Training Children for Work: Service

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Training Children for Work: Service


A Stage of Life. Going into service was integrated into the fabric of medieval urban society, especially in England, and was not necessarily indicative of low social status. In many ways service was simply a stage of growing up. A period of service allowed children approaching adulthood to become independent of their parents and natal families. For girls, service generally provided a safe transition from girlhood to marriage in their early twenties.

Contracts. Service was governed by a contract that endured for a fixed period. Most servants would work for an employer for a year or two and then move to another household. Often service was taken up in the household of a relative of the family. Male and female servants were about equally in demand in towns, but women had fewer opportunities than men for service in the countryside.

Women’s Work. Female servants performed a variety of tasks for their employers. They helped to supervise the shop, ran errands, drew water, carried food, lit candles, and washed dishes. Some trades, especially in the mercantile, textile, and victualing industries, were more likely to employ female servants than heavy or highly skilled trades. In rural areas, female servants were hired to look after the animals, work in the dairy, shear sheep, care for poultry, and cut hay—all tasks considered to be women’s work. In both town and country, women servants also helped with child care, preparing the meals, marketing, and general housework.

Learning Valuable Skills. Service provided an opportunity to learn a great deal about household management, keeping records and accounts, and a variety of other life skills that benefited the child as he or she assumed adult responsibilities. Moreover, service allowed children to learn things their parents did not know, such as new crafts. Service also helped children to move to areas with greater opportunities, such as from countryside to city. Finally, since many tasks were age specific, employers benefited from having streams of servants of different ages cycling through their households and businesses.

Courtship. While they were in service, young women remained single, but they quite frequently began courtships at this point in their lives, often with other ser vants or apprentices. Because servants had considerable financial autonomy from their families, they also had some freedom of choice in selecting a spouse. Courtship usually began toward the end of a woman’s time in service, perhaps as late as her early twenties, and it was common for people to marry in their mid twenties. Once they had agreed to marry, the couple might exchange consent privately in the presence of friends and employers, rather than their natal families, who often lived too far away to be present. For many young women in service, however, the goal of an honorable marriage was unrealizable. In the High Middle Ages there was a general demographic imbalance between the sexes. Large numbers of men were in holy orders, and men of marriageable age were particularly vulnerable to death in wars. These factors, coupled with the economic exigencies of starting a new household, meant that many young women lived out their lives as spinsters.


Danièle Alexandre-Bidon and Didier Lett, Children in the Middle Ages: Fifth-Fifteenth Centuries, translated by Jody Gladding (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).

Jeremy Goldberg, “Girls Growing Up in Later Medieval England,” History Today, 45 (June 1995): 25-32.

Barbara A. Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Shulamith Shahar, Childhood in the Middle Ages (London & New York: Routledge, 1990).