Household Servants in Early Modern England

September 2, 2010

In this new survey of well mapped if politically contentious terrain, R.C. Richardson sets out fresh and important queries. Why has the history of household service recently become fashionable via the arts and the media? Why do tours of English great houses now "parade rather than conceal" evidence concerning the servants who staffed them? For Richardson, this is "one obvious expression of the democratisation of history".

There is tension inherent in reading Richardson's discussion, however. He describes "the often ornamental, self-preening upper servants of elite households" alongside "greasy cook-maids". His terms of analysis (which themselves call for analysis) include "the servant-keeping habit" and the servant's "calling". These are linguistic holdovers from an early modern literature of service that imagined, and longed for, a stable social order in which good patriarchal governance was never threatened.

But Richardson also names household service as a variety of contract work for labouring people (especially women), a crucial support not just of households in early modern England but of capitalism more broadly. If maidservants "were sexually vulnerable playthings of their masters, masters' sons, lodgers, menservants and apprentices", it is equally the case that domestics' deployment of stories about their employers' sexual habits was a measure of servants' own agency. As Richardson notes, for economically impoverished servants, gossip was a critically important currency of exchange. The tension between these contrasting ideas makes for fascinating, and very relevant, cultural enquiry.

In most respects, this volume is not a strong change-over-time analysis, and perhaps it couldn't be. Service as both an idea and an institution in the early modern period was a kaleidoscopic landscape and remains so for those of us who investigate it. In any event, the book's organisation does not facilitate a linear discussion of change, because Richardson treats his subject thematically rather than chronologically. He does chart one strong path of evolutionary development, however, if imprecisely. The emergence of individualism not only influenced servants' sense of their personal and political rights, it also inflected employers' understanding of their relationship with their household employees.

The book's most compelling sections are Richardson's review of literary scholarship on servants in Shakespeare's plays, his textual analysis of a range of printed early modern works on service, and his discussion of servants' experiences during the English Revolution. In passages here, his close reading of historiography and printed primary source material is vibrant.

Richardson is keenly sensitive to images of restraint that appear in period literature. He notes that servants' "most personally controlled 'space' ... was their own lockable box containing their personal possessions". Remaining valuables "were constantly carried about in pockets and pouches". This is a significant indicator of both servants' poverty and their mobility. But Richardson can also be uncritically accepting of what he calls the commonplaces of earlier historiography, including the observation that "sometimes maidservants slept at the foot of their master's and mistress's bed". This image has had great longevity and it is overused: the faintly salacious conceit of an earlier generation of historians who found submission rather than independence in their source material. It may be time to, well, put it to bed.

His pithiest discussion is wedged into the back of the volume. Here he locates patterns in household service that offer a crucial new avenue of enquiry: servants were "agents of cultural change in the early modern period". This is a provocative idea. It inspires new approaches to understanding archival sources and encourages us to mine the recent scholarship to which this survey points.

Household Servants in Early Modern England

By R.C. Richardson. Manchester University Press 2pp, £65.00 and £17.99. ISBN 9780719068942 and 68959. Published 1 May 2010

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