles. In the halls, and outside of the chasteau, were other tables. At that festival more than two thousand persons were magnificently entertained free of every expense; their attendants, their armourers, their plumassiers, and others, were also present. La Dame de Sandricourt, “fût moult aise d’avoir donné dans son chasteau si belle, si magnifique, et gorgiasse fête.” Historians are apt to describe their personages as they appear, not as they are: if the lady of the Sieur Sandricourt really was “moult aise” during these gorgeous days, one cannot but sympathise with the lady, when her loyal knight and spouse confessed to her, after the departure of the mob of two thousand visitors, neighbours, soldiers, and courtiers — the knights challengers, and the knights assailants, and the fine scenes at the pine-tree; the barrier in the meadow of the Thorn; and the horse-combat at the carrefour; and the jousts in the forêt devoyable; the carousals in the castle halls; the jollity of the banquet tables; the morescoes danced till they were reminded “how the waning night grew old!”— in a word, when the costly dream had vanished — that he was a ruined man for ever, by immortalising his name in one grand chivalric festival! The Sieur de Sandricourt, like a great torch, had consumed himself in his own brightness; and the very land on which the famous Pas de Sandricourt was held — had passed away with it! Thus one man sinks generations by that wastefulness, which a political economist would assure us was committing no injury to society! The moral evil goes for nothing in financial statements.

Similar instances of ruinous luxury we may find in the prodigal costliness of dress through the reigns of Elizabeth, James the First, and Charles the First. Not only in their massy grandeur they outweighed us, but the accumulation and variety of their wardrobe displayed such a gaiety of fancy in their colours and their ornaments, that the drawing-room in those days must have blazed at their presence, and changed colours as the crowd moved. But if we may trust to royal proclamations, the ruin was general among some classes. Elizabeth issued more than one proclamation against “the excess of apparel!” and among other evils which the government imagined this passion for dress occasioned, it notices “the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen, otherwise serviceable; and that others, seeking by show of apparel to be esteemed as gentlemen, and allured by the vain show of these things, not only consume their goods and lands, but also run into such debts and shifts, as they cannot live out of danger of laws without attempting of unlawful acts.” The queen bids her own household “to look unto it for good example to the realm; and all noblemen, archbishops and bishops, all mayors, justices of peace, &c., should see them executed in their private households.” The greatest difficulty which occurred to regulate the wear of apparel was ascertaining the incomes of persons, or in the words of the proclamation, “finding that it is very hard for any man’s state of living and value to be truly understood by other persons.” They were to be regulated as they appear “sessed in the subsidy books.” But if persons chose to be more magnificent in their dress, they were allowed to justify their means: in that case, if allowed, her majesty would not be the loser; for they were to be rated in the subsidy books according to such values as they themselves offered as a qualification for the splendour of their dress!

In my researches among manuscript letters of the times, I have had frequent occasion to discover how persons of considerable rank appear to have carried their acres on their backs, and with their ruinous and fantastical luxuries sadly pinched their hospitality. It was this which so frequently cast them into the nets of the “goldsmiths,” and other trading usurers. At the coronation of James the First, I find a simple knight whose cloak cost him five hundred pounds; but this was not uncommon.1 At the marriage of Elizabeth, the daughter of James the First, “Lady Wotton had a gown of which the embroidery cost fifty pounds a yard. The Lady Arabella made four gowns, one of which cost 1500l. The Lord Montacute (Montague) bestowed 1500l. in apparel for his two daughters. One lady, under the rank of baroness, was furnished with jewels exceeding one hundred thousand pounds; “and the Lady Arabella goes beyond her,” says the letter-writer. “All this extreme costs and riches makes us all poor,” as he imagined!2 I have been amused in observing grave writers of state-dispatches jocular on any mischance or mortification to which persons are liable whose happiness entirely depends on their dress. Sir Dudley Carleton, our minister at Venice, communicates, as an article worth transmitting, the great disappointment incurred by Sir Thomas Glover, “who was just come hither, and had appeared one day like a comet, all in crimson velvet and beaten gold, but had all his expectations marred on a sudden by the news of Prince Henry’s death.” A similar mischance, from a different cause, was the lot of Lord Hay, who made great preparations for his embassy to France, which, however, were chiefly confined to his dress. He was to remain there twenty days; and the letter-writer maliciously observes, that “He goes with twenty special suits of apparel for so many days’ abode, besides his travelling robes; but news is very lately come that the French have lately altered their fashion, whereby he must needs be out of countenance, if he be not set out after the last edition!” To find himself out of fashion, with twenty suits for twenty days, was a mischance his lordship had no right to count on!

