Strangers at home? Towards a re-assessment of domestic servanthood in fifteenth-century Ghent
By Julie De Groot
Paper given at the N.W. Posthumus Conference 2011: Households as agents of change? at the University of Antwerp (2011)
Abstract: Late medieval urban society recognized adolescence as a transition period of formation and transformation, before full adulthood. During this time, young people could prepare themselves – and were prepared by others – to proceed to the next step in their life-cycle. This was also the case for youngsters in the late medieval cities of the county of Flanders. Many boys were enrolled in a craft guild, after paying an entrance fee, and became an apprentice for a couple of years under the supervision of a guild master. Girls, however, were often deprived of this network of formal apprenticeship. A period of (temporarily) household service outside the family home could have been a welcomed alternative. However, little agreement exists among historians about the didactical and practical value of domestic service. Many researchers support the widespread idea, that life-cycle servanthood was nothing more than the lowest occupation for young women, in a late medieval urban economy. But may we consider domestic service in late medieval Ghent only as a mere marginal employment sector? Or should it be reconsidered and rather be perceived as a period of further education, in which the relationship between servant girl and the family of employment was fundamental? Furthermore, are there any clues that could signal the existence of a certain family strategy towards domestic service?
In my paper, I would like to argue that the source material suggests that the marginalization hypothesis falls short in assessing the opportunities and motives of domestic servanthood in late medieval Flanders. The available evidence, on the contrary, is very suggestive in unveiling a domestic service that contributed to substantial (human) capital accumulation for the girls involved.