Life in Elizabethan England Next

Masters & Servants


Grooms are generic household serving men: grooms of the stable, chamber, etc. Females of the same order are called maids or serving maids: of the kitchen, chamber, still room, etc.

The Kitchen Staff

Most of the servants in any household are men, including the cooks.

Personal attendant is a descriptive term, not a job title. In general, it separates everyone else's personal servants (of all ranks) from household grooms and maids.
Usage note: Never introduce anyone as "my P.A." This was a term commonly used in some Renaissance faires c.1975-1995. While I am assured that it has fallen out of fashion, it may at any time rear its awkward head again. Don't let this happen.

The term valet is in use in English as early as 1567. According to the OED, a valet is "a man-servant performing duties chiefly relating to the person of his master; a gentleman's personal attendant."

From 'varlet': the British pronunciation is (and almost certainly was) "val'-ett". Valet (val-ay) is a little too French, don't y'think?
The most common term for the job is gentleman, manservant, or just man. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio refers to Romeo's ever present servant as "his man", as in "Romeo came not home tonight. I spoke with his man."

Female equivalents are waiting gentlewoman or maid, depending on the rank of the relevant parties. A lady might refer to her gentlewoman or her maid. Only the Queen has Ladies in Waiting.

As a verb, say that you serve, or wait upon, or attend (but not "work for") someone. Or that you are waited on or attended by someone.

General Attitudes

Credit, or reputation, has to do with one's personal dignity or honor. Frances Countess of Sussex once said (1588) "My credit is more to me than my life."

A servant and master strive to do each other credit. As a lady of quality, it is unbecoming to your dignity to carry your own shopping basket. As that lady's servant, it is unbecoming to your dignity to let her.

As a gentleman of quality, it befits your dignity to dress yourself and your servants well. As a servant, you do your master credit by looking and behaving well. Sir Thomas Smith said, "A gentleman should go like a gentleman." People do not dress their servants in rags. (See Livery.)

Servants are not democrats. In general, they approve of the social order, just like their masters. And they intend to take advantage of it.

A servant in a fine house expects (if he is clever) to rise in the world, improve his fortunes, and create an even better place for his children. A stable groom might aspire to become butler or steward in the same or a greater house. The pot boy might hope one day to be chief cook.

Servants take money from anyone. They will accept a vail (tip) for any service rendered. ("Here's a penny to drink my health.") Or a douceur (sweetener) for favors requested. They expect to be vailed for delivering a gift or message. Their masters are aware of this, and do it themselves to other people's servants.

It is not considered dishonest unless loyalties become confused and compromised. It all evens out.

The good servant, like a good waiter, is attentive. The best servant is a little bit psychic. He is there when you need him but never hovers. He finds some virtuous occupation when you disappear. He is neither lewd nor vain, but maintains a respectable countenance, to the credit of his master. He is modest but never craven, humble but never base, candid but not insolent.

The good master is proud but never despotic. He is patient, governing his household with fatherly care. He does not twist your sincere desire to serve into a sincere desire to punch him out. He lets you do your job. He maintains his superior station, as God has given it him, by honourable behavior, not by argument.

::  Household Management
::  Staffing a Great Household
::  The Steward and His Office
::  The Steward in Matters Domestical
::  Paying the Servants
::  Dinner at Cowdray House


Stone: Crisis of the Aristocracy
Scott: Book of Orders and Rules

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25 March 2008 mps