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The variety of women's experiences as servants in England (1548–1649): evidence from church court depositions

  • Charmian Mansell (a1)

This article demonstrates, using evidence from church court depositions, that women's experience of service in early modern England was more varied than scholarship suggests. Moving beyond its conception as a life-cycle annual occupation, the article situates service within individual life-stories. It argues firstly, that service extended across the whole of women's working lives and secondly, that employment arrangements took a wide range of forms. Service for women is shown to have been flexible, varied and contingent, employing a diversity of individuals under a variety of different employment agreements.

Analysant les dépositions faites par les servantes dans le cadre des tribunaux de l’église anglicane, l'auteur démontre qu’à l’époque moderne les femmes engagées dans le service domestique ont pu connaître des expériences de type beaucoup plus variées que ne le laissait supposer l'historiographie du sujet à ce jour. Au-delà du modèle de service sous contrat annuel, correspondant à une vie de jeune fille, des histoires de vie sont présentées. Il apparaît d'une part que servir pouvait fort bien intervenir à différentes étapes de la vie active des femmes et que, d'autre part, les modalités d'emploi revêtaient de multiples formes. Le travail de servante se révèle ici flexible, varié et conjoncturel, mettant en jeu diverses personnes, engagées dans le cadre de différents contrats de travail.

Auf der Grundlage von Kirchengerichtsakten zeigt dieser Beitrag, dass die Erfahrungen von Frauen als Dienstboten unterschiedlicher waren als es die Forschung unterstellt. Der Beitrag geht über die herkömmliche Vorstellung, es handele sich hierbei um eine lebenszyklisch begrenzte Jahresbeschäftigung, hinaus und verortet den Dienst innerhalb individueller Lebensgeschichten. Die These lautet, dass sich der Dienst erstens über das gesamte Arbeitsleben von Frauen erstreckte und zweitens die konkreten Beschäftigungsformen höchst unterschiedlich ausgeprägt waren. Dienstverhältnisse für Frauen waren flexibel, vielfältig und kontingent, und sie banden eine Vielzahl von Personen in ganz unterschiedliche Beschäftigungsformen ein.

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1 Laslett, Peter, Family life and illicit love in earlier generations: essays in historical sociology (Cambridge, 1977), 34; Kussmaul, Ann, Servants in husbandry in early modern England (Cambridge, 1981), 3.

2 Laslett, Family life and illicit love, 34.

3 Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 304, 71.

4 See De Moor, Tine and Van Zanden, Jan Luiten, ‘Girl power: the European marriage pattern and labour markets in the North Sea region in the late medieval and early modern period’, Economic History Review 63, 1 (2010), 133; Prytz, Cristina, ‘Life-cycle servant and servant for life: work and prospects in rural Sweden, c. 1670–1730’, in Whittle, J. ed., Servants in Rural Europe: 1400–1900 (Boydell, 2017), 95112; Sarti, Raffaella, ‘“The purgatory of servants”: (in)subordination, wages, gender and marital status of servants in England and Italy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’, Journal of Early Modern Studies 4 (2015), 347–72.

5 Laslett, Family life and illicit love, 34; Hajnal, John, ‘European marriage patterns in perspective’, in Glass, D. V. and Eversley, D. E. C. eds., Population in history: essays in historical demography (London, 1965), 135; Hajnal, John, ‘Two kinds of preindustrial household formation system’, Population and Development Review 8, 3 (1982), 449–94.

6 Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 3–4, 71.

7 ‘The Statute of Artificers (1563)’, in Tawney, R. H. and Power, Eileen eds., Tudor economic documents: being select documents illustrating the economic and social history of Tudor England (London, 1951), 340.

8 See, for example, Whittle, Jane, The development of agrarian capitalism: land and labour in Norfolk, 1440–1580 (Oxford, 2000), 281; Griffiths, Paul, Youth and authority: formative experiences in England, 1560–1640 (Oxford, 1996), 382–4; Wales, Tim, ‘“Living at their own hands”: policing poor households and the young in early modern rural England’, Agricultural History Review 61, 1 (2013), 1939.

9 Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 133.

10 Humphries, Jane and Weisdorf, Jacob, ‘The wages of women in England, 1260–1850’, Journal of Economic History 75, 2 (2015), 405–47, here 407.

11 Illegitimate pregnancy, caused by the advances or abuses of a licentious employer and the dynamics of patriarchal household order, has been at the forefront of this scholarship. For example, see Gowing, Laura, ‘Secret births and infanticide in seventeenth-century England’, Past & Present 156 (1997), 87–15, here 87–115; Capp, Bernard, When gossips meet: women, family, and neighbourhood in early modern England (Oxford, 2003), ch. 4; Meldrum, Tim, Domestic service and gender, 1660–1750: life and work in the London household (Harlow, 2000).

12 See Capp, When gossips meet; Meldrum, Domestic service and gender.

13 For Laslett's analysis of six parish registers between 1599 and 1796, and for Clayworth and Cogenhoe in particular, see Laslett, Family life and illicit love, 34, 50–101. Marjorie McIntosh and Ann Kussmaul have also used similar data. See Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 70–2; McIntosh, Marjorie K., A community transformed: the manor and liberty of Havering, 1500–1620 (Cambridge, 1991), 53–4.

14 Cooper, Sheila McIsaac, ‘Service to servitude? The decline and demise of life-cycle service in England’, The History of the Family 10, 4 (2005), 367–86; Mayhew, Graham, ‘Life-cycle service and the family unit in early modern Rye’, Continuity and Change 6, 2 (1991), 201–26.

15 William West, The second part of symboleography (1604), sect. 70, 94v; Whittle, Development of agrarian capitalism, 261.

16 For a selection of the most celebrated studies that use church court records, see Gowing, Laura, Domestic dangers: women, words and sex in early modern London (Oxford, 1996); Ingram, Martin, Church courts, sex and marriage in England, 1570–1640 (Cambridge, 1988); Capp, When gossips meet; Amussen, Susan Dwyer, An ordered society: gender and class in early modern England (New York, 1993).

17 The availability of sources bookends the period studied here. From the 1530s, the layout, form and structure of depositions became more regular. Around 1640, activity within the Exeter court appears to have ground to a halt due to the Civil War two years later, while a small smattering of cases continued to be heard in the Gloucester court until around 1650 when its activities were also suspended. In 1661, the courts were restored and continued to play an important role in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. See Ingram, Church courts, 7; Outhwaite, R. B., The rise and fall of the English ecclesiastical courts, 1500–1860 (Cambridge, 2006), 93.

18 Alexandra Shepard discusses in detail the changing place of interrogatories in the church courts. See Shepard, Alexandra, Accounting for oneself: worth, status, and the social order in early modern England (Oxford, 2015), 12.

19 For a detailed study of oath swearing, see Shapiro, Barbara, ‘Credibility and the legal process in early modern England: part one’, Law and Humanities 6 (2012), 145–78; Shapiro, Barbara, ‘Credibility and the legal process in early modern England: part two’, Law and Humanities 7 (2013), 1954.

20 Davis, Natalie Zemon, Fiction in the archives: pardon tales and their tellers in sixteenth- century France (Cambridge, 1987).

21 For examples of how this approach has been used, see Ogilvie, Sheilagh C., A bitter living: women, markets, and social capital in early modern Germany (Oxford, 2003); Fiebranz, Rosemarie, Lindberg, Erik, Lindström, Jonas and Ågren, Maria, ‘Making verbs count: the research project “Gender and Work” and its methodology’, Scandinavian Economic History Review 59, 3 (2011), 273–93; Shepard, Accounting for oneself.

22 Laslett, Family life and illicit love, 34.

23 The assignment of ages to these categories is based on the assumption that the average age of first marriage between 1600 and 1649 was 26. Those above the age of 30 were unlikely to have married. For data on age of first marriage, see Wrigley, E. A. and Schofield, R. S., The population history of England 1541–1871: a reconstruction (London, 1981), 255.

24 For a discussion of age heaping, see Thomas, Keith, ‘Numeracy in early modern England’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 37 (1987), 126.

25 Shepard, Alexandra and Spicksley, Judith, ‘Worth, age, and social status in early modern England’, Economic History Review 64, 2 (2011), 498.

26 Gloucestershire Archives, Church Court Depositions, 1548–1649 (hereafter GA) GDR/65, John Welcock v. John Smith, 1586.