“The glass of fashion” was unquestionably held up by two very eminent characters, Rawleigh and Buckingham; and the authentic facts recorded of their dress will sufficiently account for the frequent “Proclamations” to control that servile herd of imitators — the smaller gentry!

There is a remarkable picture of Sir Walter, which will at least serve to convey an idea of the gaiety and splendour of his dress. It is a white satin pinked vest, close sleeved to the wrist; over the body a brown doublet, finely flowered and embroidered with pearl. In the feather of his hat a large ruby and pearl drop at the bottom of the sprig, in place of a button; his trunk or breeches, with his stockings and riband garters, fringed at the end, all white, and buff shoes with white riband. Oldys, who saw this picture, has thus described the dress of Rawleigh. But I have some important additions; for I find that Rawleigh’s shoes on great court days were so gorgeously covered with precious stones, as to have exceeded the value of six thousand six hundred pounds: and that he had a suit of armour of solid silver, with sword and belt blazing with diamonds, rubies, and pearls, whose value was not so easily calculated. Rawleigh had no patrimonial inheritance; at this moment he had on his back a good portion of a Spanish galleon, and the profits of a monopoly of trade he was carrying on with the newly discovered Virginia. Probably he placed all his hopes in his dress! The virgin queen, when she issued proclamations against “the excess of apparel,” pardoned, by her looks, that promise of a mine which blazed in Rawleigh’s; and, parsimonious as she was, forgot the three thousand changes of dresses which she herself left in the royal wardrobe.

Buckingham could afford to have his diamonds tacked so loosely on, that when he chose to shake a few off on the ground, he obtained all the fame he desired from the pickers-up, who were generally les dames de la cour; for our duke never condescended to accept what he himself had dropped. His cloaks were trimmed with great diamond buttons, and diamond hatbands, cockades, and ear-rings yoked with great ropes and knots of pearls. This was, however, but for ordinary dances. “He had twenty-seven suits of clothes made, the richest that embroidery, lace, silk, velvet, silver, gold, and gems could contribute; one of which was a white uncut velvet, set all over, both suit and cloak, with diamonds valued at fourscore thousand pounds, besides a great feather stuck all over with diamonds, as were also his sword, girdle, hat, and spurs.”3 In the masques and banquets with which Buckingham entertained the court, he usually expended, for the evening, from one to five thousand pounds. To others I leave to calculate the value of money: the sums of this gorgeous wastefulness, it must be recollected, occurred before this million age of ours.

If, to provide the means for such enormous expenditure, Buckingham multiplied the grievances of monopolies; if he pillaged the treasury for his eighty thousand pounds’ coat; if Rawleigh was at length driven to his last desperate enterprise to relieve himself of his creditors for a pair of six thousand pounds’ shoes — in both these cases, as in that of the chivalric Sandricourt, the political economist may perhaps acknowledge that there is a sort of luxury highly criminal. All the arguments he may urge, all the statistical accounts he may calculate, and the healthful state of his circulating medium among “the merchants, embroiderers, silkmen, and jewellers”— will not alter such a moral evil, which leaves an eternal taint on “the wealth of nations!” It is the principle that “private vices are public benefits,” and that men may be allowed to ruin their generations without committing any injury to society.

1 The famous Puritanic writer, Philip Stubbes, who published his “Anatomie of Abuses” in 1593, declares that he “has heard of shirtes that have cost some ten shillings, some twentie, some fortie, some five pound, some twentie nobles, and (which is horrible to heare) some tenne pounde a peece.” His book is filled with similar denunciations of abuses; in which he is followed by other satirists. They appear to have produced little effect in the way of reformation; for in the days of James I, John Taylor, the Water poet, similarly laments the wastefulness of those who —

Wear a farm in shoe-strings edged with gold,

And spangled garters worth a copyhold;

A hose and doublet which a lordship cost;

A gaudy cloak, three manors’ price almost;

A beaver band and feather for the head

Priced at the church’s tythe, the poor man’s bread.

2 It is not unusual to find in inventories of this era, the household effects rated at much less than the wearing apparel, of the person whose property is thus valued.

3 The Jesuit Drexelius, in one of his Religious Dialogues, notices the fact; but I am referring to an Harleian manuscript, which confirms the information of the Jesuit.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53