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Writing Medieval Servants
in Historical Fiction

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By EelKat Wendy C Allen

"My main female character is a personal servant to a princess in a somewhat medieval alternate universe.

I have absolutely not the slightest idea what her job would exactly entail.

I can think some of the obvious ones like helping her change or do her hair. I also thought perhaps laundry, cleaning, washing the floor....

But this is a full time sort of thing. And I didn't want her to have the exact same jobs every single day (I highly doubt a floor would need to be washed every day, even for a princess). I'm just looking for a little bit of variety.

Do you have any chores I could add to the list?"

There are several things to consider, the biggest of them being: When you say Medieval, do you actually mean real historically accurate Medieval? Or the quasi-fantasy Medieval as told in Robin Hood, King Arthur and his knights of the round table in Camelot, and Lord of the Rings? I ask this because there is a difference, a big difference, a huge difference. Very little of Robin Hood, King Arthur, or LOTR has any basis in reality, keeping in mind that the oldest of these books was written in the 1700s, nearly a 1,000 years after Medieval times had ended. Keep in mind too, that the movies based on these books are even less historically accurate than the books are. These stories are of the genre known as Medieval Fantasy. Note the word “fantasy” after “Medieval”. Medieval Fantasy is not based on anything even close to Medieval fact.

In Medieval fantasy you see servant dressing the princess daily, helping her change clothes for every meal. Real Medieval princesses did not change their clothes morning, noon, and night like you see in the movies, they didn’t even change their clothes daily, heck, they were not likely to have even changed their clothes weekly. In real Medieval times people had: a summer outfit, a winter outfit, and a church services outfit.People did not change clothes daily, slept in their cloths, and wore many, many, many layers.

In Medieval fantasy you see people attending church services every Sunday. In real Medieval times church services were held once every other month (6 times a year) not weekly. Each family would have had a mall altar or shrine in their homes, where they would pray 5 times a day as they had been taught to do by Catholic monks and nuns. Most villages would have had a monastery or convent either in town or on the outskirts. People needing religious advice would go there for answers, during the week. People who had sinned would go to the monks and request to be forgiving, than they would pay the sum required to be forgiven for the sin in question. If you told a lie, you may only have to pay a few coins to buy your forgiveness, if you killed your neighbor, you may have to pay by giving your land to the church.

Also in Medieval times most people did not count days or know the concept of weeks/months/years in the same way we do. Most folks just lived one day to the next and when winter ended and planting season arrived they announced that a new year had begun, whether 6 months had passed or 2 years had passed since the last time they planted crops. That was their concept of a year. They knew to go the church because a town crier would come through and announce that the bishop/priest/pope was in town all the way from Italy and it was time to be inspected (going to church was like getting your car inspected, only if you failed to pass the Christianity test you were executed at best, or made the personal indebted and daily tortured slave of the bishop/priest/pope at worst.) Bishops/priests/popes were the most feared people of the land - more feared than tax collectors, and kings were terrified of them as well, because church leaders were vast land mongers and if they decided they wanted your land, than you would not pass your Christianity inspection no matter how saintly you were. The religious leaders of Medieval times were among the most corrupt, violent, bloodthirsty, murderous men to ever walk the face of the earth at any time period: these men made Hitler look like a saint, that’s how bad they were.

It is important to note that in Medieval times the Catholic leaders: popes, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, etc, were not the celibate unmarried folks we know today. Most were married and had families, polygamy was not an uncommon practice in Medieval times and the wealthier a man was the more wives he could afford to buy. The Catholic church did not forbid leaders from marrying until into the 1600s, well after the Medieval period had ended.

Remember that wives were bought, not married in Medieval times, and a wife was nothing more than a house servant who slept with the master, and there are many books from Medieval times written for men on how to take care of their livestock, and these books contains lists of livestock which include: horses, dogs, cows, wives, pigs, and daughters.

