Worldly Goods promises a new look at the European Renaissance from a different point of view. Lisa Jardine, a professor of English at the University of London, proposes an interpretation of the period in terms of the growth of commerce and a new consumerism and multiculturalism.
However, the information offered does not seem new. Rulers and wealthy men have always been conspicuous consumers. Jardine attempts, for example, to turn around our view of the flowering of art as merely a series of demonstrations of the wealth of patrons who commissioned the works, a sort of competition to show who is most wealthy or powerful. But simply providing examples of patrons who specified expensive materials or the inclusion of their goods in pictures doesn’t prove this point.
Jardine does a better job of showing how the development of printing made the exchange of ideas easier, thus affecting the advances in many different fields, including the arts and the sciences. However, her argument that the policy decisions of the period were all driven by the dictates of commerce is taking things too far, I think.
The book is well written and lively. It does not back up its assertions with footnotes or a bibliography, however, indicating that it is written for the general public but frustrating those who would like to look further. At some point, I felt that the examples were becoming too repetitive and no new points were being made. For example, Chapter Three is about the proliferation of books and printing, but Jardine continues to make the same points about printing and the sharing of scientific and technical information repeatedly throughout the rest of the book.
Although the history provides an interesting discussion of commerce during the Renaissance, it is oversold as a complete history of the period.