1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

Servants in an early 17th century household

Discussion in 'Research' started by tiggywinke, Feb 12, 2016.

  1. tiggywinke

    tiggywinke Dreamer

    12
    1
    3
    Hi--I can find a certain amount of information about medieval households, and also 18th century households, but little about the transitional period in between. Does anyone know of any resources on this subject? I'm particularly interested in aristocratic households, and knowing which sort of servant did which job. I know that handbooks by noblemen giving directions to their servants exist, but I'm having trouble finding them.

    Also--who handled a wealthy aristocrat's finances? I'm aware that at the time, it was considered beneath a gentleman's dignity to handle money. Who did it for him?
     
  2. thecoldembrace

    thecoldembrace Sage

    266
    128
    43
    What culture are you looking for? I am assuming Western European?
     
  3. tiggywinke

    tiggywinke Dreamer

    12
    1
    3
    Yes--how Eurocentric of me not to have said. Ideally England, but I'll take anywhere in Europe.
     
  4. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    4,025
    1,231
    163
    If it is Anglo-centric, then early in the 17C and you can look at Shakespearian sources for how households work.
    Then in to Stuart and English Civil War sources.
    Later on and you can look to early American Settler sources too [Plymouth Rock and all that].
     
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    5,497
    3,496
    313
    There is a metric ton of stuff on this topic. I just did a search on "17th century servants" and this
    references
    was the first hit, which provided far more than both of us together would care to read.
     
  6. tiggywinke

    tiggywinke Dreamer

    12
    1
    3
    There are certainly a lot of books on early modern daily life out there, but most are of the kind that tells about the rise and fall of social movements and the like, which is not what I need. I need the answer to questions like: If you walked up to an early 17th century London townhouse owned by a wealthy member of the lower gentry, who would answer the door? Who was it who paid tradesmen? Who would you spot wandering the halls, wearing what? That sort of thing.

    I did find this, which is a 16th century instructional manual for servants in the country house of an English viscount, and this site, which has details about domestic life in a late-17th century upper-middle-class London townhouse. I've been taking these two sources and sort of breeding them together, although my confidence in historical accuracy is not high. The period I'm talking about saw big changes in the makeup of households, and taking material from a century before or 50 years after doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense.
     
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    5,497
    3,496
    313
    Big changes? Of what sort. This falls right in my bailiwick, so I'm curious as to the basis for the assertion.

    Anyway, our sources for the 17thc are better than for the Middle Ages, but they are still very much hit-and-miss. You found Pepys, and the instructional manual is another good find. If you were writing a dissertation I'd say to keep searching, but for fantasy fiction, why is more needed? Especially given the extremely narrow parameters you give (wealthy member of lower gentry who has a house in London). The questions you ask are not the sort of thing that found its way into the historical record.
     
  8. tiggywinke

    tiggywinke Dreamer

    12
    1
    3
    Fair enough. I suppose it was foolish to hope for more. :p Since you're familiar with the period, who would you have answer the London townhouse door of the wealthy daughter of a knight? At the moment, I have it as a footman.

    And as for the 17th century being a time of change in the English household, I'm really thinking of two things. First, the late 16th/early 17th century shift away from conspicuous consumption in the form of having massive retinues of servants. Wealthy people in the latter 17th century certainly had plenty of help on hand, but it was no longer fashionable to have as many liveried men around as could possibly be managed. I'm also thinking of the increasing separation of the household into master and servant components. I don't believe that servants generally had their own quarters in the period I'm researching, but the change was coming.
     
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    5,497
    3,496
    313
    Hm. Once again I'm curious about this shift you describe. Sources? Restoration England is sort of famous for flagrant displays of wealth (the Merry Monarch and all that). Livery was indeed an issue but that's a rather different topic.

    A footman is just about the right choice, though I'd argue it applies to the 16th right into the 19thc (I'm still not seeing that dramatic shift). The butler would greet but the footman would do the heavy lifting <grin> of opening and closing doors. I also don't see any differentiation between the household of a wealthy merchant or a wealthy nobleman. Nor city versus country (the big differences there would be outside the house rather than inside).

    If servants did not have their own rooms, where did they stay?
     
  10. tiggywinke

    tiggywinke Dreamer

    12
    1
    3
    I'm glad that a footman seems plausible. I was just worried about whether footmen had really made the transition from being outdoorsy sorts of servants who ran before the master's coach knocking people out of the way to being indoor fixtures with polite manners. (You don't want a rude fellow with horse manure on his shoes answering your nice townhouse door.) The time period is mid-1630's, incidentally.

    I know the chances of someone with a PhD. in 17th century servantology ever reading my manuscript is minuscule, and I wouldn't really care, except that I think that even lay readers can tell if you've gotten your details just right.

    Also, my main source for the information about a shift away from medieval swarms of gentlemen retainers to a more stripped-down early modern household is "The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641" by Lawrence Stone. I believe that some of the shift came due to pressure from the monarchs of the period, who were very interested in centralizing power in their own hands. They were unnerved by the idea of masses of armed retainers who were loyal to their own lords first and foremost. There were other factors that went into the change, but that's the key one I remember.

    As to where servants of the time slept, they tended to sleep where they worked--in the kitchen, in the master's or mistress's bedroom, wherever. Lucky ones had pallets or trundle beds that were pulled out at night. Unlucky ones just rolled themselves up in a cloak or an old blanket. Lots of sources attest to this--here are a few I found online:

    Origins of Servants' Quarters
    Going to bed in medieval times
    The master/servant relationship in the 17th century

    There's also the fact that if you look at the floor plans of period buildings, there just aren't any demarcated servants' quarters before the end of the 17th century. Here are some floor plans of castles if you're interested.
     
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    5,497
    3,496
    313
    > I was just worried about whether footmen had really made the transition from being outdoorsy sorts of servants who ran before the master's coach knocking people out of the way to being indoor fixtures with polite manners.

    They did.

    Stone is a classic, but he's also about what, forty years ago? When I was in school he was all the thing, but all historians get revised. You are dead on about the retainers. That's the livery thing we were both obliquely referencing. But those retainers (the phrase was "livery and maintenance") were really not much more than gangs of thugs, which got rather out of control during the unrest of the mid-century. Chuck2 and Jim2 were very concerned to cut back on that.

    But that's a different sort of thing than the matter of in-house servants, who weren't a danger to anyone much beyond the front porch.

    You're hitting good sources. Be confident, go forward and spin it as you like.

    As for the quarters, that's interesting. News to me. I submit the floor plans of castles are not relevant as they are not town houses. But your first source says this: "By the late 17th century, the idea of giving servants their own designated areas had been adopted not only in the houses of the aristocracy, as at Coleshill, but also in those of the gentry such as Belton House." The second one doesn't carry much weight--no sources cited and the line about "sleep tight" smells fishy to me.

    Anyway, I say again, you are in the ballpark. If I'm reading your best-seller <grin> and you have a footman answer the door, I'm probably not going to blink. The somewhat knowledgeable might, for they might indeed think carriages. You could probably also get away with butler. Cook's choice.
     
Loading...

Share This Page