Female service in Early Modern England

Dr Charmian Mansell | Research Associate, Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 | University of Exeter

A woman hard at work distilling. Illustration from J. S., The accomplished ladies rich closet of rarities: or, the ingenius gentlewoman and servant-maids delightful companion (1691).
Image courtesy Wellcome Library, London.

As an Early Career Researcher, it is often difficult to access bursaries and grants for research. Visiting archives and undertaking other forms of research for the completion of articles, monographs and other publications that are so necessary to secure postdoctoral employment can therefore be extremely difficult. In December 2016, I was delighted to be awarded the Women’s Studies Group 30th anniversary bursary for my research on female servants in early modern England. This was the first year that this £500 bursary had been awarded and I am pleased to hear that the group have been able to award two more grants this year.

The award was granted for me to undertake archival research for the preparation of my monograph, Female Service in Early Modern England, which is based on my doctoral thesis. This thesis explored the experiences of around 500 female servants recorded in the church court depositions of the dioceses of Exeter and Gloucester (covering today’s counties of Devon, Cornwall and Gloucestershire). These diocesan courts were charged with enforcing morality and discipline in early modern society. Witnesses from across the social spectrum were asked to provide evidence of what they had seen or heard in relation to illicit behaviour such as adultery and inter-party disputes including defamation and broken marriage promises. Their depositions are almost unrivalled in the detail they provide of both the everyday and the extraordinary. Few other sources allow the study of female servants’ experiences, nor can they offer such rich detail of their lives. Through a female servant’s account of the events she had witnessed, we learn details of her employment, her age and residence history as well as the type of work she performed, the spaces in which her life played out and the interactions she had with her employers, neighbours and friends.

Church court deposition, Somerset Archives, SHC D\D/cd/64. Image taken by Charmian Mansell and used courtesy Somerset Archives.

Over the course of 2017, I made trips to the London Metropolitan Archive and Somerset Archives to gather additional source material from their collections of ecclesiastical court depositions (covering London and Somerset respectively). I am still analysing this new data but it appears that these two archives will provide snapshot information of approximately 250 additional female servants. Prior to receiving the bursary, I also collected data from the diocese of Winchester court (covering Hampshire and the Isle pf Wight), amounting to an additional 126 female servants. Although the evidence is at times fragmentary, the monograph will explore the working and social lives of at least 800 English women employed in service between 1550 and 1650.

The monograph breaks new ground by challenging several deeply-entrenched tropes within the scholarship of early modern female service. Analysing service from demographic, geographical, economic and social perspectives, this book demonstrates the variety of experiences of female service that extended across the life-cycle and challenges its conception as a rigid institution designed to regulate youth. It presents a richer, more textured picture of female service, moving beyond its conceptualisation as domestic. It highlights the various forms of work they performed and the range of relationships they forged beyond the household. The book demonstrates the important role that women in service played in the early modern community, makes an important intervention in early modern British social history and raises fundamental questions about how historians understand women, community and work.

Thank you, Charmian, for this WSG bursary report, and for the insight into the journey from PhD thesis to monograph. For more information on Charmian’s job while she’s writing up her book, namely the Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 project at Exeter University, click here.

Reminder: WSG seminar March 2018

WSG’s final seminar of the year focuses on “works in progress” papers, or with more of a “how to” element.  These three by Valerie Schutte, Cheryl Duncan and Catriona Cooper look at life writing, the use of legal documents, and audio research.

Seminars take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30. Directions for getting to the Museum can be found here.  All seminars are free and open to the public, though refreshments will cost £2 to those who aren’t WSG members.  Those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum before or after.

Sunday 11 March, 2018 (This is a ‘how-to’ session that also involves a measure of ‘work in progress’).   Chair: TBC
Valerie Schutte: Princess, Duchess, Queen: Mary Tudor as represented in the long eighteenth century.
Cheryll Duncan: Music, women and the law: the challenges and rewards of legal documents.
Catriona Cooper: Listening to the Commons: the sounds of debate and the experience of women in Parliament c.1800.
Karen Lipsedge: Reading women and the eighteenth-century home.

Reminder: WSG seminar November 2017

The next in WSG’s 2017-18 seminars takes place this month, with three papers on women authors and love, politics, and art.

