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Contractual Kin: Servants and Their Mistresses in Sixteenth-Century Nantes

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image of Journal of Early Modern History

Female servants and their mistresses in Nantes often disputed the terms of service and wages of the mostly oral contracts between them. These quarrels sometimes ended up in the court of the municipal aldermen, whose records reveal the opposing conceptualization of female service the opponents advocated. Mistresses viewed their servants as dependents, not quite kin, but wholly under their authority at least for the period specified in the contract. Servants perceived themselves as wage laborers with the right to renegotiate, or renege on, contracts when a more advantageous offer presented itself. Municipal officials, caught between their desire to enforce contracts and the need to avoid exploitation of domestic labor in order to ensure a plentiful migration of servants into Nantes, sided with servants surprisingly often. Servant women in Nantes, therefore, enjoyed a higher level of agency than did women serving in Italian cities where high numbers of slaves and indentured refugees distorted the market for, and attitudes toward, female domestics.

Affiliations: 1: California State University, Fullerton


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