From obligation to agreement: concepts of servitude in early modern England

From obligation to agreement: concepts of servitude in early modern England

Marple, Laura Reiko Simeon

Master of Arts, History, The University of British Columbia (1994)


One very popular genre of literature during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was advice (or prescriptive) literature, directed at husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants. These books provided readers with detailed descriptions of the ideal relationships between family members, and the duties attendant upon individuals in each position. They are valuable to historians in this capacity, as portrayals of desired behavior, rather than as depictions of how things actually were. The relationship between masters and servants is a particularly difficult one to understand, for servants occupied a unique place within the family. In many ways they were similar to the master’s children, for they were unmarried minors, and temporarily under his authority. Yet in other ways servants were quitedifferent from the children of the family, for there existed between them and their masters a contract for food, wages and lodging in return for their labor. Advice literature is a valuable source of information regarding the manner in which seventeenth- and eighteenth-century individuals viewed the ambiguous relationship between master and servant.However, to date the secondary literature on servants has not made much use of advice literature, or examined its usefulness in this capacity. This thesis seeks to present a systematic examination of the prescriptive literature for servants published during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, comparing not only the types of advice given to servants, but also the manner in which the advice was given. It will soon be apparent that the literature evolved dramatically over the course of the two centuries, reflecting both new conceptions of the nature of servitude, as well as developments in society at large. These changes may be described as the transition from a view of servitude as a state which imposed moral obligations on the servant, to one which saw it as a period of contractual agreement between servant and master.

Click here to read this thesis from The University of British Columbia

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