2/8/10 - maidservants

In today's excerpt - the maidservant:

"The life of a maidservant in early modern England was one fraught with perils with young girls often prey to the advances of their masters. In 1693 the London newspaper The Athenian Mercury carried the story of a manservant who with his employer's active encouragement married a maidservant in the same household, only to discover that she was already pregnant with the master's child. The employer said he was grateful to have 'such cracked ware [taken] off his hands' and gave financial compensation to the couple. Most maids made pregnant by their employers were not so fortunate.

"Servant-keeping was a ubiquitous and defining feature of society in the 16th to 18th centuries -- around 60 to 70 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds, the majority of them female, were employed in domestic service, even in poor households as pauper servants. Most of them lived, worked and slept in close proximity to their employers, sometimes in the same room. Privacy, even in great houses with features such as corridors and backstairs, was often impossible to achieve. Poverty was an endemic aspect of life in service. There were many like the 'poor maid' in a 1567 Canterbury court case who possessed 'nothing but her personal apparel and 16 shillings a year wages and no other goods.'

"Maidservants, therefore, were often precariously positioned both physically and economically. This made them sexually vulnerable to the whims of their masters and other men of the house as well as to lodgers, guests, manservants, and apprentices. Some would-be maidservants newly arrived in London were procured by pimps or by patrons of disreputable labor exchanges almost as soon as they set foot in the capital.

"There were maidservants too who exploited their sexuality to gain advantage. An early 17th-century Somerset maid giving evidence in a court case unwittingly revealed she was flattered when she attracted the advances of her employer and 'did not tell her dame because her master promised her new clothes.' Much later, in the following century, Jonathan Swift, in his satirical Advice to Servants (Dublin 1745) advised housemaids on how to strike the best bargain when their sexual favors were solicited by their masters. At all costs, Swift urged, the eldest son of the house should be avoided 'since you will get nothing from him but a big belly or a clap and probably both together.' In 1763, Mary Brown, a maidservant in Glamorganshire, was still blackmailing Dr Morgan, her former employer who had fathered her illegitimate child six or seven years previously.

"Church court records are filled with cases involving illicit sexual relations between master and servant. At the beginning of the 17th century, Edward Glascocke from Enfield, Middlesex, found himself in court since he had been discovered in bed with his maidservant as well as his wife. In the same period, church wardens in Stoke St. Mary, Somerset were scandalized by disclosures of an employer's open preference for his maidservant over his wife. When they went to work in the fields the maid rode on horseback while the humbled wife was made to walk. The master and maidservant slept in the same bedroom while the mistress of the house was consigned to another. In Glamorganshire in 1763 the death of a master produced revelations about his 'vile life' in keeping a maidservant as his concubine 'to the great disturbance of his house and to the great grief and vexation of his loving wife.' A London moralist, J. Moir, warned parents in 1787:

'You had better turn your daughter into the street at once than place her out to service. For ten to one her master shall seduce her or she shall be made the confidante of her mistress's intrigues.' 

"Masters would often consider it their right to molest their maids. It was made clear to a London maidservant in 1605 that providing sexual favors to the master on demand was simply part of her job. She was told:

'Thou art my servant and I may do with thee as I please.' "


R.C. Richardson


A Maidservant's Lot in Early Modern England


History Today


Volume: 60, Issue: 2


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment