In all but the poorest medieval households, it would not be surprising to find a servant of one variety or another. Service could mean part-time work, day labor, or working and living under the roof of an employer. The type of work that occupied a servant's time was no less variable: there were shop servants, craft assistants, laborers in agriculture and manufacturing, and, of course, household servants of every stripe.
Although some individuals took on the role of servant for life, service was frequently a temporary stage in the life of an adolescent. These years of labor, often spent in another family's home, gave teenagers the chance to save up some money, acquire skills, make social and business connections, and absorb a general understanding of the way society conducted itself, all in preparation for entry into that society as an adult.
A child might possibly enter service as young as age seven,1 but most employers sought older children to hire for their advanced skills and responsibility. It was far more common for children to take up positions as servants at age ten or twelve. The amount of work carried out by younger servants was necessarily limited; pre-adolescents are rarely if ever suited to heavy lifting or to tasks that require fine manual dexterity. An employer who took on a seven-year-old servant would expect the child to take some time learning his tasks, and he would probably start with very simple chores.
Employed in a household, boys might become grooms, valets, or porters, girls could be housemaids, nurses, or scullery maids, and children of either gender could work in the kitchens. With a little training young men and women might assist at skilled trades, including silkmaking, weaving, metalworking, brewing, or winemaking. In villages they could acquire skills involving clothmaking, milling, baking and blacksmithing as well as help in the fields or household.
By far, the majority of servants in town and countryside came from poorer families. The same network of friends, family and business associates that provided apprentices also yielded workers. And, much like apprentices, servants sometimes had to post bonds so that prospective employers might take them on, assuring their new bosses they would not leave before the agreed-upon term of service was up.
There were also servants of nobler origins, particularly those who served as valets, ladies' maids, and other confidential assistants in illustrious households. Such individuals might be temporary adolescent employees from the same class as their employers or long-term servants from the gentry or urban middle class. They might even have been educated at a University before taking up their posts. By the 15th century, several advice manuals for such esteemed servants were in circulation in London and other large towns,2 and not only noblemen but high city officials and wealthy merchants would seek to hire individuals who could perform delicate duties with tact and finesse.
It was not unusual for a servant's brothers and sisters to find work in the same household. When an older sibling moved on from service, his younger sibling might take his place, or perhaps they'd be employed simultaneously at different jobs. It was also not uncommon for servants to work for family members: for example, a childless man of prosperity in a town or city might employ his country-dwelling brother's or cousin's children. This might seem exploitative or high-handed, but it was also a way for a man to give his relatives economic assistance and a good start in life while still allowing them to keep their dignity and pride in accomplishment.
It was common procedure to draw up a service contract that would outline the terms of service, including payment, length of service, and living arrangements. Some servants saw little legal recourse if they encountered difficulty with their masters, and it was more common for them to suffer their lot or run away rather than turn to the courts for redress. Yet court records show this was not always the case: masters and servants both brought their conflicts to legal authorities for resolution on a regular basis.
Household servants almost always lived with their employers, and to deny housing after having promised it was considered a disgrace.3 Living together in such close quarters could result in terrible abuse or close bonds of loyalty. In fact, masters and servants of close rank and age were known to form lifelong bonds of friendship during the term of service. On the other hand, it was not unknown for masters to take advantage of their servants, particularly teenage girls in their employ.
The relationship of most teenage servants to their masters fell somewhere in between fear and adulation. They did the work that was asked of them, were fed, clothed, sheltered and paid, and during their free time sought out ways to relax and have fun.
Continued on Page Three: Recreation.
1. Hanawalt, Barbara, Growing Up in Medieval London (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 114.
2. Ibid, p. 179.
3. Ibid, p. 180.