Inside the Bourgeois Home
The Embarrassment of Riches by Simon Schama
By virtue of their residence in the home, maidservants were the most subversive, but they were often supported by accomplices in knavery, whose visits at critical times in the domestic calendar gave them special opportunities for malice - in particular midwives and wet-nurses. Most such women - and especially maidservants - were hired from the lower orders, and the implication in the bourgeois satires was that home wrecking or abusing its trust was an oblique form of social rebellion, directed simultaneously and gratifyingly at men and at the propertied.
Midwives and wet-nurses feature as custodians of feminine secrets and the accomplices of their abuse. It was their intimacy with a world from which the male was, if not wholly excluded, then certainly at a distance, and their strategic position to commit dynastic fraud that made them automatically suspect. And in the Beurs der Vrouwen, pregnant women and their two kinds of, accomplices share a "pillar" (for this is the stock exchange) where they form a kind of conspiratorial league against fathers and husbands. Midwives were often characterized as prime collaborators in plots to dupe husbands, or when an unmarried girl had slept with many suitors, selecting the most desirable as the putative father. They were equally suspected of exchanging children or covering for a wife's infidelity. (Quack physicians, too, as the enormous genre of piskijken, pee-gazing, pictures suggests, were suspected of colluding in a wife's amorous intrigue since they were the first to learn of its consequences.) Midwives were also thought of as objectionably bossy, undermining the authority of the head of the household by demanding that expectant mothers eat all manner of odd foods, first in the interests of conceiving and then to ensure safe deliveries. Wet-nurses were a less "learned" and therefore less threatening group, and since doctors and divines alike were unanimous in urging breast-feeding on mothers, it is difficult to know whether they were a common feature of the middle-class household. But they were often typified as encouraging the young mother's lust for snoeperij, sweet things, enjoying them themselves while neglecting the baby. "They are so sluttish and slothful," said the author of the Beurs, "that they let everything lie around getting filthy and stinking." It was their reputed habit of feeding the babe on impure paps or using strong liquor to make it drowsy that made them seem a threat to the health of the new generation. "Look for the wet-nurse," ran a popular saying, "and you will find her in the cellar." Horror stories of babies burned on the fire or drowned in a cask did the rounds, reinforcing their reputation for dereliction of duty.
All of this delinquency, however, paled in comparison with the crimes and misdemeanors of which maidservants were said to be capable. They were indisputably regarded as the most dangerous women of all, for they represented the presence of the footloose inside the home. Unmarried but nubile, entrusted with essential domestic work (but notoriously untrustworthy), they were thought of as a kind of surreptitious fifth column for worldliness, stationed in the heart of the conjugal home. There is no doubt, at any rate, that they marked a strong presence in Dutch urban society. According to Haks, servants made up around six percent of the whole population of Holland and between ten and twenty percent of all Dutch households had at least one servant in the middle and late seventeenth century. Very often, however, the maidservant was the only servant. In the Zeeland town of Goes in 1642, seventy percent of households had just one maid; in Veere in 1682, the figure was eighty percent. The great majority of these servants were women, and seem to have stayed in a single post on average between two and three years. And the conditions of their hire were of such importance that in a number of towns, official ordinances were promulgated, setting up arbitration machinery to settle disputes between masters and servants. Surprisingly, these gave the servants at least some semblance of protection against arbitrary treatment. For if they had to have solid references from their last post to gain lawful employment, the employer was forbidden to fire a servant without due cause before the stated term of original hire - usually six months - was up. In Zeeland in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, there were eight cases in which the servant's side of a dispute was upheld by the magistrates. None of this official intervention did much to calm the fretfulness about maidservants, for the anxiety about their being both unreliable yet indispensable marked the birth of an authentically bourgeois neurosis.
