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SERVANTS. Domestic service, often ignored in the first decades of research into the social history of early modern Europe, has recently benefited from greater scholarly attention. Investigation has made it clear that a knowledge of master-servant relations provides essential insights into the larger relationships of elite and popular classes and into the unexpected elasticity of the boundaries of public and private spheres in this period. Since servants were considered part of the family, at least until family values began to emphasize privacy and affection around the middle of the eighteenth century, their history also adds depth to efforts to understand the evolution of family structures over time. Yet far more is unexplored than is known about the domestic servant population, particularly since most researchers have focused on England and France, with some initial surveys of Renaissance Italy and the Dutch Republic.

The major obstacle to achieving a better understanding of the roles of servants in the past is the difficulty of finding documentary sources with useful information. Servants were not members of a corporate group that might have maintained records on their numbers, their wages, or the terms and conditions of hire. In a time when censuses were rarely taken, the presence of servants in a household was seldom systematically noted. They were occasionally considered a luxury item and hence taxable, notably in Holland in the 1740s and in England in 1777. Despite this, government records rarely provide much data on the servant population. Servants produced little in the way of autobiographies, and any letters they might have written were not addressed to families that had the resources to preserve them. While criminal court records do contain some interesting information, they cannot support conclusions about the larger population of law-abiding servants. The picture we have of servants' lives then is based on a diverse assemblage of household account books, wills, servants' ordinances, and similar local records. These establish that servants' experiences varied not only over time but according to the sizes of the households in which they worked, the households' wealth and location in urban or rural settings, and the work servants were expected to do.


Servants were a practical necessity in an era before labor-saving appliances; they freed the mistress of a household to cultivate social networks or to participate in the family business. Domestic service enabled poor and unskilled people to survive. It was usually a temporary occupation, especially for women, who might save their wages toward the dowries that would enable them to make respectable marriages.

But as an institution, domestic service filled many more roles in early modern Europe. It bridged the worlds of workers and elites. Servants initiated into the manners, the values, and the fashions of the elites transmitted that culture to the laboring classes. They were the most regular contacts members of the middling and elite groups had with working people, so such relationships helped form class attitudes. In supervising domestics, bourgeois housewives learned managerial skills. And retinues of liveried men were a public and visible sign of wealth and status for members of the nobility.


Contemporaries certainly noticed the ubiquity of servants in their communities. In his Letters on the Importance of the Rising Generation of the Laboring Part of Our Fellow-Subjects (1767), Jonas Hanway estimated that one in thirteen Londoners was a domestic, and Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban gave the same figure for France in Projet d'une dixme royale (Plan for a royal tithe) in 1707. Historical demographers have confirmed the guesses made by an earlier generation. Most studies have concluded that servants comprised roughly 7 to 15 percent of the population.

Servants were so important in early modern Europe that they were employed in any household that could afford their upkeep. Indeed possessing at least one live-in domestic acted as a marker indicating that a family could claim respectability and status in the community. Estimates of the percentages of households employing servants hover around 23 percent, though it could range much higher in towns that were judicial or administrative centers.

The most common form of domestic servant was a maid of all work, often the only servant in a household, whose work included whatever errands, cleaning, food preparation, or child care tasks a family required. The larger the establishment, the more specialized the servants became, as families hired cooks, coachmen, valets to attend to the masters' wardrobes and personal needs, dress maids to do the same for the mistresses, nursemaids, governesses and tutors, and ultimately platoons of male lackeys, postilions, and footmen, whose presence shielded employers from contact with commoners. The establishment of any truly grand seigneur required some fifty servants, according to Audiger's La maison reglée et l'art de diriger la maison d'un grand seigneur & autres (1700; The ordered house and the art of directing the house of a great lord and others).

In the countryside servants in husbandry added to the variety of occupations considered domestic service. A dairymaid was a servant even if the family marketed its cheese. Indeed Europeans did not make sharp distinctions between workers hired for domestic labor on the one hand and for productive labor on the other until the eighteenth centuryand in some places well beyond that time. An apprentice might be required to accompany his or her mistress to market, while a girl hired to keep the family home tidy might find herself scrubbing the shop floor as well as the kitchen floor. The salient feature that defined the nature of domestic service to contemporaries was dependence. From an archbishop's secretary to an orphaned scullery maid, all were dependents and hence servants.


