By Lucie Laumonier
The records from southern France can reveal much about domestic servants in the Middle Ages. What can they tell us about the relationship between these servants and their masters?
As established in the previous articles, women and children were the most likely to be hired as servants. Their employers were usually members of the urban elite or worked in liberal professions. Moreover, domestic service existed on a broad spectrum exemplified by the case of the Catalan merchant Guilhem Basquese. At his late fourteenth-century home lived three women whose experiences of service greatly diverged from one another: a well-paid wet nurse, a lower-status servant and an enslaved woman, who, deprived of freedom, was at the bottom of the labour chain.
Based on the analysis of 450 work contracts and over 1,000 wills, spanning the years c. 1300-1500 and produced in the city of Montpellier and its surrounding region, this article argues that the varying experiences of service and personal relations between masters and servants can be clearly seen by the room testators made for their employees in their wills, going from affection and gratefulness to complete indifference. Cases of mistreatment and violence are not informed in wills, but transpire from other types of sources.
Servants entering their masters’ houses became a part of their household, even if as inferior members. Those who may have considered the master’s house their home were the servants hired for several years, as in the case of children and teenagers, when a partial transfer of parental responsibilities occurred. A number of adults too remained in service for longer periods of time, to the point that their masters developed bonds of attachment towards them and transmitted to them bequests.
The Master’s House: A Home for the Servants?
The Montpellier 1204 charter of customs laid out the hierarchical relations established within the city’s households. Addressing men, article 66 explained that minor offences and crimes committed in the household (familia) were to be settled and punished by the householder. The familia included the wife, dependants, sons, nephews, apprentices and all its other male and female members. Women, who helmed 15% of the Montpellier fiscal households, exerted similar authority to men over their children and male and female employees.
Being disposable members of the household, servants were caught in webs of dependence, with the youngest and least qualified workers nearing the bottom of the domestic hierarchy. Regardless of their age and their employer’s profession, most servants shared the experience of being uprooted from their family and relocated to a stranger’s house, at least temporarily. In 1406, for instance, the Montpellier notary Guilhem de Manse hired Johannetta, the wife of a man named Bertrand Martin “to live with me, to serve me and my household.” Wet nurses, too, were married women and, we can assume, mothers. To undertake the lucrative contracts they were offered, they had to leave their husband and infant behind.
With the long-term placement of children and teenagers came a partial transfer of parental authority and responsibilities, enhanced by the duration of the contracts. Some parents and tutors may have feared potential abuses, requesting the drafting of a contract to have legal guarantees. The parental role that masters took is illustrated by their involvement in the endowment and betrothal of their young female servants, attested in wills, work contracts and marriage contracts.
The Marriage of Servant Girls
A clear signifier of the importance of the life-cycle service for girls, their endowment by masters emerges in one-third of the female servants’ work contracts. Masters would give the girls a dowry at the end of the contract in compensation for their work. Provisions concerning the employee’s marriage appeared primarily in the case of prolonged stays at a master’s house, suggesting the transfer of parental responsibilities was mainly effective when the young grew up in their master’s household.
In 1425, Johan Paparelli, a farmer from St. Étienne de Viol placed his three daughters with three different masters who would pay for their dowries. Catherina became the servant of Sperta, the wife of a Montpellier dyer. After six years of work and, once married, she would receive 12 livres tournois. Florencia was hired as the servant of Master Pierre Fabre, an arbalester of the city, under the same conditions. Their younger sister Astruga was placed with Peyroneta, a mercer, for eight years; her dowry would amount to 10 livres tournois. Probably less experienced and younger than her sisters, she would have to work for two more years and get a smaller dowry.
Marriage contracts confirm the involvement of masters in marrying off their female employees, a responsibility that traditionally fell on a girl’s relatives and tutors. But if the girl’s parents were alive, the dowry could be split between them and the employer. Marriage contracts indeed show that the master’s dowry could be complemented by the contributions of the girl’s parents and relatives. In 1425, Catherina, daughter of Stéphane de la Peyra, a miller from the diocese of Mende, married Johan Symon, a barber of Montpellier. Catherina got married with the consent of her father and domina Jacoba, the widow of a pastry maker and her mistress (magistra). Catherina’s dowry was paid in part by her father and in part by her mistress.
Bequests and Bonds
Wills tend to testify to good relations and even affection from masters towards their servants. But most contracts probably ended in indifference. The most neutral type of bequests, in terms of servant-master relations, corresponds to the payment of the servant’s salary, although these were the minority. Some contracts may have been terminated due to conflicts, but wills, by their very nature, do not testify to such instances. The majority of testators bequeathed to their former and current employees out of goodwill, maybe guided by a sense of charity. Some bequests to servants were made amore Dei (for the love of God) and corresponded to charitable donations reserved for the salvation of the testators’ souls. Such bequests, usually reserved for religious houses and the “poor of Christ,” testify to the low status of servants, associated with the broad mass of the poor.
Three-quarters of the Montpellier testators and nearly 60% of rural testators who bequeathed to their servants donated money. The second most frequent type of donation was pieces of clothing (25% of the donations, sometimes in addition to money). Female testators were much more likely than male testators to donate clothing to their servants who usually received clothes of “average” or “poor” quality. Better garments went to family members—daughters especially. A handful of testators transmitted furniture to their servants. In 1476, Béatrice, the widow of a peasant of Montpellier, donated to her servant Johanna a “garnished bed,” which was a bed equipped with sheets, pillows, blankets and quilts.
Taking a step further, some testators (6% in Montpellier, 13% in rural areas) bequeathed maintenance and upkeep to their servants. In his 1350 will, Johan de Salsano, a miles of Roque-Aynier, bequeathed to his servitor Bertrand food and clothes, for life, at his master’s expense. Similar prescriptions were found in later wills, also drafted by male testators. In 1447, Raymond Bosqui, an inhabitant of Mauguio, bequeathed “food and clothes” to Francis Possani from the village of Vic “in reward of his services when he served me.” Such bequests may have been directed toward older servants who had little chance to find employment because of their age.
Sometimes, male testators went so far as to transmit all their estates, minus a few bequests, to their female servants. The first man, a royal officer, made his servant Mahueta his universal heir, in reward for her services and her dedication. Mahueta also received household goods and clothes. It is possible the two had more than a working relationship; they could have been lovers but it might also be that Mahueta was simply the testator’s main human relation in town; or that she was an old woman who would have problems finding new employment after her master’s death. Wills rarely yield enough details to decipher the nature of such relationships.
Overall, testamentary bequests depict service in a positive light, at least from the employers’ standpoint, apparently satisfied by the services they had received. But other documents shed light on the violence servants could become submitted to by their masters. If all were at risk of abuse, girl and women servants were sometimes sexually abused. The bill of sale of an enslaved woman for instance suggests that she might have been assaulted by her master or by other men.
In 1425, Johan de Berna, a money changer of Montpellier, sold Margarita, age 18, to the merchant Johan Le Bon. But maybe because the buyer had some doubts about the current state of the young woman, a clause was added to the contract. If Margarita was pregnant and gave birth in the month following the purchase, the seller would have to take her and the baby back and fully reimburse his client. Margarita may have become pregnant while she was the property of Berna, either by Berna’s fault or that of another man. Given her status, her consent did not matter to the baby’s father.
Usually, evidence of conflictual relationships between masters and employees appears in notarial records under the form of “amicable arbitration” or settlements, a type of source I have not yet researched. But many historians have confirmed that master-servant relations could sometimes take a bitter turn.
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: Photo by Helen Simonsson / Wikimedia Commons