27 GA GDR/114, Elizabeth Mathewe v. Thomas Mathewe, 1611.

28 Due to the sample size, it has not been possible to draw any conclusions about whether this period witnessed any change over time in terms of the age structure of service. This is not to argue that the period was chronologically static; rather, that a study of change over time would require additional data.

29 Griffiths, Paul, ‘Tudor troubles: problems of youth in Elizabethan England’, in Doran, Susan and Jones, Norman L. eds., The Elizabethan world (Abingdon, 2010), 316–34; Ben-Amos, Ilana Krausman, Adolescence and youth in early modern England (New Haven, 1994), 9; Wall, Richard, ‘The age at leaving home’, Journal of Family History 3, 2 (1978), 181202.

30 Griffiths, Youth and authority, 356.

31 Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 70; Ben-Amos, Adolescence and youth, 39, 41; Reinke-Williams, Tim, Women, work and sociability in early modern London (Basingstoke, 2014), 29.

32 Foyster, Elizabeth, Marital violence: an English family history, 1660–1857 (Cambridge, 2005), 146; Foyster, Elizabeth, ‘Silent witnesses? Children and the breakdown of domestic and social order in early modern England’, in Fletcher, Anthony and Hussey, Stephen eds., Childhood in question: children, parents and the state (Manchester, 1999), 5773, here 64.

33 The youngest female witnesses recorded in the Exeter, Gloucester and Winchester church courts were ten years old, but they were exceptional; the average age of female witnesses was around 38. See Charmian Mansell, ‘Female servants in the early modern community: a study of church court depositions from the dioceses of Exeter and Gloucester, c. 1550–1650' (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter, 2016).

34 GA GDR/168, Margaret Hill v. Thomas Whittingham, 1630.

35 Devon Heritage Centre, Church Court Depositions, 1556–1640 (hereafter DHC) Chanter 866, Eustice Peeke v. William Carewe, 1638.

36 DHC Chanter 860, John Dennys v. John Dennys jr, 1580.

37 DHC Chanter 855b, John Leache v. Hubert Colwell, 1565.

38 Sharpe, Pamela, ‘Poor children as apprentices in Colyton, 1598–1830’, Continuity and Change 6, 2 (1991), 253–70, here 253.

39 Ibid., p. 253.

40 Ibid.; Hindle, Steve, On the parish?: the micro-politics of poor relief in rural England c. 1550–1750 (Oxford, 2004), 214.

41 Sharpe, ‘Poor children’.

42 Selina Todd makes a similar argument for girls in service in the early twentieth century, using Winifred Foley's recollections of service as evidence. See Foley, Winifred, A child in the forest (London, 1974), 141; Todd, Selina, ‘Domestic service and class relations in Britain 1900–1950’, Past & Present 203 (2009), 181204, here 187.

43 This term, first coined by Olwen Hufton in her study of the poor of eighteenth-century France characterises both the position of families living dangerously close to subsistence levels and their strategies for staying afloat. See Hufton, Olwen, The poor of eighteenth-century France, 1750–1789 (Oxford, 1974), 69127.

44 Tilney, Edmund, The flower of friendship: a Renaissance dialogue contesting marriage, ed. Wayne, Valerie (Ithaca, NY, 1992), 137.

45 Hindle, On the parish?, 26; Erickson, Amy Louise, ‘Married women's occupations in eighteenth-century London’, Continuity and Change 23, 2 (2008), 267307.

46 Erickson, ‘Married women's occupations’, 267–307.

47 Maza, Sarah C., Servants and masters in eighteenth-century France: the uses of loyalty (Princeton, 1983), 78.

48 Crawford, Patricia, Parents of poor children in England, 1580–1800 (Oxford, 2010), 165.

49 GA GDR/168, Elizabeth Mayo v. Hugo Griffith and Hester Griffith, 1629.

50 Hampshire Record Office, Church Court Depositions, 1561–1633 (hereafter HRO) 21M65-C3-9, Testament of Margery Smyth, 1583.

51 See Todd, ‘Domestic service and class relations’, 185; Delap, Lucy, Knowing their place: domestic service in twentieth-century Britain (Oxford, 2011), 42.

52 Hindle, Steve, ‘The shaming of Margaret Knowsley: gossip, gender and the experience of authority in early modern England’, Continuity and Change 9, 3 (1994), 391419, here 396.