Much of the evidence to date has concluded that the majority of servants were young, unmarried migrants who traveled from rural villages to larger towns and cities for work. Some were poor relatives of their employers. Historians of domestic service have engaged in a debate over the ratios of men to women employed as household servants. Some have identified a process of "feminization" of domestic service, in which the numbers of men employed as domestics declined in relation to the numbers of women during the course of the eighteenth century. Two trends are said to have produced this shift. As middle classes or bourgeoisies replaced the aristocracies in roles of political and economic leadership, status markers no longer emphasized splendor and public display. The demand for male servants decreased. At the same time, changing attitudes about gender roles emphasized independence and autonomy for men, making service less desirable for them.

Other historians, however, have challenged feminization as a means of analyzing shifts in the structure of domestic service. The majority of domestic workers were always women, they argue. The apparent trend is the result of a focus on researching the largest establishments of the wealthy, which gives too much importance to the roles played by menservants. The boundaries of the public sphere or of the domestic sphere were perpetually shifting, so what appears to be feminization could be more the result of a redefinition of work roles than it was of occupational demographics.

"Live-in" servants were not married. Employers wanted people in their service who would surrender their own interests to those of the householder, and married couples did not meet that condition. At the same time, early modern servants rarely saw their jobs as lifetime occupations. The point of entering service was to escape from it. Women sought marriage with a partner who offered financial security and a home of their own. Men looked for the contacts who could provide them a means of earning an independent living. But there were no guarantees that such ambitions could be fulfilled, particularly when employers restricted their servants' opportunities of meeting people outside the household.


Servants who lived under the same roofs as their employers had little in the way of private lives. Their time was not their own. They were expected to be working before their employers rose from bed, and those in attendance on their masters or mistresses had to remain awake late into the night if their employers had gone out to a social event. Time off was a matter of individual arrangements; some servants might receive an afternoon once or twice per month, while others had to apply for each rare hour off. Many had no leisure time at all. Employers discouraged servants from socializing in their homes. Local laws in some parts of the Dutch Republic actually made servants' social use of their employers' food a criminal act. Employers considered their domestics' time to be their property, and unauthorized socializing represented the theft of that property. Socializing also provided opportunities for domestics to spread gossip about the family and might lead to maidservants becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Hence many elite employers absolutely refused to give their domestic workers any leisure time.

Wages earned by servants were low. Very young, inexperienced, or unskilled servants might receive only room and board. Domestics received their earnings no more frequently than semiannually and in many cases received nothing until they left the household. Wages varied by location, and they varied depending on the skill level of the worker. Male servants were always paid more than female ones, even when the type of work was the same. (Cooking and gardening, for example, were less sex-linked than other tasks.)

But historians have emphasized that the rewards of service included far more than the wages paid. Room and board itself might be of better quality and quantity than that which a servant who otherwise would have been a pauper might have enjoyed. During inflationary periods such payments-in-kind meant that servants' remunerations effectively kept pace with the rise in prices, something wageworkers did not enjoy. Custom called for servants to be remembered in their employers' wills, although the tradition was not universally honored. Other rewards included cash gifts at holidays, tips, and "vails"guests staying for a holiday at an upper-class home in England were expected to provide gratuities to their hosts' servants when they departed. Servants who accompanied their employers in public wore liveries, uniforms decorated to indicate the identities of their masters. Personal domestics so often received their employers' hand-me-down clothing that many considered it a "right," according to their testimony before courts when they were prosecuted for theft after they had helped themselves to items they thought were worn out. The maids and valets who obtained the fine clothes of their employerseither with or without their approvalcould supplement their income by reselling the articles through second-hand clothes dealers.