Men could go to the local blacksmith and along with getting his horse shoes, he could also have his wife fitted with a chastity belt (cast iron panties) to prevent other men from using her and a bridle (some of which resembled bird cages bolted to her neck and forehead) which prevented her from talking.  Leather makers sold collars and leashes, which wives were lead around by whenever they went out in public. This would have included queens and princesses as well, who most likely to have been kidnapped from enemy kings, and paraded  through the streets as trophies, than publicly raped by the king, so that the entire town was a witness to the “marriage”.

Note that the word marriage meant: the act of stealing a woman’s virginity, or the act of claiming ownership by raping her. This was always done publically, both to shame the female into never allowing another man in her bed, and to show other men, this one’s mine I’ll kill you if you touch her. Medieval people did not have the “sex is a sin to be done in secret” mindset that would develop in Victorian times.

In Medieval times: Women were property, marriage was rape, age of consent was 10, incest was common practise, religious leaders got first choice of daughters, fathers got second choice, brothers got third choice, the man with the highest bid got to buy her if no priest or man in the family wanted her, and sex was public.

It was a sin to marry (rape) a nun, thus most girls elected to become nuns as soon as they got their periods.  

It is very important to keep these facts in mind when writing historically accurate Medieval fiction and it is especially important to keep the horrors of being a female front and center when choosing to write your Medieval main character as female.

Male servants were often well paid. A female servant was usually nothing more than a lesser wife who was set charge over taking care of the favorite wives. The princess was likely a favorite wife of the king, even though the king was also her father, otherwise she would be a servant in the house and not a princess. The job of the queen and princesses were to have as many babies as possible in hopes that a male heir would survive to adulthood. (Keeping in mind that 9 out of every 10 babies died before they reached the age of 3 and babies were not named until after they had reached their 3rd birthday and proved they were hardy stock.) The primary job of a princess’ personal servant was to hold her down while the king raped her. Most princess’ died in childbirth before they reached the age of 14, most would have had 4 or 5 pregnancies by the time they reached 14. This is the way it was done in actual Medieval times.

What if she's a princess and doesn't have much in the way of a kingdom/palace/wealth/etc? She doesn't want her people to know so she keeps up appearance by having a servant still, even though she can't really afford one, thus the servant, being the only servant, has to do EVERYTHING. As a general rule the more wealth they had the more servants they had, and a single personal servant would be highly unusual in Medieval times, which is why I suggested this.

Medieval servants were often indebted slaves, so they were working off a debt they owed, and often were poorly treated, because they were basically seen as deadbeats who couldn't be trusted to pay off a loan. Often, being a servant to a nobel in Medieval times was not a good thing to be.

Not all servants were indebted slaves. In wealthy families servants were more likely to be paid staff, however you did not ask about wealthy families, you asked about a princess, specifically, and in a royal family there would have been a higher rate of indebted slaves than paid servants. Indebted servants would have been placed in the harder jobs however: tending the farms and washing clothing. House servants, especially those being asked to cook the meals or care for family members one-on-one would have been paid staff who were loyal and well trusted. So the servants working one-on-one with the princess would likely have been with the family many years, and be well paid.

There would be few historically accurate cases of a princess having a single servant doing her bidding. Perhaps if she is traveling and can only take one servant with her, again, the one servant must do everything.

You seem to be referring to a footman, who was a man hired to wait on the princess hand and foot and do whatever she asked, whenever she asked, all day and night. He would never leave her side, from the time she was born until the day she died, and if he outlived her he would tend her grave until he died. He would also be a Eunuch: a castrated male who dresses as a woman. This was done to ensure 2 things: #1 he'd never rape her or otherwise be tempted to take sexual advantage of her, and #2 being a male he'd never feel the need to compete with her (female servants had a history of being snooty and disobedient when placed on 24 hour duty for a princess). Thus when you see nurses like the one Maid Marion has in Robin Hood, in real life that nurse would have been a castrated man cross-dressing as a woman and not an actual woman. Again, do not trust the movies - in the movies Maid Marion's nurse is always played by a female actor, while a historically accurate movie would have had a male actor play the nurse.

