The middle class today telegraphs its status through gleaming marble countertops, stainless-steel appliances, and “home sweet home” pillows from Wayfair. In sixteenth-century England, the emergent “middling sort” of merchants—slotted below the land-owning gentry but above peasants—made a show of acquiring biblical textiles and washbowls. To demonstrate this, Rich Man, Poor Man at the Met Cloisters reassembles the house of an Exeter cloth merchant and an entire Bed Bath & Beyond’s worth of 500-year-old home goods.
Publicly ridiculing the poor with the commodities they could now afford was a one-two punch for the medieval bourgeoisie. In a series of panels that decorate the exterior of the centerpiece dwelling, peasants were crudely caricatured as unthinking brutes or simps. Candlesticks and woodcuts depict buffoonish beggars drinking, prancing, or fighting. Exeter’s merchants perhaps experienced the same sick, class anxiety–riddled satisfaction that fills viewers of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Their latter-day counterparts consider it gauche to mock the poor and virtuous to tease the rich, even as they covet their security and lifestyles. Fear, desire, and—indeed—taste mask divisions once carved on the front door.