Sexual harassment represented one of the greatest perils of service. Young, unmarried girls, isolated from family and friends, were vulnerable to their employers, their employers' sons and male guests, as well as to male servants. Whether quartered in common areas or attic rooms, they could not put a locked door between themselves and sexual predators. Gentlemen seeking a sexual outlet found their household domestics convenient, easy to pressure or to seduce using threats or promises. A maidservant who became pregnant, whether as the result of rape or a voluntary relationship, faced disaster: immediate dismissal without the good reference that any other employer would require and, as a woman who had lost her virtue, little or no prospect of making a respectable marriage. Yet it would be a mistake to believe that all sexual relationships involving female domestics were the result of rape or harassment. Deliberately confined in their workplaces, some maidservants found sex within the household offered their only opportunities for affection and physical relief and so undertook such relationships willingly.


Prescriptive literature in household manuals, confessional guides, and religious tracts defined an ideal of master-servant relations that historians have termed "paternalist." Linked to the authoritarian stage in the evolution of the family among Europeans, the paternalist ideal defined a standard of reciprocal obligations between masters and servants in which servants were bound to loyalty, obedience, and diligence in the service of their masters, while the latter were held responsible for the moral and physical welfare of their domestic workers, just as they were responsible for their own children's welfare. This ethos required employers to care for servants who became sick, to support those who had grown old in the service of their masters, and to provide for all servants' religious educations. As a set of values governing master-servant relations, the paternalist ideal had disappeared by the early nineteenth century if not before, replaced by a contract mode of relations based on the exchange of work for money. But historians still debate the timing and the causes of this shift, which varied from one location to another. These arguments notwithstanding, other historians doubt that reciprocity was ever characteristic of the reality of most master-servant relationships.


Two decades of efforts to rescue the domestic servant from historical oblivion have demonstrated that there are few if any features that can be considered universal of the institution in early modern Europe. Researchers have grown quite critical of work that accepts stereotypes and generalizations about servant and employer demographics, the sexual division of labor, and overall trends in the evolution of master-servant relationships. Only with additional research will enough data emerge to support broad generalizations about servant life in early modern Europe.

See also Aristocracy and Gentry ; Class, Status, and Order ; Family ; Serfdom .


Primary Sources

Ashford, Mary. Life of a Licensed Victualler's Daughter, Written by Herself. 1844.

Gourville, Jean Hérault de. Mémoires de Monsieur de Gourville, concernant les affaires ausquelles il a été employé par la cour, depuis 1642, jusqu'en 1698. 2 vols. Paris, 1724.

Legrain. "Souvenirs de Legrain, valet de chambre de Mirabeau." Nouvelle revue rétrospective I. Paris, 1901.

Secondary Sources

Carlson, Marybeth. "A Trojan Horse of Worldliness? Maidservants in the Burgher Household in Rotterdam at the End of the Seventeenth Century." In Women of the Golden Age, edited by Els Kloek et al., pp. 8796. Hilversum, 1994.

Fairchilds, Cissie. Domestic Enemies: Servants and Their Masters in Old Regime France. Baltimore, 1984.

Gutton, Jean-Pierre. Domestiques et serviteurs dans la France de l'ancien régime. Paris, 1981.

Hecht, J. Jean. The Domestic Servant Class in Eighteenth-Century England. London, 1956.

Hill, Bridget. Servants: English Domestics in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford, 1996.

Kent, D. A. "Ubiquitous but Invisible: Female Domestic Servants in Mid-Eighteenth Century London." History Workshop Journal 28 (1989): 111128.

Kussmaul, Ann. Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England. Cambridge, U.K., 1981.

Maza, Sarah C. Servants and Masters in Eighteenth-Century France: The Uses of Loyalty. Princeton, 1983.

McIntosh, Marjorie K. "Servants and the Household Unit in an Elizabethan Community." Journal of Family History 9 (1984): 323.

Meldrum, Tim. Domestic Service and Gender, 16601750: Life and Work in the London Household. New York, 2000.

Romano, Dennis. Housecraft and Statecraft: Domestic Service in Renaissance Venice, 14001600. Baltimore, 1996.

Marybeth Carlson

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