Who worked as servants in the Middle Ages?
Posted in Medievalists.net
October 9, 2022

Who worked as servants in the Middle Ages?

By Lucie Laumonier

A look at the women, men and children who worked as domestic servants in medieval southern France, based on hundreds of records from in and around the city of Montpellier.

Service had blurry boundaries in the Middle Ages. Back then, all employees promised to serve their employer and most of them lived in their master’s house. Domestic service, defined as the undertaking of household/domestic-related chores in a household, is the focus of this article. We’ll look at the late medieval diocese of Maguelone in Languedoc, southern France, of which Montpellier was the main city. We can learn much about domestic workers by analyzing 1200 wills and 450 work contracts from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As we shall see, in the diocese’s sources, feminine domesticity is relatively easy to identify through the use of well-defined occupational titles. But masculine instances of domestic service are more elusive.

The Sources

Wills and work contracts yield a wealth of information on domestic servants and on their identity. These sources, however, are biased. The only servants mentioned in wills were the ones who mattered enough for their employer, or who needed to be paid. Work contracts, on the other hand, were overwhelmingly drafted for foreigners to Montpellier, for orphans, and for individuals labouring outside of their fathers’ trades.

In the diocese of Maguelone, the custom of drafting a written work contract was profoundly urban. Out of the work contracts compiled for the present research, 97% had been written for Montpellier employers. In rural towns and villages the workforce was mainly contracted orally. In the (urban) work contract corpus, domestic service represented 11.5% of the documents identified. But, even in the large city of Montpellier, which counted over 30,000 inhabitants before the Black Death, a large number of employees were contracted orally. How many is unknown.

Verbal contracts were especially common among individuals who knew each other or who belonged to the same networks. Thus, the drafting of a written contract mainly concerned individuals who did not know each other, and who were seeking official warrantors to guarantee the terms of the contract.

The Montpellier servants who appeared in work contracts fit within these parameters. One-fourth of them had lost at least one of their parents, a ratio comparable to the rest of the workforce. About 80% of the servants were immigrants to Montpellier, against an average of 62.5% of workers. Migrants from the diocese of Maguelone only made up 20% of the broad immigrant group and of the group of servant immigrants. The relatively low number of “local” migrants suggests many were hired verbally, as were many Montpellier natives.

Enslaved Women, Free Female Servants and Wetnurses

In work contracts, women were underrepresented compared to men and compared to their actual involvement in the workforce. In contrast, women and girls were overrepresented as servants. But service was not the only professional outcome for women. Until the 1450s, sources show girls entering various types of apprenticeships and women labouring in a large number of trades.

The vocabulary used by notaries when drafting contracts for women was usually distinctive of each type of agreement, whether apprenticeship, artisanal work or service. Notaries designated female servants through a handful of epithets, such as ancilla, pediceca and (rarely) servitrix. These three terms are usually translated as maidservant or handmaid. Ancilla was the most widely used to designate female domestic servants. Unlike in England, where the ancilla was usually a girl or a teenager, the ancillae of Languedoc were also married women and widows.

In Tuscany, married women and widows made up 56% of the female servants found in ricordanze books. In Marseille, they may have accounted for half of the servants. But in Montpellier, married women and widows only represented one-quarter of the servants hired with a written work contract; and only 16% if taking out of the equation the wet nurses, who were usually married. The scarcity of contracts involving married and widowed servants, compared to their mentions in wills, suggests that a good number of them were hired informally.

Wet nurse in a 13th-century manuscript – British Library MS Sloane 2435 fol. 28v

Sources inform on other types of domestic service as well. Wet nurses were the only servants whose tasks were laid out in work contracts. All nurses with written contracts were hired to breastfeed their master’s infant at their master’s home. These wet nurses earned twice the salary of ancillae hired at a comparable date and for a similar duration. As in Florence or Marseille, wet nurses were at the height of the hierarchy of female service workers.

Enslaved individuals, unpaid and deprived of freedom, were at the other end of the service hierarchy. In Montpellier, the market for enslaved individuals, overwhelmingly female, may have peaked in the early fifteenth century. Enslaved women were then primarily purchased to become domestic workers, but could sometimes be called to work as wet nurses. These women only represented 3.5% of the testamentary female servants, but the overall prevalence of slavery in Montpellier and its region is difficult to assess.

In the sources of the diocese, therefore, a specialized terminology existed to designate female domestic service. Arguably, women hired to do domestic work may also have laboured in the workshop or in the fields, while those hired to serve in the workshop may have done household chores. But if domestic service emerges as a relatively defined category of employment for women, it was not the case for most male employees.