In Medieval times no one washed floors. Of course most people did not have floors to wash, either. Not even a king's castle is going to have boards covering the dirt, though they might lay down hay and put tapestries and carpets over the hay, but this would likely only be done in bed chambers. Do not confuse Medieval with Renaissance. Most so called “Medieval” movie settings are actually Renaissance settings. Most “Medieval” castles and manor houses seen in movies are actually Renaissance castles and manor houses.

Servants would be changing slop buckets (pans of piss and poo that sat beside the bed), and this job often meant simple dumping the bucket out the bedroom window onto the ground below (this is why moats were built - a moat was trench around the building which caught rain water and washed the sewerage away from the building.) Any house could have a moat, it didn't have to be the king's castle to have a moat, of course most kings didn't have castles either, most just had the biggest hut in the village - often with walls made of stones instead of sticks, and a thicker straw roof to keep out rain better than in the other huts.

What type of house she lives in depends on what type, place, and time with-in the vast Medieval era you are thinking about. But washing floors would be a no-no because pouring water of dirt = mud and who wants to walk in that all day? They wouldn't be sweeping floors either, because a broom + dirt = dust in the air and as most Medieval houses did not have ventilation, you'd be coughing all day if you tried to sweep the floor.

Keep in mind that what most movies show as "Medieval" times is often actually the Renaissance. Medieval is pre-1300, and basic architecture hadn't even been invented yet. There were no such thing as glass windows, chimneys, or floor boards yet, not outside of a Catholic Church at least. Rooms were dark, musty, and cold.

Don’t have your chambermaids or scullery maids going room to room lighting fireplaces either. Why? Well, if they didn’t have chimney’s can you guess why they didn’t have chimneys? Yep. It would be because they didn’t have fireplaces for chimney’s to be sprouting up out of!

How did they keep warm? Furs, tapestries, carpets, throw rugs, and many, many, many, many layers of clothes. Plus family beds - everyone slept together. Yeah, your little princess isn’t likely to have her own bedchamber, let alone her own bed. Remember Medieval was a looooooong time again, and was only a few years after Biblical years, in fact Biblical years and Medieval years overlap each other. Roman soldiers after crucifying Christ marched to Britannia to invade castles. Medieval Templar knights, so pissed off by Roman soldiers killing Christ that they marched to Israel to overthrow the Romans. In Medieval times men wore togas and women were wrapped in blanket like clothes, because hose and fancy dresses had not been invented yet. Men in fancy hose, women in long gowns, people in tall pointy funny hats: those are all Renaissance things not Medieval things. Remember that in Medieval times a lot of folks were still wearing bear and wolf skins girdled around their waists, and a lot of people lived in caves still. Yep, cave men. Has it hit you yet the actually time period you are asking about?

Are you looking at Lord of the Rings as inspiration for Medieval life? Most authors use LOTR as their inspiration, but let me tell you something about LOTR: It is set in the Middle Ages, a time period AFTER Medieval and BEFORE Renaissance.

Middle Ages are not Medieval, nor were Dark Ages. You want a movie that ACCURATELY portrays a Medieval setting? Try Conan the Barbarian. Conan the Barbarian is set in Medieval times, as is Xena Warrior Princess, Ben Hur, and King of Kings. Medieval starts at the crucifixion of Christ in the Bible. This is something to think about when it comes to writing a Medieval setting.

Also common error seen in Medieval fiction is to have servants drawing baths for the princess/lady/queen. In European Medieval times, servants wouldn't be "drawing baths", people didn't bathe. It was believed to be a sin to bathe and there were laws that made bathing punishable by death, because it was believed that only witches bathed. So depends on how historically accurate you want to be. Once a year people would gather at ponds/lakes/rivers and bathe fully clothed, while a priest would oversee it and be walking around pouring oil on people's heads and blessing them (to ensure that no water demons entered their bodied devoured their souls and turned them into witches.).

Sometimes royalty believed it was okay to bathe if they did not bathe in water, so they would bathe in milk instead, but milk was hard to get in large amounts and fairly expensive to buy, so only nobility did this, and they would only have done it once or twice a year..