Dutch literature is full of maidservants who take obvious pleasure in speaking their mind before master and mistress. And their attitude in paintings of domestic life is anything but obsequious. It might perhaps have been expected of bourgeois households that they would seek to establish very firm lines of deference to masters by servants, the better to uphold their own social overlordship. And where the grandest patrician households boasted a staff of three to five servants, something of these common European conventions held good. But in the vast majority of family households, where one or two servants was the rule, boundaries concerning dress, eating habits or rooms were very feebly defined. The fact that in any number of family portraits it is difficult to distinguish the nursemaid from the mother, or even the fact that a servant was axiomatically included in the painting, gives the strongest possible sign of integration within the family circle. Older servants were as much intimates as employees of the family, and they inherited from traditional prototypes the expectation of a kind of homely rudeness but without the accompanying assumption that they were the chattels of their master. Servants who had passed the test of years and had advanced beyond the point where their intimacy was fraught with dangers were, of course, the ideal. But younger women remained risky, their very integration within the residential family making it vulnerable to any betrayal of trust.
Household manuals pay great attention to the wife's responsibility for minimizing those risks by keeping a watchful eye on the maidservants. Never take one in your house without impeccable references, warned the Ervarene en Verstandige Hollandsche Huvshoudster. Feed them decently, but avoid tea and coffee, which breed bad habits, in favor of the more healthful ale. If they insist "on the modern manner," then content them with a little coffee in the morning and a little dish of tea at noon. Make sure that they are not wasteful with the family's food by leaving hams or cheeses around to go moldy, butter to melt and bread to go stale. Pay them modestly (though not stingily) to begin with, and give them bonuses of a few guilders at the end of the year if they are satisfactory. Always see that they have a detailed routine of domestic work and that they observe the proper times for the proper chores. Speak to them without gruffness, but discourage insolence as well as gossip, backbiting and toadying. Above all, forbid any undue familiarity between men and women servants, for in such intimacies lurk the seeds of domestic havoc.
The assumption underlying all this cautionary advice is that, if left unguarded, the naturally vicious instincts of the maidservant would assert themselves and turn the household upside down. The most graphic expression of that view was another misogynist satire of the 168os, The Seven Devils Ruling Present - Day Maidservants. An infuriated tract against the decadence of manners and the aping of French modes and fashions, it used the premise that the devil had conspired to destroy the Fatherland from within by insinuating demons into its homes, there to lure Dutch women to several and particular kinds of moral iniquity. And the devil's intimates and accomplices in this work were, of course, the maidservants. There then follows a typical catalogue of all the vices conventionally imputed to maids: their insubordination, laziness, garrulousness, insatiable appetite for food and drink. Some of the worst were even capable of "converting" otherwise dutiful and upright housewives to bad ways, egging them on, for example, to buy expensive clothes or finery for the house against the express wishes of their husbands. But the most pervasive and successful of the devils were the diefachtige and the hoeraachtige - theft and lust - in close alliance. The thieving maid had a whole repertoire of diabolical little tricks and ruses to cover her traces. Bottles that had been surreptitiously opened in the cellar might be carefully recorked and filled with water. Servants would themselves point out that a silver spoon was unaccountably missing and ask the mistress for money to replace it. They then would buy a cheap substitute at market and pocket the difference as well as the original spoon. As agents of the devil of lust, though, maidservants were virtually unstoppable. They were, after all, nubile and very often "mansick" and could make themselves deliberately alluring, exposing their bosoms or their calves while pretending to work, wearing flimsy clothing or claiming in the middle of the night that they were frightened by thieves or ghosts and needed comforting. By such devilish ruses they could ensnare impressionable young sons, seduce husbands or trap new widowers into hasty second matches. In Zeeland, the Servant Ordinance of 1673 provided for the nullification of any match between children of the house and servants and even banished the latter from the province if it could be proved that the children had "fallen prey" to the servants wiles. The syndrome of the besotted widower was, the author of The Seven Devils thought, especially common in Holland, and he delicately compared such follies to "a man shitting in his own hat and then setting it on his head."
