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Upstairs, downstairs

A Tudor kitchen

A POINT OF VIEW

As Britain's rich see their wealth grow are we risking a dislocation in society that would surprise our Tudor forefathers, asks historian Lisa Jardine.

The extremely rich are getting even richer. So we are told in the World Wealth Report, widely discussed in the newspapers over the past few weeks.

The number of super-rich increased by almost 9% last year. Last Monday it was announced that the annual income of the Prince of Wales had risen by 1m, an increase of 7%, very much in line with the general trend.

Lisa Jardine

Not only are the very rich getting ever richer, but they are also increasingly cut off from the common experience of those who are obliged to do things differently

And the wealth of the slightly less affluent - those who have assets of more than 1m not counting the homes they live in -- increased even more steeply.

In spite of the current "credit crunch", nothing apparently makes it easier for you to make money than having a lot of it in the first place, and the rich currently have more to play with than ever before.

What do they spend it on? Private jets, customised yachts, fast cars and works of art; opulent homes with heliports on the roof, spacious cinemas, Olympic-size swimming pools and saunas, and kitchen facilities to allow them to call in the caterers whenever they fancy a cordon-bleu meal.

With all these personalised and private possessions and amenities, they never ever have to rub shoulders nowadays with those less fortunate than themselves.

Not only are the very rich getting ever richer, but they are also increasingly cut off from the common experience of those who are obliged to do things differently.

Lavish lifestyles

Since they have no need to interact with less prosperous members of their community at all, they know increasingly little about us. They can, if they choose, turn their backs on the lives and circumstances of the rest of us.

It was not always that way. Last weekend I travelled back in time to a place where the worlds of those with lavish lifestyles were of necessity closely intertwined with those who provided them with all their everyday needs - the year was 1588, the place, Kentwell Hall in Suffolk.

A man uses bellows
Work could be grinding and thankless in Tudor times

Each summer for the past 30 years, Kentwell Hall has been transformed by owner Patrick Phillips and his wife Judith into a living replica of itself in a given year during the 16th Century.

For three weeks continuously, between 200 and 400 volunteers, steeped in Tudor history, ranging in age from infants to sprightly octogenarians, live and breathe the period from dawn to dusk.

Meanwhile, school groups and (at the weekend) "punters" like myself are allowed to wander around the house and grounds, watching them at work and eavesdropping on their activities.

Like anthropologists observing a group of Trobriand islanders, though, we are asked not to intrude as the participants go about their daily business, and to accept that any question we ask will be answered from within the limited knowledge and understanding of somebody living over 400 years ago.

In the extensive grounds around the moated manor house, armies of artisans and purveyors of goods labour over the necessaries for the comfort of the Clopton family - gentry owners of Kentwell since 1385.

Elaborate ruffs

The blacksmith at his anvil works iron, heated to red-hot in furnaces kept roaring by young apprentices manning the bellows, into horseshoes and tackle for the stables, and tongs and spits for the fire in the manor-house kitchen.

At a treadle-operated lathe, a man with a chisel concentrates on turning a perfectly symmetrical wooden bowl for use at table. The bearded alchemist is bent over his still, transforming household wood-ash and distilled water into a caustic solution of lye - an essential ingredient (mixed with a little urine) in the starch used to stiffen the gentry's elaborate ruffs.

A sense of community has always been built on strong foundations of shared endeavour - doing things together, over long stretches of time

Nearby one of his colleagues is keeping a watchful eye on a young boy pounding sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre together in a mortar, to make gunpowder for the gentlemen's wheel-lock guns and pistols (rumours of an imminent Spanish invasion are everywhere).

The attention to detail is, for a historian like myself, breath-taking. Labourers, gardeners, and all kinds of artisans and peddlers carry out their work with meticulous care for its Tudor authenticity.

Costumes are precise down to the last bum-roll under a gentlewoman's damask dress, and the exquisite black-work embroidery on her smock.

In the dairy and bakery in the moat house, where modestly-coifed young women with flour-covered aprons over their heavy woollen dresses churn butter and knead bread under the watchful eye of their seniors, the ambiance and atmosphere are so convincing that I could sit for hours, watching them going about their work.

Scrubbed tables

All the Kentwell participants mingle and chat with one another for all the world as though they had never stepped out of the 1500s in their entire life. Leisurely conversations are conducted with passers-by, in convincingly authentic Tudor English. Right down to the smallest infant, everyone seems at ease with themselves and their community.

It is the great kitchen of the house that I return to for longest on every visit. There is little room here for onlookers, and one has to slip into any available corner to observe.