53 DHC Chanter 858, John Roo v. Frances Yarde, 1568. See also, Pelling, Margaret, ‘Old age, poverty, and disability in early modern Norwich: work, remarriage, and other expedients’, in Pelling, Margaret and Smith, R. M. eds., Life, death and the elderly: historical perspectives (London, 1991), 74101, here 68.

54 GA GDR/95, Joan Compton v. Edward Townsend, 1605.

55 Baggs, A. P., Jurica, A. R. J. and Sheils, W. J., in Herbert, N. M. and Pugh, R. B. eds., A history of the county of Gloucester, volume 11: Bisley and Longtree hundreds (London, 1976), 2030.

56 See GA: GDR/95, Joan Compton v. John Shewell, 1604; GDR/95, Elizabeth Robinson v. Eleanor Shoell, 1605; GDR/106, Christopher Windle v. Walter Butt, 1608; GDR/148, John Fry v. John Gardiner, 1622; GDR/148, John Fry v. Edmund Snowe, 1622; GDR/168, John Sedgman v. Walter Masters, 1630.

57 Shepard found that the average worth of weavers in this period was between that of a husbandman and labourer. See Shepard, Accounting for oneself, 74.

58 Several recent works have questioned whether there really was a male breadwinner in early modern England. See Hurl-Eamon, Jennine, ‘The fiction of female dependence and the makeshift economy of soldiers, sailors, and their wives in eighteenth-century London’, Labor History 49, 4 (2008), 481501; Erickson, ‘Married women's occupations’, 267–307; Shepard, Accounting for oneself, 176, 214–31.

59 GA GDR/45, Testament of Margaret Brodie, 1578.

60 GA GDR/89, Hugh Baker v. Mabel Elliottes, 1602.

61 Hubbard, Eleanor, City women: money, sex, and the social order in early modern London (Oxford, 2012), 213.

62 Bailey, Joanne, Unquiet lives: marriage and marriage breakdown in England, 1660–1800 (Cambridge, 2003), 189.

63 DHC Chanter 855, Anne Collens v. Edward Pasthawe, 1556.

64 Amy M. Froide, Never married: singlewomen in early modern England (Oxford, 2005), 23–4.

65 GA GDR/65, Johanna Wieke v. Margaret Wieke, 1587.

66 GA GDR/121, Agnes Brushe v. William Brushe sr, 1613.

67 Froide, Never married, 90.

68 GA GDR/114, Cressett Cox v. Silvester Nayle, 1612.

69 DHC Chanter 866, Sanders v. Sanders, 1637.

70 Whittle, Jane, ‘Enterprising widows and active wives: women's unpaid work in the household economy of early modern England’, The History of the Family 19, 3 (2014), 118; Erickson, Amy Louise, Women and property in early modern England (London, 1993), 193–5.

71 GA GDR/114, Andrew Filtoe v. Giles Gardiner, 1612.

72 DHC Chanter 856, Katherine Spenser v William Dearle and Agnes Dearle, 1567.

73 Gowing, Laura, ‘The haunting of Susan Lay: servants and mistresses in seventeenth-century England’, Gender & History 14, 2 (2002), 183201, here 187.

74 This calculation is based on Whittle's finding that the average length of marriage was 26.5 years and Wrigley and Schofield's estimation that the average age of first marriage was 26. See Whittle, ‘Enterprising widows’, 291–2; Wrigley and Schofield, The population history of England, 255.

75 HRO 21M65-C3-12, Ann Dansey v. Christopher Hide, 1631, emphasis added.

76 Wall, Richard, ‘Economic collaboration of family members within and beyond households in English society, 1600–2000’, Continuity and Change 25, 1 (2010), 83108, here 91; Hindle, On the parish?, 26.

77 Ogilvie, A bitter living, 140–205.

78 GA GDR/79, John White v. John Thaier, 1592.

79 ‘The Statute of Artificers (1563)’, 340.

80 GA GDR/79, Henry Hooper v. Richard Mathewes, 1596.

81 See ‘The Statute of Artificers (1563)’, 340–1; Griffiths, Youth and authority, 356.

82 Hindle, On the parish?, 26.

83 GA GDR/122, William Heywood v. Mary Wyeman, 1616.

84 GA GDR/100, Mary Syer v. Margaret Woodcocke, 1606.

85 Ibid. William Gorway, a weaver, deposed that Margaret Wodcocke possessed ‘one flock bedd twoe bolsters one old overworne coverlidd two olde clokes an old gownde an old petticoate three payre of sheetes twoe coffers twoe pynneis, twoe partlettes & an olde hatt and apron one Candlesticke & certen writinges’.