The Elusive Male Servants

The vocabulary attached to masculine service is more elusive, with no evident difference between domestic and ‘professional’ service. Work contracts did not always include a job title for the employees and, when they did, the absence of a clear translation of certain titles, coupled with the lack of job description, makes the identification of male servants ambiguous.

A telling example of these issues comes from the equivocal title famulus, which, in Montpellier, evoked a master/employee relationship and was not an occupational title per se. The famulus was the male employee to whom testators bequeathed the most frequently. But the noun seldom appeared in work contracts before the mid-fifteenth century (much later than in Marseille), and it usually designated a subaltern worker in artisanal trades. The title famulus encompassed all types of services, from professional work to domestic chores. Servitor exhibits nearly as much ubiquity.

Male servants preparing a meal – British Library MS Additional 42130 fol. 207v

The reason for these ambiguities might be that few men, compared to women, were hired primarily as domestic servants. But employees hired to perform workshop-related tasks and apprentices may have undertaken domestic work when prompted to, especially when they resided with their master—which was the case for the vast majority of the hires. The unclear realm of masculine service in notarial sources connects, I contend, to a stronger upfront association of women and children with domestic work.

While some men hired as famulus or servitor may have worked in the house as domestic servants, they may not have been specifically hired for that purpose. The result is that in the diocese’s wills and work contracts, women and children made up most domestic servants that can be identified with a sufficient degree of certainty.

Children in service

The concept of “life-cycle service”, used to qualify the so-called Northern European marriage pattern—a few years of service during adolescence and early adulthood to earn money, followed by a later age at marriage—has proven useful in medieval studies to designate the custom of placing children and teenagers in service outside of the family home. In Montpellier, as it was customary in the rest of Europe, service usually started when youths reached ages 12 to 14, with gendered, geographical and chronological variances.

Younger children were also sent away as servants and young workers. In 1433, Simon Rucheri from the diocese of St. Flour entrusted his seven-year-old daughter Catherine to Pierre Cassani, a draper of Montpellier, “to live in his house and to serve him.” The year before, Pierre Solvard, from the diocese of Amiens, had placed his son Anthony, 10 years old, as the servant of Bernard Carceris, a cleric and university student. Service probably typified the placement of young boys and girls, even if they were contracted as apprentices. When Ysabella, 4 years old and orphaned, was placed by her second cousin as the “apprentice” of a silk worker, we can assume that she would not immediately learn the delicate art of silk weaving.

The gendered connotation of domestic service became evident once servants had reached puberty. Contracts show a relatively equal number of boys (5) and girls (7) placed in service during childhood. But servants assumed to be hired in their teens were predominantly girls (15) and rarely boys (3). The lack of male teenagers in the servant corpus probably connects to a conflation, in their case, of service with apprenticeship. But the very nature of apprenticeship contracts placed, theoretically, the employee in the workshop, rather than in the home. The young ancillae, unlike their male apprentice counterparts, were primarily hired to work in domestic settings.

In the diocese of Maguelone, domestic service emerges as a specific category of employment for children and, especially, for women. A particular and consistent terminology existed to designate female service, with much less ambiguity than in the case of male teenagers and adults. Until the 1450s, traces of female employment, as apprentices and salaried workers coexisted with service contracts. But in the second half of the fifteenth century, the only work contracts drafted for female workers pertained to domestic service. Finally, a large but unmeasurable number of domestic workers remain in the shadows of history, either because they did not draft a work contract, or because their masters were too indifferent to include them in their will.

Lucie Laumonier is an Affiliate assistant professor at Concordia University. Click here to view her Academia.edu page or follow her on Instagram at The French Medievalist.

Click here to read more from Lucie Laumonier

Further Reading:

This article is the first of the three-part based on my research that is further detailed in “Domestic Service in Late Medieval Languedoc: The Household and the Family,” published in ‘We Are All Servants,’ The Diversity of Service in Premodern Europe (1000-1700), edited by Isabelle Cochelin and Diane Wolthal, Toronto, Centre for Renaissance and Reformation Studies, 2022, p. 317-348.

Other important works include:

Cordelia Beattie, Anna Maslakovic, and Sarah Rees Jones, eds. The Medieval Household in Christian Europe, c. 850-c. 1550: Managing Power, Wealth, and the Body. Turnhout: Brepols, 2003.

Jeremy P. Goldberg and Maryanne Kowaleski, eds. Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household in Medieval England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Francine Michaud, Earning Dignity: Labour Conditions and Relations during the Century of the Black Death in Marseille, Turnhout, Brepols, 2016.

Top Image: British Library MS Yates Thompson 13   fol. 61v 

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