Mothers, Children, and Servants Gender, Social Power, and Domestic Service in Trecento and Quattrocento Tuscany

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Kimberly Webb

Abstract

Domestic servants were essential fixtures in the elite Tuscan home. They aided in their mistresses’ childbirths, were the godmothers of elite children, served as wet nurses, and helped raise these children. While awarding their wealthy employers a degree of leisure and fulfilling a key role in religious ritual, the use of domestic servants in Trecento and Quattrocento Tuscan homes and families reinforced social hierarchies. These hierarchies were primarily performed through the relationships that mistresses and masters had with their domestic servants, both enslaved and salaried. These hierarchies rested instead on ideas of gender and class, social categories often inextricably linked. These hierarchies and identities are best explored within the examination of relationships: that of a woman and her child and that of a female slave or domestic servant and her employers. These relationships were part of a larger, interconnected nexus. A female slave or domestic servant in a middle- or upper-class Florentine casa enabled the family system of the elite by caring for the children of their employers. This is further complicated by the fact that many servants were taken advantage of by their masters or other men in the household. How a mother interacted with her child was distinctly tied to her social status. Wealthy mothers were   able to give their children comfortable lives through their domestic servants, while denying servant women the same proximity to their children. Poor women were valued less as mothers and women, both socially and in the context of the casa

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History