Despite the misogynist hysterics of this little book, it did reflect a somber reality in the connection between domestic service, petty crime and sexual misdemeanor. Maidservants were mostly victims rather than opportunists and, as the social inferiors of their employers, were often left defenseless against accusations of having trapped men into unlawful sexual acts. It needed flagrante delicto for the law to come to their aid, as in 1646 when neighbors heard the screams of Matthijs Pietersen's maid, Anneke, as he raped her in his warehouse cellar. In 1622 the predikant Tobias Herkenius confessed that he had had sex with his maid (even while betrothed to another woman) and the Edam consistory obliged him to marry her. But that case would never have come to light had not the minister himself confessed - without any idea that he might be made to marry the girl. And for every one case that came before the courts, there must have been scores in which the maids were far too intimidated to seek the help of the law. More drastic means of concealment were sometimes attempted, for servants are often the unfortunates, like Barbara Jansdogter in 1659, who show up in the few cases of attempted infanticide. Of the twenty-four trials for this crime brought before the Amsterdam magistrates between 1680 and 1811, twenty-two of the accused were maidservants. Only very rarely did they have the means or the social confidence to pursue their seducers in paternity suits, for in doing so they risked the rebound that moral ignominy would fall on their, rather than the man's, shoulders. Not all such predicaments ended miserably. Some maidservants cohabited with their masters and either, as in Descartes case, ended by marrying him, or as in Rembrandt's, with Hendrickje Stoffels remaining as concubine-consort, sharing the stewardship of the household and defying the imprecations of the church council's condemnation for fornication.
Whether or not there was a real social continuum between the maidservant fallen from grace (either for petty theft or pregnancy or both), cast out from the house and deprived of her testimonials, and the common prostitute, there was undoubtedly a cultural attitude that saw the effrontery of the whore barely concealed behind the mock-deference of the maid. (Lascivious maidservants were blamed, inter alia, for initiating young men into the kinds of vices that then launched them on a life of hardened whoring and boozing.) Occasionally, popular literature placed the blame the other way about, but even then the girl was portrayed as a willing partner in the illicit pleasure. Bredero's whore, "Pale An," who confesses to "running wild since my fourteenth year," speaks of "romping with masters' servants and their sons':
masters eldest son was always pawing at my breasts
I wasnt bothered. I let him do it
You see, he loved me and I was green
Oh, Id grab him if he missed me
It happened once that while I made his bed
He caught me in his arms and threw me on the sheets
I cant begin to tell what fun the fellow had
Before he had his way
Twasant bad at all oh twas sweet.
Domestic service, then, was viewed as a kind of Trojan horse of worldliness effecting an illicit entry into the moral citadel of the burgher household. This is not to say, of course, that there were not maidservants who were regarded as loyal, trustworthy, diligent and pure. But there was no literature, popular or polite (and no art either), featuring the exemplary servant. More commonly they were shown as mischief makers, barrier breakers, tracking the outside world in and leading the inside world out into the street.
It is in the guise of imps of confusion that maidservants often appear in genre painting. They smirk in the background as piskijken physicians examine the urine of swooning young women for signs of lovesickness. They frolic with fiddlers or flirt in the cellar as the household order collapses around them.
These domestic upsets, the moralists argued, were all too easily achieved. For temptations lurked in the most unlikely place - in the heart of the home itself. The iconography of Dutch genre painting has detected erotic undertones in ostensibly humdrum objects like fire tongs, dead fowl or candlesticks. It is difficult to feel unequivocally certain that the symbolic weight carried by these workaday items was invariably transposed from emblem books to pictures. But although we are asked to see these symbols as blatant in their allusions to lust, and censorious in their visual commentary, this seems to force the business much further than it need go. The real forte of genre, especially for the as we have already noted, ambiguity, innuendo and temptation. And even where Steen's references are obviously bawdy, the mirth he solicits is often closer to the sly dig in the ribs than the unbuttoned guffaw. Eroticism, after all, feeds on possibilities rather than certainties - and both moralists and libertines had a common interest in lingering over the dangers (or delights) of sensual invitation. So it should not surprise us to see the baits of enticement painted with seductive exquisiteness over and again: glittering glasses of white wine held by the stem in a gesture of invitation; the opened shells of oysters, pink and wet; scarlet hose half rolled down an extended calf, a chemise opened over the swell of the breast.