Peasant families often didn't care about the witch superstition and would bath at night in secret a few times a year, rarely more often than once every 3 or 4 months.

Keep in mind too, that daily baths were an invention of 1970s medical research, so at no time period before the 1970s should you ever have a character taking baths more than once a week. Weekly baths were not seen prior to the early 1800s when folks began to believe it a sin to enter church unclean and thus entire families would bath together every Saturday night, in order to be clean on Sunday. Prior to this baths were seen as a seasonal thing, something you did in the fall after harvest. In the late 1700s through the 1800s servants would have been drawing baths for a princess, but not at any time period before 1750s would this be used believably in a historical novel.

This is only European culture though. Native American, Asian, and Mediterranean cultures bathed frequently even in Medieval times, and it was their constant weekly baths that caused many Europeans to label them as "primitive savage heathen pagans". Which is rather ironic when you think about it.

This is something to keep in mind if you want your story believable in historical accuracy. I once read a book, set in the 1600s where the main character was a woman who took daily baths and bathed her baby boy daily as well. As I was reading it I couldn't stop laughing. It was so ridiculous! Daily baths in the 1600s! That is so funny. Boy the author of that book, must be a lot younger than me, because I am old enough to remember when daily baths was considered not exactly a good thing.

I remember watching Saturday morning cartoons in the 1970s and there used to be those "public service awareness ads" on, you know when some famous actor like Vincent Price or a famous singer like Johnny Cash, would come on and tell kids not to get in a car with strangers, or to avoid eating eggs because people died from eating eggs (anyone remember THAT ad?) and there was one ad that frequently played which told kids of the "recent scientific discovery" that we should take a bath AS OFTEN AS ONCE PER WEEK!

In the 1970s it had just been discovered that it was OKAY and safe to bath weekly, not daily - weekly. 1970s. Not 1870s, not a hundred years ago, but less than 40 years ago science was discovering the benefits of washing WEEKLY, not daily - weekly - got it? In the 1970s so few people bathed more than once a month that ads were being played on TV on Saturday mornings to teach kids they should remember to bath at least as often as once a week!

Daily baths were not commonplace in the 1970s and weekly baths were so uncommon that kids had to be reminded by TV actors to take a weekly bath and to make sure they told their parents about the benefits of weekly bathing too. And then here I was reading this book which was supposed to be the genre of Historical Fiction and the main character is taking daily baths in the 1600s. Daily baths in the 1600s - in a historical fiction novel? WOW that author didn't even use common sense let alone do any historical research!

But yeah, I say this because if you are leaning in a historical accuracy slant, than don't have your princess demanding her servant be drawing baths, without the townsfolks pointing the finger of witchcraft at her.

Of course if it's fantasy, sci-fi, or other alternate world, than none of this matters and you could easily have your princess bathing daily no problems. So it's all a matter of how far outside of historical accuracy you want to take it, whether or not you decide to include a servant drawing baths in a Medieval (or any other pre-1800) setting.

So by this time you are wondering, well what did a Medieval servant do? Everything. Literally, absolutely everything. Till the land (by hand, with a hook ended stick or a stick with a flat stone or clam shell tied to it’s end, no shovels were not invented yet, these clams on sticks would lead to shovels being invented though and no, don’t try to say they had horses plowing their fields, horse or ox drawn plows were not common use prior to the 1800s), plant the seeds (which they had harvested and dried by hand last harvest), tend the crops, chased out crows/blackbirds, harvested crops, hunted for game and flesh (the word meat was not yet being used to mean food), sewed clothes, repaired worn clothes, washed cloths (by boiling them in caustic lye, which often resulted in the deaths of many servants and was a job reserved only for servant you really hated and didn't care if they dropped dead), cooking food was an all day core: involving stoking the fire, grinding the grain into flour, mixing the flour with other foodstuffs, boiling the water, and then carefully stirring and turning and turning and stirring for 5 or 6 hours over a fire pit (only those few nobles wealthy enough for a big castle had a stone oven).

