By Lucie Laumonier
I have recently written about how in medieval Montpellier that most domestic workers were women and children. Men were usually hired to do artisanal or agricultural work, although the fact that they resided with their employer blurred the boundaries of their work assignments. Here, the focus shifts away from the employees to the employers and the conditions of the employment. Who employed domestic servants? And under what terms?
Based on my analysis of 450 work contracts and over 1,200 wills spanning c. 1300-1500 this article investigates the processes leading to the hiring of domestic workers in the diocese of Maguelone, located in southern France. The diocese’s metropolis was Montpellier, founded at the end of the tenth century. Before Black Death, the city counted more than 30,000 inhabitants. Montpellier was a commercial city whose mercantile elite exerted strong control over the city’s administration. The diocese’s backcountry and coastal region were a mishmash of small and medium-sized communities, mainly populated by fishermen on the coasts, and farmers in the plains.
Wills and work contracts yield different portraits of rural and urban servants’ employers. Work contracts tells us about those who hired servants through written documents. Wills reflect the identity of those who cared enough or who had enough resources to bequeath something to their servants. As we shall see, the nobility, the mercantile elite and “liberal” professionals were the most common employers of servants in work contracts.
Women living in Montpellier were the most likely to leave a bequest to a servant, at a rate of 13.5% of their wills. Men of Montpellier came second: 8.5% of them included a servant in their wills. In rural areas, few male and female testators left a bequest to a servant (5%). Women, rural and urban alike, tended to bequeath almost exclusively to female servants, an illustration of the strength of feminine networks of support. Men bequeathed to male servants at higher rates, while, like in Marseille, they still gave precedence to their female servants.
In Montpellier and in rural areas, nearly one-quarter of elite wills (noble individuals and the mercantile elite) included a bequest to a servant. The elite’s financial means, larger households, and recourse to wet nurses explain their role both as servant’s employers and as benefactors. After the social elite came academics, royal officers and individuals working in liberal professions, such as jurists and physicians. In the city, about 15% of their wills included a bequest to a servant; the ratio climbed to nearly 19% in rural wills. These masters hired servants through work contracts at a much higher rate than any other type of employee: almost 40% of the workers they contracted were domestic servants.
Some wealthy employers had several servants at once. For example, Béatrice, the widow of a money changer, bequeathed money to four former and current female servants in her 1478 will. However, this was a minority, as most had only one servant in their household—not counting apprentices and workers.
Most adult servants appeared to have hired themselves out for a short period, one year on average. This suggests, in theory, a rapid turnover in the masters’ households. A close look at sources, or the lack thereof, lends nuance to this theory. Contracts, indeed, may have been renewed orally. Servant turnover is best illustrated with the case of Guilhem Basquese, a Catalan merchant and pepperer who lived in Montpellier in the late fourteenth century.
Between c. 1385 and c. 1400, Basquese contracted nine employees (including two servants) and purchased an enslaved woman. Basquese acquired his domestic workers following the assumed death of his first wife, maybe from complications in childbirth. In March 1387, Basquese hired a wet nurse for his baby daughter. The contract was drafted for one year, but opened the possibility of extending the terms of the employment. In June of that same year, he purchased Catherina, a Turkish enslaved woman. The extra pair of hands became highly valuable the following spring of 1388 when Basquese was remarried to a widow who had no less than four boys.
One year later, in 1389, Basquese hired an ancilla (handmaid) for 12 months. If Catherina the slave was still in the picture, she and the ancilla kept busy with household chores and the family’s five children. After the handmaid contract ended, Basquese did not seem to have hired any other female domestic servants. Maybe the merchant renewed the servant’s contract informally. Basquese’s house still counted external members. Towards the end of the notarial record in 1400, seven salaried male workers and apprentices were hired, one after the other, to assist him in his business ventures, some of whom stayed at the family house.
But the impression of a rapid turnover is nuanced from evidence showing that some one-year contracts were prolonged orally—as the wetnurse’s contract suggests. Indeed, work contracts were mostly drawn between persons of little earlier contact. Therefore, once the “trial” period of one year had ended and once employers and employees were better acquainted with each other, they may have renewed the contract verbally. Short-term contracts may have been a way to test the waters from the employers’ and employees’ standpoint.
The sole long-term employees hired through written contracts in the diocese were children and adolescents whether to become servants or apprentices. Usually, but not systemically, the younger the employee was, the longer the contract. The young Pierre Boniole, age 5, was “leased” by his widowed mother as the servant of a fishmonger, for eight years. But even when contracts were planned for several years of service, retaining employees could be a pressing issue at times of labour shortages. Providing decent work conditions—and even wages—was instrumental in keeping the workers in service.
Remuneration and the conditions of employment
Socially and economically vulnerable individuals were the cheapest workforce. The status of the workers indeed impacted their earnings, or the lack thereof. Unpaid service, for instance, often typified child work. Employees only received money if the work they could perform exceeded the cost of their maintenance. However, the unpaid servants received food and board, clothes and sometimes shoes, expensive commodities for the humblest families. Some unpaid contracts testified to the poverty of the children’s families who had to send them away. In other cases, parents may have hoped to see their child be trained in a trade.
In October 1409, for instance, Johan Hugonis, a ploughman from the diocese of Toul, placed his son Anthony as the servant of Jacques Guilhem, a bachelor of law in Montpellier. Anthony’s master would only provide for his keep without additional compensation. Anthony’s father, Johan, had just secured employment with Peyre Biteri, a merchant of Montpellier, as a ploughman. Johan would receive a good salary of 11 livres and 10 sous per year, on top of food, clothes and board. To undertake his contract, Johan may have needed to put his son aside, at least temporarily.
The placement of children and teenagers also responded to the issue of finding a home for orphaned. Françoise Michaud-Fréjaville nicknames the riddance of orphans to masters “apprenticeship parking.” Four-year-old Ysabella, for instance, was entrusted by her second cousin to a master of Montpellier for 12 years. Another contract features a young boy, age 9, placed by his adult half-brother in the care of a Montpellier tailor as a servant and apprentice for 10 years, with no financial compensation but his keep.
The most peculiar feature of unpaid service work in Montpellier pertains to the gender of the servants. In fourteenth-century Marseille, two-thirds of the servant girls and teens received no financial compensation for their work. But in fourteenth and fifteenth-century Montpellier, 70% of the girl servants were compensated for their work, either through standard earnings or through the payment of a dowry. In contrast, only one out of a total of eight servant boys placed with Montpellier masters were paid for their work.
The variance in treatment between servant girls and servant boys denotes a fundamental difference in the gendered significance of service. In the case of boys, service seems to have been more of a form of “free” placement (a “service parking”), which would hopefully lead to future opportunities. For girls and female teenagers, service work may have been construed as proper employment and a preliminary step to marriage—a type of work that needed to be compensated. This hypothesis reinforces the impression, in the notarial documents of the diocese, that domestic service represented a proper category of work for women of all ages.
Servants entering their masters’ houses became a part of their household, even if as low-ranking 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. But servants—and workers—remained caught in a web of dependence echoing their lower status. Indeed, all medieval forms of work were by nature service. That fluidity was part of how work was structured.
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 Additional 27210 fol. 15