Call for Papers: Servants and domestic workers in rural Europe, XVI to XIX centuries

RHN 92/2013 | Call

Organisers: Francisco García González, Facultad de Humanidades de Albacete, Seminario de Historia Social de la Población; Fabrice Boudjaaba, EHESS/CNRS, Centre de Recherches Historiques, Paris

21-22 November 2013, Albacete, Spain

Deadline: 30 September 2013


Servants and domestic workers in rural Europe, XVI to XIX centuries:
Regional diversity and forms of dependence

Rural history has traditionally confronted two models of organizing agricultural production. On the one hand the family farm, very important in terms of productivity and ability to integrate innovations. On the other hand, the large capitalist holdings, based on waged labour. Examples of these two productive models are the English landholding, supported by wage labour, and the family farms of Southern Europe, which have survived until the twentieth century. Yet this dualistic approach, linked to the debate on the modernization of agricultural production and its transition to capitalism, fails to account for the complex realities of the rural world in the past. After two decades, these models are now under discussion.

These two models of organizing agricultural production are connected to two models of labour relations in the rural world: one based on family work, and the other based on wage workers, permanent or day labourers, a concept which involves a confrontation between the employer and the employees. This simplified opposition often ignores, despite its importance, the role of domestic workers and servants, who largely contributed to the running of both family farms and large estates until at least the late nineteenth century (Gritt, 2000). Domestic workers and servants had an intermediate status: unlike labourers and rural workers, they used to live in the farm, even though they had no family links. At the same time, they were paid for their work.

The focus on servants increased after Peter Laslett (1972) highlighted the importance of the concept life cycle servants in the system of demographic and social reproduction of Western Europe. In recent years this and related approaches are being renovated. As it have been shown, working as a rural servant not only corresponded with a period of life prior to marriage and settling down in a new home, but it could last longer. Scholars have focused more on urban servants (Annales de Démographie Historique "domesticité et parcours de vie ', 2009-1) than on rural servants, with few exceptions (special issue of Historia Agraria, 35, 2005). Among the reasons that could explain this is the idea, extended by Chayanov, that wage labour and servants were not common in family farms. Also important is the lack of good sources, particularly for the Modern period.

The aim of this workshop, co-organized by DGRI-CRICEC and the Social History Seminar of Population (Faculty of Humanities of Albacete, University of Castilla-La Mancha), is to discuss the role played by rural servants and domestic workers in the European agriculture of the last centuries. We propose the following main questions:

  1. The role of servants in pre-industrial farms. Were servants occupied on particular tasks? Could servants be defined as specialized workers? From the perspective of labour demand, was the condition of servant and farm worker linked to a particular system of land property and distribution? Were servants specific to certain demographic regimes characterized by strong rates of celibacy, or linked to certain legal regimes?
  2. The co-residence of employers and employees. What kinds of relationships were established between the servants and the employers and their families? Are they comparable to those with other relatives? Were servants treated differently depending on their sex, age or origin? Was it necessary for servants to live in the same place that their employers?
  3. The role of servants and domestic workers in agricultural development. How was this type of work affected by the transformation of agriculture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?


Proposals including name of author, institutional affiliation, title, and an abstract not exceeding 300 words should be submitted to Francisco García González and Fabrice Boudjaaba.

Deadline is September 30th, 2013.

Call for papers in French and Spanish.