Monday, 30 April 2012

The Groom of the Stool

I frequently ask on this blog whether we can and should look to history to understand modern forms of servitude and whether we lose sight of the  uniqueness of the past by insisting on its modern relevance. Well nothing reminds me of the distance between the modern and the early modern worlds more than the fact that the Tudor kings employed a servant specifically to – I’ll phrase this delicately – wipe their royal posteriors. This servant was hilariously named the ‘Groom of the Stool’ (sadly ‘stool’ meant ‘toilet’ at this point but the modern term for a bowel movement did evolve from here) and he had an influential and powerful role. Obviously the Groom was granted access to the most intimate moments of the monarch’s life but during Henry VIII's reign he also assumed responsibility for important administrative tasks.

Before he became infamous for bullying overweight schoolchildren David Starkey produced some superb analyses of this role. Starkey explains how Henry VII transformed the traditional great Chamber – the room in which “the king slept; ate most of his meals, and conducted most of his private business” – into a series of smaller rooms (1). The smallest and most personal of these was the Privy Chamber. Henry staffed this study-come-bedroom with a handful of trusted subordinates and forbade them to work in any other room. As Starkey puts it, the “firmly closed door of the apartment protected the king physically from the court nobility and so morally from the constant, insidious pressure they could ordinarily bring to bear.”  He might have hired a servant to wipe his backside but Henry longed for privacy and in the Privy Chamber he could relax and study accompanied only by his most trusted servants.

His son, however, renovated the function of the Privy chamber and its staff. The young Henry VIII, always glad of companions, swelled the staff of the chamber and entrusted them with ever more magnificent duties. These servants acted as emissaries between Henry and foreign and domestic magnates and monarchs.

So what might the existence and status of this role tell us, if anything, about servitude in early modern England? On the one hand, Starkey points out that although the Groom “had (to our eyes) the most menial tasks” his standing was, under Henry VIII, “the highest… entirely honourable, without a trace of the demeaning or the humiliating.” Although we may find it difficult to accept, early moderns did not necessarily consider servitude – whether royal or domestic –  to be demeaning. What's more, subordinate positions could have intensely powerful effects.  Then again, as Orlando Patterson points out, the Groom held no real power of his own. He was accepted by others only as a symbolic stand-in for the king, not as an agent who acted independently. As such, his legal position was strikingly similar to that of a slave (2). If such individuals enjoyed elevated statuses this was only because they were symbolically incorporated within the bodies of their masters. Powerful effects do not always require empowered individuals.
1. David Starkey, “Intimacy and Innovation: the rise of the Privy Chamber, 1547-1558” in The English Court, ed. David Starkey (Longman, 1987).
2. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Harvard University Press, 1985).

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Serving Shakespeare

Today’s post will be more personal than usual, and less servant orientated. On the 448th anniversary of his death, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust asked followers to discuss how they have been influenced by him (their answers can be found here). This is my  belated response.
My Nana didn’t read much but she kept a small collection of classics in her spare bedroom including the King James Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, and a collection of ‘real life’ alien encounters.  As a kid I would lie in bed at night devouring FBI reports of men vanishing into thin air and searching out morbid Shakespearean passages. Both disturbed and thrilled me because both suggested distant, violent, alien worlds.
When I went to college and university Shakespeare became less strange. I got comfortable with the rhythm, language, themes and historical context of his works.  My familiarity grew until one morning in July 2008 I sat in an interview for a PhD studentship and explained to the panel that I wanted to study Renaissance literature because that was where modern patterns of thought began, not because it reminded me of a “world we have lost”.
It’s now almost four years later and I am less certain about Shakespeare and how I want to relate to him.  After finishing my thesis and  loosing my moorings a bit I’m asking myself questions I thought I knew the answers to, including the most basic: what does early modern literature (and literature in general) mean to me anyway?
The feelings I had back in my nana’s spare room are returning. Shakespeare’s plays often seem like strange beasts  again now that I don’t have much time to tackle and dissect them. But  at the same time I believe in what I said in my interview. For perhaps the first time in four years I’ve allowed myself to properly wade through non-early modern stuff; to look, especially, at the way we represent servants today, and I’ve found many unexpected similarities.
This blog will hopefully help me sort out some answers to these questions. But however my feelings and my circumstances might fluctuate, however much I might change my mind about what I’m looking for, I still spend most of my time thinking and writing about the man.  

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Another Earth

On Sunday night I was reminded that stories about domestic service can be found in unexpected places. Paid domestic work is strangely central to Mike Cahill's Another Earth, the story of a young woman called Rhoda and her journey towards redemption after she drunkenly crashes her car, kills a mother and child and bereaves a father.

Cleaning obviously acts as symbol for redemption in this film. Rhoda cleans furiously at the same time as the mysterious second Earth advances bringing with it the the possibility that a nicer, unsullied version of herself exists on the duplicate planet. But the act of cleaning is not only symbolic. Rhoda starts working without a written contract and only the skimpiest of verbal agreements. Her working conditions and hours are not monitored by the agency that she claims to work for. She proceeds nervously around the house, unsure about what she can and cannot touch, until the physical closeness with her employer tips over into emotional and eventually sexual contact. None of this strikes the viewer as strange because we accept that domestic work in real life is unregulated, informal and often emotionally fraught.

Perhaps even more interesting than Rhoda, however, is her ancient janitorial colleague Purdeep. Purdeep appears in only six scenes in the film and, like so many on-screen servants, is largely silent. One day, however, Rhoda turns up at work to discover that Purdeep has been hospitalised after pouring bleach into his eyes and ears. He did it, his replacement explains, because he couldn't bear to look at, or hear himself any longer.

