Love Below Stairs: Rembrandt and His Maids

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Bathsheba at Her Bath. Rembrandt (1653)

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.”

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The French Bed. Rembrandt (1646)

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.

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The Monk in the Cornfield. Rembrandt (1646)

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.

main-photo-very-smallLaura 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!

Sources

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

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Illegitimacy: ‘Unnatural’ Birth in Stuart England

James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth,
eldest illegitimate son of Charles II and Lucy Scott.

The Restoration is seen as a period of almost legendary promiscuity. In the years following the Merry Monarch’s return, business for actresses and prostitutes was booming, domestic servants were prey for their masters, and many couples cohabited before they married, sometimes for years. Charles II himself had a dozen illegitimate children that he acknowledged, but the recorded rate remained at or below three percent of all births. Was this down to the growing popularity of condoms, dodgy statistics, or something worse? 

The truth is a little bit of all three. 

Most people did not marry until they had the means to establish independent households, causing many to delay marriage until later in life or to never get married at all. The mean male age at first marriage was between 27.1 and 28.1 years, and for women it was between 24.8 and 27. Men and women both commonly lived independently of their families before they married, if they ever did, and many couples cohabited. Between 1600 and 1649, roughly twenty-five percent of babies born in England were born within eight months of the wedding. Coward points out that: “Before the mid-eighteenth century marriage did not begin with a church wedding service; marriage was a process that began from the moment of the betrothal and was concluded by a ceremony in a church. As a result, conception often took place before the marriage process ended.” (2)

It is worth mentioning that this only takes into consideration the weddings and births that were formally recorded. Many marriages, particularly among the poor, had no church service and nothing more than a verbal contract. (4) Furthermore, many births went unrecorded, and the high rates of miscarriage and infant mortality make it impossible to get even a ballpark estimate of how many pregnancies occurred outside of a formal marriage, however it was defined. As many as three out of four children born in London could expect to die before the age of six. (3)

Astoundingly, the rate of illegitimacy only rose above three percent once during the entirety of the seventeenth century. (2) I find this hard to believe. Charles II probably accounted for most of those himself. He had twelve that he acknowledged, many becoming dukes and countesses, but most illegitimate children would not have fared so well. (4) Seen as unnatural and inherently untrustworthy, surviving illegitimate children would carry the stigma of their births with them their whole lives. 

So in an age known for promiscuity, why were the numbers of illegitimate children so low?

Condoms continued to grow in popularity throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were used primary to defend against syphilis and other venereal diseases, but also to protect against pregnancy as Casanova himself had advised. Unfortunately, the sheaths made from linen, sheep gut, or fish skin were a poor protection against pregnancy as they were held in place by ribbons and perhaps prayer, and were commonly re-used. Linen, of course, is porous, and would not have been a very reliable form of contraception. (5)

Infanticide was tragically common. “Unmarried mothers, terrified of the life of prostitution and destitution that they saw an inevitable after the shame of bearing an illegitimate child, covered up their pregnancies, and when their child was born either left it exposed to the elements to die, or abandoned it by a hospital or a workhouse where they hoped it might be given the chance to live.” Their short lives kept hidden, these births were unlikely to have been recorded in the parish records. (3)

There was a significant increase in prosecutions for infanticide in the seventeenth century. The Act to Prevent the Murdering of Bastard Children of 1624 required the woman to prove her innocence rather than for her accusers to prove guilt. Women employed as domestic servants were especially vulnerable to sexual advances or abuse by their employers. Between 1703 and 1772, twelve percent of the women executed at Tyburn were hanged for infanticide and a large proportion of those had been employed as domestic servants. (1)

Any woman bearing a stillborn child ran the risk of being accused of infanticide. As for the fathers, Worsley points out that: “Men were never criminalized in the same way for becoming parents outside marriage – how could they be? The master who made his maid pregnant had huge power over her. Society saw him as the deputy of the king, indeed of God, in the little kingdom of his own household. To criticize him would be to suggest that there was something wrong with the social order, and this was impossible.”(6)

The poor were not the only people having illegitimate children. As we know, Charles II and Louis XIV had at least a dozen each. Worsley explains that it was not that illegitimate children were not born into high society, but that their births were more easily kept quiet. “In the chapel of the Georgian St James’s Palace, some babies mysteriously ‘dropped in the court’ were baptized; no one knew who their mothers were, but various Maids of Honour seemed suspiciously willing to stand as godmothers.” (6)

Taking into consideration what we know of the limitations of parish records for this period, it seems likely that the true number of illegitimate births was much higher than that estimated three percent. Stillbirths, infanticides, and abandoned children would not have been counted, and others would have been spared the stigma if their parents married fast enough. As for the number of babies ‘dropped in the court,’ I couldn’t find an estimate. 

Sources
1. Brandon, David, and Brooke, Alan. Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree. Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2004.
2. Coward, Barry. The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714. Longman Group UK, 1980.
3. Moore, Lucy. The Thieves’ Opera. Viking, 1997.
4. Picard, Liza. Restoration London. Phoenix Press, 1997.
5. Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. Scarborough House, 1992.
6. Worsley, Lucy. If Walls Could Talk. Walker & Company, 2011.