If they lived in an "advanced" town (which were relatively rare before the 1500s), there might be a mill to send the grain to be ground, or if they had no mill but another town did they might send the servant there to have the grain ground (and it was often several days travel between towns) or if they were wealthy enough and had no near by mill to go to, when the merchant from the nearest port was in town they might give him the grain to take with him on his next trip, to have ground and brought back 8 or 9 months later. If they had no mill or no access to a mill, the servant ground the grain by hand, or did not grind it at all and thus cooked nothing using flour. It all depends on the location and wealth of the town whether or not your princess gets her daily bread.

Also keep in mind that white bread was not invented til the 1950s, and in Medieval times people would fight over who got to have the bread that was filled with the most weevils (bugs). Frying maggots and adding bugs, maggots, flies, cockroaches, caterpillars, worms, etc to the cooking pot was common place, and eating bugs was something people in Medieval times looked forward to and enjoyed. So keep that in mind when you are tempted to have your princess squeamishly going "eeeew gross! there's a bug in my read!" (a said and common error authors write in pre-1700 historic fiction). They also eat frogs, slugs, snails, turtles, song birds, cats, dogs, horses, rats, mice, bats, and other things people today would not consider eating.

Medieval castles with elephant tusks and lion skins on the walls, were not just wasted decorations from poaching - the flesh of those animals would have been eaten. Medieval hunters were far less wasteful than hunters of other time periods, because much of the world was plagued with a serious lack of rain, thus a serious lack of food. Starvation was a widespread global problem in Medieval times and that is why you see diets including bugs and maggots, cats and dogs.

And a side note: all those portraits you see of women holding dogs in their laps? They were NOT pets! It was common practice in Medieval times for ladies to carry around stuffed (dead) dogs, thus why they were called "toy dogs" - they literally were toys and it had nothing to do with their size.

Also servants had “odd” jobs in Medieval times, jobs modern folk don’t often think of, like being a wet nurse. There were superstitions that caused wealthy women to believe that breast feeding their babies was wicked or sinful, and so they would hire peasant women to do it for them. Every queen or princess would have a wet nurse for each of their children. (Keep in mind too that all children were breastfed at least until they were 4 or 5 years old and often until they were 8, 9, or 10 years old, in Medieval times.)

Another “odd job” in Medieval times is a servant would have "plucked the princess". It was the fashion in Medieval times for nobility to be seen as totally hairless - so every hair: arms, legs, eyebrows, eyelashes, underarms, chin, and about the first 2 to 4 inches of hair line would be plucked clean (the wealthier the woman, the farther back the hairline would be plucked, and a queen or princess would likely be totally bald), the goal would have been to remove them by the roots so they wouldn't grow back either. Men would often have their entire head plucks, and so did some women.

Movies that show actors sporting beards and long hair are HUGELY inaccurate for Medieval times. You want accuracy in this, look to paintings and tapestries to get an idea of what people looked like 900 to 1300s - unless they were peasants, they were usually bald and lacking eyebrows and eyelashes. To be historically accurate her servant would be checking her daily to ensure no new hairs had grown. This was done as a way to show they did not have lice or fleas. IF she had any hair remaining on the top of her head (which was unlikely for a princess) it would be covered with a veil.

Lice was a HUGE issue in medieval times and plucking every hair off every inch of your body was the only way to get rid of lice and the only way to prevent lice.

Peasants who could not afford to have a servant pluck them, either coated their bodies with honey than after it hardened scraped it (and their hair) off with a knife or razor. Generally peasants would only shave their legs under the theory that they would not get lice if there was no hair on their legs to attract lice to crawl up them. Saving their legs was a way to say "Hey! I don't have lice!" (this is why women of the modern era shave their legs - because men got used to seeing hairless and liceless legs)

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For help in creating characters in genre fiction try:

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I rarely write articles about any specific genre other than those listed in the link headings above, because the genres above are the genres I write.

Keep these facts in mind when asking advice from me, about your own writing career. I will gladly try to help you out, but my knowledge of writing is limited to what I know and write in my own career.

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