Reviewers of the film have noted that Purdeep, like Rhoda, seems to be chasing absolution for some undisclosed sin in his past life. When Rhoda visits him in the hospital she appears to confirm this by tracing the word 'forgive' onto his palm. But the viewer is not given any clue as to what his crime could be. Perhaps, then, we should seek other explanations. Purdeep has spent his life cleaning up after others - perhaps his 'sin' is nothing more than a perceived inability to rise beyond the conditions life has granted him. After all, as Rhoda's employer says, 'nobody enjoys cleaning'.

This beautiful post on the film puts it best:

In humanity’s eternal war against entropy it’s cleaners, underpaid and ignored, who are the frontline troops, tidying up our mess, putting things straight and making it so we can live another day... Purdeep leaves you wondering, makes you worry, like that grain of dirt that escapes the sweeper’s broom, that bit of entropy that always gets away.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Adventures in Local History

First, a disclaimer: I am not a good historian. I can talk about themes and culture and cultural themes, but I'm unsure how to operate a microfilm reader and I couldn't tell a parish record from my elbow. As part of my general research, however, I've started surveying texts written by and about servants in local archives and libraries in Newcastle (this has also to do with my involvement in the Popular Politics Project).

One text which has both intrigued and frustrated me is a slim volume entitled 'Tim Thrifty's Letter to his Fellow Servants', housed in Newcastle central library. It was published in Alnwick by 'J.Graham' in 1817. is apparently a letter from a senior servant upon his retirement warning fellow servants against vices like gluttony, disobedience and prodigality.

In many ways the letter is unremarkable. 'Tim' supports the hierarchical 'rank of life'. He admonishes female servants who give birth out of wedlock, servants who spend their small wages on frivolous pleasures like 'fairings', and those who have the cheek to question their lowly positions in life. Moralizing sermons like these are as common as far back as the sixteenth century, although they were usually written by preachers and the like at that time.

In fact, because the text is in many ways so rigidly conservative I can't help but wonder whether a servant really wrote it at all. 'Tim' names his master as 'Sir Stephen Allworthy' but I haven't (yet) found any record of a Sir Allworthy in Alnwick in the early 1900's. 'Allworthy' has an allegorical ring to it, like 'Tim Thrifty' and it strikes me that if an author in the 1820's wanted to induce conservative moral or social reform, publishing under the guise of a servant lecturing his fellow servants might be a clever way of doing so.

Yet 'Tim' also breaks away from moralizing at several points to reflect on more personal matters. In these moments he shows himself to be more than a mindless tool of the upper classes. He explains, for example, that he has saved his wages and can now support his nephew in beginning a trade, an advantage which will enable his nephew to 'settle in a higher walk of life than those who immediately preceded him'. 'Tim' then begins a lengthy note on the benefits of 'savings banks', a recent advantage which will allow servants and labourers to gain interest on their 'small sums'. Elsewhere 'Tim' encourages servants to advance themselves by learning to read and write.

As somebody who writes about literature, my instinct is to start linking this text with broader social and cultural movements, but I'm equally interested in working out who this 'Tim Thrifty' really was. And there are a few tantalising clues. On the first page, a handwritten note states that the text was 'probably written by...' Annoyingly, the handwriting is difficult to decipher, but a quick online search brought up a similar note in another Alnwick text by the same publisher. This note states that the text was 'probably written by J. S. Esq'. If I can assume that both notes refer to the same author then Tim Thrifty may not prove so elusive after all....

So, question for this week: what have you found to be the pleasures and pitfalls of studying local history? And, more pressingly, can I take a camera into an archive?! After four A4 pages of frantic handwriting I needed a stiff drink.

Sunday, 1 April 2012


I wanted to write a post about early modern drama this week, but whenever I sit down to write about servants in a particular time period servants from other times and places gatecrash my thoughts. A butler in a Renaissance play reminds me of the butler I saw in a film last week, who reminds me of the butler in that novel I loved, and so on. As Bruce Robbins puts it in his magisterial work The Servant's Hand: Fiction From Below, talking about servants can sometimes feel like "a stroll down an endless gallery of look-alikes" (Columbia University Press, 1996).

When rummaging through a second hand bookshop this week I had a similar feeling. By chance I picked up an anthology of work by Plautus, a Roman dramatist whose plays teem with clever, scheming slaves. I remembered that early modern dramatists were heavily influenced by Plautus, and another Roman dramatist Terence, when depicting servants and slaves. Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, for instance, reworks Plautus' Menaechmi (there is obviously something to be said here about differences between depictions of servants and slaves, but that's another post).

Plautus and Terence's plays are fresh and engaging even for modern readers. Their slaves make metatheatrical asides and gesture to the hypocrisy of their worlds. But their plays are actually translations and reinterpretations of Greek New Comedy not straightforward critiques of Roman life. Just like Shakespeare, Plautus and Terence recycled and reinterpreted stock servant characters rather than inventing new ones which might more accurately reflect the realities of their transformed societies.

As I mentioned in a previous post, tv shows today are still accused of recycling worn-out, stale stereotypes of servants. But throughout history, obviously recycled characters do remind us of a simple and important fact: literature (or tv, or film) is never simply a mirror through which we can see servitude clearly and in a neutral light. In the same way, a servant - or especially a slave - cannot simply determine her own status because her identity is, to an extent, already decided for her. And so I will continue welcoming gatecrashers.