86 GA GDR/168, Margaret Hill v. Thomas Whittingham, 1630; GA GDR/95, Joan Compton v. Edward Townsend, 1605; GA GDR/100, Mary Syer v. Margaret Wodcocke, 1606.

87 Griffiths, Youth and authority, ch. 7.

88 ‘The Statute of Artificers (1563)’, 340.

89 Penn, Simon and Dyer, Christopher, ‘Wages and earnings in late medieval England: evidence from the enforcement of the labour laws’, Economic History Review 43, 3 (1990), 356–76, here 365; Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 59–61.

90 Roberts, Michael, ‘“Waiting upon chance”: English hiring fairs and their meanings from the fourteenth to the twentieth century’, Journal of Historical Sociology 1, 2 (1988), 119–60.

91 DHC Chanter 858, Joanne Sybly v. Thomas John, 1574.

92 DHC Chanter 858, John Roo v. Frances Yarde, 1568.

93 HRO 21M65-C3-8, Avice Hewes v. John Wayte, 1580.

94 DHC Chanter 858, John Roo v. Frances Yarde, 1568.

95 GA GDR/57 and GDR/65, Margaret Wathen v. Richard Dowdie, 1585.

96 Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 51–2.

97 Whittle found similarly varying lengths of employment in the Toke and Le Strange households. See Jane Whittle, ‘A different pattern of employment: servants in rural England, c. 1500–1660’, in Whittle ed., Servants in rural Europe: 1400–1900, 57–76.

98 GA GDR/114, Elizabeth Mathewe v .Thomas Mathewe, 1611.

99 GA GDR/8, Office v. John Curtesse, 1551.

100 DHC Chanter 866, William Harries v. Audrey Rowell, 1636.

101 HRO 21M65-C3-10, Parrie v. Turner, 1615.

102 DHC Chanter 866, Daniel Jackson v. Elizabeth Mordon, 1637, emphasis added.

103 GA GDR/122, Robert Payne v. Elizabeth Gawen, 1615, emphasis added.

104 Griffiths, Youth and authority, 382–4; Whittle, Development of agrarian capitalism, 276–7; Wales, ‘“Living at their own hands”’, 19–39, here 31.

105 See Charmian Mansell, ‘Female service and the village community in south-west England, 1550–1650: the labour laws reconsidered’, in Whittle ed., Servants in rural Europe: 1400–1900, 77–94.

106 GA GDR/95, Sheile v. Thomas Bishopp, 1604.

107 Hamilton, Alexander Henry Abercromby, Quarter sessions from Queen Elizabeth to Queen Anne: illustrations of local government and history drawn from original records (chiefly of the county of Devon) (London, 1878), 163.

108 Humphries and Weisdorf have shown a 260-working-day year, based on 5 working days a week over 52 weeks of the year, to be a good representation of women's working patterns in the pre-modern period. See Humphries and Weisdorf, ‘The wages of women’, 412–13.

109 DHC Chanter 867, Elizabeth Faryes v. Grace Luscombe, 1618.

110 Burnette, Joyce, ‘An investigation of the female-male wage gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain’, Economic History Review 50, 2 (1997), 271.

111 Goldberg, P. J. P., ‘What was a servant?’, in Curry, Anne and Matthew, Elizabeth eds., Concepts and patterns of service in the later Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2000), 120, here 4.

112 DHC Chanter 866, Sanders v. Sanders, 1637.

113 HRO 21M65-C3-6, Richard Tanner v. Richard Widge, 1574.

114 See, for example, Gritt, A. J., ‘The “survival” of service in the English agricultural labour force: lessons from Lancashire, c. 1650–1851’, Agricultural History Review 50, 1 (2002), 2550; Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry; Humphries and Weisdorf, ‘The wages of women’, 405–47.

115 Thomas, Keith, ‘Age and authority in early modern England’, Proceedings of the British Academy 62 (1976), 205–48, here 207.

116 Recent comparisons between experiences of service in Europe between 1400 and 1900 are found in Whittle ed., Servants in rural Europe: 1400–1900.

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