Tales of masters involved with their maids have as much allure today as they did in history. In the news, we read sordid tales of Hollywood stars romantically involved with their personnel and the scandal reports of shameless household help preying on vulnerable celebrities. But what makes these relationships so intriguingly immoral? Is it the element of adultery because many of the employers are married? Or is having a relationship in the workplace what makes this arrangement taboo?
Analyses of the behavioral patterns between employers and employees fill volumes of psychology books. A certain power imbalance arises when two people enter into a vocational relationship. The employer has the upper hand, holding not only the threat of termination over the employee’s head but also holding the purse strings. One could say, the employer holds an employee’s very existence in his hands. As with any power imbalance, there is a risk that this power could be abused. Or a more commonplace risk could arise: a romantic relationship could develop in the workplace. These risks compound the intrigue, especially when the employees are working in private homes.
Let’s concentrate on the recipe for a good master and maid tale: a household hires a housekeeper. The household does not fit into the modern concept of the nuclear family in a loving marriage. Maybe this is a marriage arranged for business and social reasons. For some reason the husband and wife live together but separate. The husband may travel frequently. The wife may be preoccupied with childbearing. The housekeeper has daily and intimate contact with the master. A kind word, a smile, a wink, a touch, a kiss…The master feels he has the right to take his maid, however he desires, with her consent or against her will. Maybe some gratuity changes hands.
These tales often concentrate on male employers and their use and misuse of their female help. Surely, male household employees are misused as well, but the majority of these cases involves women. The proof of female employees caught in unsavory circumstances is often obvious in the form of an unwanted pregnancy and the subsequent fall from grace forever.
In his book The Unwanted Child: The Fate of Foundlings, Orphans and Juvenile Criminals in Early Modern Germany, Joel Harrington reports the case of a young maid and her descent into disrepute by bearing a child, the result of a unwanted pregnancy caused by her employer. During Harrington’s research, he notices that the legal records were crammed full of reports of maids involved in fornication, abortion, abandonment and infanticide cases. He reasons that “domestic service entailed geographic and thus social displacement. Most young women…served fairly near their homes but far enough away to require a new social network.” Considering the stage in their development, that being late teens and early twenties, the young women were exposed to a multitude of “voluntary and involuntary sexual relations.”
They were almost completely dependent on their employers for food and board and leaving even abusive circumstances would result in forfeiting pay and termination of the contract, as well as shame to their families. “A maid impregnated by her employer was in fact the most common adultery scenario among married men throughout the early modern era.”
As with many historic vocational relationships, payment would only ensue at the end of the employment contract, be that a year or two years, and termination could mean forfeiting all the wages due. Historically, the best-paid women employees, like cooks and nannies, were maybe paid as well as their worse-paid male counterparts. But there were ways maids could better their positions. The master may have hinted that there were extra jobs to do and money would change hands. Maybe even a promise of marriage would preceded a sexual encounter. Although, in his book, Joel Harrington says, “…marriage was at best a cruel delusion.”
To be fair, there are reports in historical records of genuine love and affection between masters and maids, even if the relationships between them did not end in marriage. A famous example of a master involved with his maid(s) is that of the Dutch painter, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Born in 1609 in Leiden, Holland, and educated there too, he soon made himself a name and moved to Amsterdam in 1631, a promising career budding. There he met his art dealer’s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburgh, and in 1634, he married her. The couple lived in better circumstances even though a dark cloud shrouded their affluence. Saskia bore three children and none of the three infants survived. Then in 1641, Sakia gave birth to their son, Titus. Saskia sadly died a year later. During the time of Saskia’s illness, Rembrandt hired a governess, Geertje Dircx, to help him raise Titus. Around that time, he also hired a housemaid, Hendrickje Stoffels.
Rembrandt’s relationship with Geertje was an intimate one, to the point that he gave her a silver marriage medal, although not engraved. At this time he painted his most sexually explicate works like The French Bed (above) and The Monk in the Cornfield (below), considered pornographic for the 1640’s. He also gave Geertje some of Saskia’s jewels. Although Rembrandt and Geertje were betrothed, even though he later disputed this, they never married. He would have lost Titus’ trust fund, money set up in Saskia’s will, had he remarried and he could not afford to do that. Even though Rembrandt was a successful portrait painter, he was known to live above his means and had money problems.
When did the relationship between Rembrandt and Geertje sour? When did Geertje notice that Rembrandt preferred the young maid, Hendrickje? Maybe when Geertje noticed that Rembrandt looked “…at the young woman (Hendrickje) an instant longer than was quite necessary between a master and a maid,” as reported in the book Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama. Maybe when Geertje began to hint that a Christian marriage was what she really wanted. Maybe the problem escalated when Geertje noticed that Rembrandt took Hendrickje into his bed and no longer wanted her.
In 1649, Geertje was ousted, out of the relationship and out of the house. Rembrandt demanded that Geertje make a will leaving the jewelry he gave her to his son, Titus, should Geertje die. Geertje could ‘use’ the jewels, promising never to sell or pawn them, and he would pay her a yearly stipend, as long as she made no further demands on the artist. Hendrickje was even summoned in front of commissioners to testify that Geertje had agreed to this arrangement in front of witnesses and had no further claim on Rembrandt. The situation escalated further when Geertje pawned the jewels and continued to escalate until Rembrandt testified that Geertje was of “unsound mind.” Her detention ensued. In 1651, Geertje was confined to the Gouda Spinhuis, a correctional spinning house for wayward women. Even after her release in 1655, she continued to pester him.
In the meantime, Hendrickje proved to be a valued companion for Rembrandt, although he never married her, either. The immoral relationship did not go unnoticed by the Dutch Reformed Church. Hendrickje was summoned by the Church Council in 1654 when the swellings of her pregnancy were noticeable. She was “informed of the full depths of her depravity and wickedness…and formally banned from the Lord’s Supper, the Calvinist communion.”
Rembrandt painted what was considered the most beautiful of his nudes, the last nude painting of his career, in 1654, Bathsheba at her Bath (top), supposedly modeled by Hendrickje. They had a daughter, Cornelia, in 1654. Hendrickje remained with Rembrandt as his companion and business administrator until she died in 1663. Rembrandt died in 1669.
Laura Libricz was born and raised in Bethlehem PA and moved to Upstate New York when she was 22. After working a few years building Steinberger guitars, she received a scholarship to go to college. She tried to ‘do the right thing’ and study something useful, but spent all her time reading German literature. She earned a BA in German at The College of New Paltz, NY in 1991 and moved to Germany, where she resides today. When she isn’t writing she can be found sifting through city archives, picking through castle ruins or aiding the steady flood of musical instruments into the world market.
Her first novel, The Master and the Maid, is the first book of the Heaven’s Pond Trilogy. The Soldier’s Return and Ash and Rubble are the second and third books in the series, to be released 2017. A great way to get in touch is through https://about.me/lauralibricz for all the important links to her books and social media!
Harrington, Joel. The Unwanted Child: The Fate of Foundlings, Orphans and Juvenile Criminals in Early Modern Germany. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Schama, Simon. Rembrandt’s Eyes. New York: Random House / Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Stop by Sartle for more on Rembrandt’s work here.