Seminars take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30. Directions for getting to the Museum can be found here.  All seminars are free and open to the public, though refreshments will cost £2 to those who aren’t WSG members.  Those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum before or after.

Saturday 25 November, 2017. Chair: Lois Chaber
Eva-Maria Lauenstein: ‘Within these tombes enclos’d’: delineating Renaissance love in Mary Sidney Herbert’s Antonius.
Mihoko Suzuki: Political writing beyond borders: Charlotte Stanley and Margaret Cavendish.
Valerie G. Derbyshire: Words and pictures: Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) and the works of the artists of her day.

WSG 30th Anniversary Commonplace Book

As regular readers of this blog will know, the WSG is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2017 (the date is a little bit hazy – it was so long ago! – but it is generally agreed that our panel at BSECS 1987 was our first meaningful action). As part of the celebrations, WSG has not only instituted a bursary, but is in the process of compiling and editing a volume intended to be a reflection of its members’ 30 years of research and activism.  Edited by Carolyn Williams, Sara Read and Louise Duckling and with a working title of the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 Commonplace Book, it will comprise a mixture of short research articles, reminiscences, interviews and poems by members past and present.  Those interested in the upcoming book can get a taste of it by listening to Elaine Hobby, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Studies at Loughborough University and a long-time associate of WSG, in conversation with Sara Read in a separate blog post later this month.

Commonplacing was a common knowledge-making practice during the early modern period whereby people would write short extracts or digests from their reading into books under topical headings.  These could be poetry, prose, quotations, proverbs, letters and prayers, which the compiler could then reference and recombine.  Books could be kept for pragmatic as well as recreational reasons.  Men such as Francis Bacon and John Locke famously wrote about and kept commonplace books, but women kept them too, and in recent years much work has been done on a closely related genre, the recipe book, to which the whole household might contribute.  Some thought the practice of commonplacing a cause for concern, because it would encourage superficial reading.

The commonplace book as a discursive practice arguably reached its peak during the early modern period but commonplacing is by its very nature also highly personal and has continued in various forms into the Romantic period and the present day.  WSG’s Commonplace Book will be a printed rather than manuscript form, but it will reflect the collaborative, interdisciplinary, unruly, highly mobile forms of interaction and support WSG has encouraged over the years. We hope to see it published in 2018.

Cfp WSG Seminars 2017-18

The Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 is a small, informal, multidisciplinary group formed to promote women’s studies in the early modern period and the long eighteenth century.  Since it was established in the 1980s, the group has enabled those interested in women’s and gender studies to keep in touch, to hear about one another’s research and publications, and to meet regularly to discuss relevant topics.

We organize regular weekend seminars and an annual workshop at the Foundling Museum, where members can meet and discuss women’s studies topics. We can also offer advice and opportunities to engage in activities that increase opportunities for publication, or enhance professional profiles in other ways.

For our 2017-18 seminars, we invite papers related to any aspect of women’s studies: not only women writers, but any activity of a woman or women in the period of our concern, or anything that affects or is affected by women in this period, such as the law, religion, etc. Male writers writing about women or male historical figures relevant to the condition of women in this period are also a potential topic. Papers tackling aspects of women’s studies within or alongside the wider histories of gender and sexuality are particularly welcome; so are topics from the early part of our period. We would also welcome how-to presentations for discussion: examples of suitable topics would include, but are not limited to, applying for grants, setting up research networks, becoming a curator, co-authorship, and writing about images. The seminar dates are:

  • Saturday 23rd September, 2017, 1-4pm
  • Saturday 18th November, 2017, 1-4pm
  • Sunday 14th January, 2018, 1-4pm
  • Sunday 11th March, 2018 1-4pm (work in progress or how-to presentations particularly welcome at this session).

Please note the first two are Saturday and the last two Sunday sessions.  The full address for the Foundling Museum is 40 Brunswick Square, London, WC1N 1AZ. We are allowed into the room at 12.30pm to give us time to sort out paperwork and technology, but sessions will run from 1-4pm. So please arrive a little early if you can. The WSG is open to men, women, and non-binary people, students, faculty, and independent scholars, all of whom are invited to join our group and to give papers.

Please reply to WSG seminars organiser Carolyn D. Williams at cdwilliamslyle@aol.com
Find out more about us at https://womensstudiesgroup.org