The danger is that, confined within the CCTV-monitored walls of their palatial mansions, the rich stand apart from those ordinary kinds of social bond which bind communities together

Around the huge scrubbed table, cooks of all ages labour over food preparation that, without modern kitchen conveniences, requires dozens of pairs of hands to bring to perfection.

Small boys fetch and carry, drag in logs for the fire, and take turns to rotate the spits. Pages and maids run hither and thither with ingredients and instructions, and then ferry the food in procession through long corridors to the waiting gentry at high table in the great hall.

Tarts and pastries cool on window-ledges, delicious smells of roasting and baking waft around you, and everywhere magic worthy of Delia is being worked with long-forgotten Tudor recipes. There is a constant hubbub, an orderly chaos presided over by the formidable head cook.

In this bustle of people coming and going, fetching and carrying, it is simply impossible for the inhabitants of the manor house to forget those less fortunate than themselves.

Nor can they, as they walk around the grounds, overlook the discomfort in which those who support their lifestyle, live and work. And the Tudor church saw to it that neighbours of all social degrees honoured their obligations to one another - there were rules for charitable giving to the poor, and rules of hospitality dictating that no stranger was turned away empty-handed from a householder's door.

Of course I'm being hopelessly nostalgic. The same Tudor community whose cohesiveness I am extolling was deeply suspicious of foreigners, including those who came from a neighbouring village, comfortable with allowing a man to beat his wife inside his own home, and pitiless towards vagrants or "masterless men".

And if you were a child spit-turner in that Tudor kitchen I so enjoy, working long hours for a pittance in the noise and the heat, it was probably not much comfort to know that the family in the parlour were aware that you were there, assiduously spit-turning.

Tolerant society

But I suppose what I'm hankering after here is that sense of belonging - what is referred to in the typically lustreless terms favoured by politicians as "social cohesion".

Last week was "Who Do We Think We Are Week" - teachers and students in primary and secondary schools across Britain were encouraged to think about what it means to be British in terms of identity and diversity. The idea is that by encouraging students to understand and support each other, whatever their backgrounds or beliefs, we can create a more connected and tolerant society.

What my day at Kentwell persuaded me is that a sense of community has always been built on strong foundations of shared endeavour - doing things together, over long stretches of time.

Mutual dependency creates a sense of responsibility - the knowledge that the good of the whole community rests on the shoulders of all those within it.

If increasing numbers of the wealthy never take public transport, never sit in a cinema audience or a doctor's surgery, or shop in the High Street during normal opening hours, that sense of the general good involving everyone is lost.

The danger is that, confined within the CCTV-monitored walls of their palatial mansions, the rich stand apart from those ordinary kinds of social bond which bind communities together, so that they have absolutely no idea what it means - let alone what it feels like - to be poor.


A selection of your comments appears below.

Rich get richer due to compound interest. If you have a 1m and invest it for 10 years at 7% (available on the high st today) you'll have 2m. Obviously if you only have 1k it only doubles to 2k. Hence the rich get richer. With today's savings ratio so low its no wonder that gap seems wider than ever. It is also true that today an underclass exists that doesn't work, destabilises society and seems to go relatively unpunished. This doesn't seem to be the case in your Tudor ideal. I can understand why an increasing proportion of today's society wants to minimise/remove contact with these type of people.
Al, Liverpool

It's not just the rich who haven't a clue about day-to-day prices.

The majority of politicians would have no idea how much a pound of butter costs or how it is possible to live on just the JSA allowance of 60.50 a week.
Slim Palmer, Newcastle

I am not rich at all, very far from it, and I don't even like going to the high street shops and using public transport. Transport is horrible, slow and unreliable. The high streets filled with big issue sellers, charity workers, teenage single mums, drunks, and an assortment of other undesirables, plus the shops are always packed and noisy. You don't need to be rich to want to avoid this, thank goodness for online shopping.
Mike Flowers, Bristol

Unfortunately, most of the 'rich' in the modern world have one more thing to contend with - fame! I have no doubt that there are many rich people who would love to live in anonymity without having to put up a barrier between themselves and the 'common folk', who now feel that the rich are a commodity that they can pester and make demands of. Personally, I'd love to experience the different societies of the Tudor period and other periods of English history just to see if the experience is as peaceful and interesting as it often seems to me.
Heather, Willenhall

The BBC is helping to add to the wealth divide by paying some of it's staff over the odds, such as Jonathon Ross with 18 million for his latest contract.
Pat, London




LISA JARDINE ARCHIVE
 



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