Master’s Right

In Denmark, according to the Servants’ Statutes of 1854, anyone, seeking employment or wanting to leave his or her birthplace, should be able to prove he or she had been confirmed. All servants had to present a servant’s conduct book, which should be authorized by the local clergy or, in Copenhagen, by the police. In this book the employer should chronicle for how long and in what capacity the servant had worked. It was optional whether he would add a testimonial. Should he give a gloving reference that could be proved incorrect, he could be sentenced to pay retribution to a third party, aka the new employer. But, likewise, he was liable to pay retribution for damaging a servant’s losses, should he lie about the quality of the servant’s work. It is notable that it wasn’t allowed to pass a servant to another employer.

So far so good: there isn’t much to say against such a law.

If one reads on, through the 77 clauses certain points stick out. The employer has the right to submit servants to domestic discipline and chastisements can be given until a male servant is eighteen. The female servants get off a bit better: they can only be corporeally punished until they’re sixteen.

It is interesting to read that the master could dismiss any servant that ‘seduced the children of the household to corrupt actions’, ‘if the servant has a contagious or repulsive illness’ or incurs such illness during his or her service. Fornication with a member of the household would lead to instant dismissal. And, last but not least, a pregnant servant out of wedlock would face getting sacked without recommendation.

It stands to reason that a servant, who had a complaint against his or her master, would find it problematic to win a case against the employer. The proprietor would be backed by his status, and a servant would have to prove the case against a skeptical if not prejudiced judge. Should a young woman in such a position become pregnant, she would have nothing left: if her seducer was a part of the household, she could even be punished for corrupting the male who got her pregnant.

I can give an example. August Strindberg was a virile youngster in 1873. He is as discreet about his habits as is usual in that period, but, in The Red Room, he reveals some of his habits. He and his male friends, have an easygoing companionship, they share clothes as well as ‘girls’ — such girls that can be visited late in the evening. Strindberg writes about them in the same way as he’d mention a late-night snack.

In 1873, Strindberg initiated a relationship with a young woman, Ida Charlotta Olsson. She was a servant, but she was known to be available for young men from the upper echelons, without expecting marriage. The relationship lasted for two years but, during this period, Strindberg tried to donate her to a companion. In 1875, she became pregnant, but Strindberg denied responsibility. Later, in The Servant Girl’s Son, he gives his personal version of the matter, claiming that Ida Charlotta was a married woman and seduced him. As his career takes off she tries to blackmail him and, eventually, she’s unfaithful.

It is unclear, whether Strindberg was the father, but Ida Charlotta gave her son one of Strindberg’s Christian names, a clear suggestion of the actual situation. Anyway, Strindberg breaks up the relationship, and begins to court a young girl of the middle classes.

Years later Strindberg’s friend Carl Larsson seeks Strindberg’s assistance. He has been accused of getting a ‘girl’ with child. Strindberg writes Carl Larsson a letter, advising him to ‘give the girl fifty Kroner’: that should last her a year. Also, he adds, ‘that will save you paying for a children’s home, which would cost more. Don’t forget, there is a chance that the child doesn’t survive.’ As Post Scriptum he includes this piece of advice: ‘Next time you want to fuck a girl, don’t forget to put something on!’

To me, this portrays a society that has hardly moved on from the droit du seigneur, the right of the lord, or the medieval Ius Primae Noctis. No wonder that we still struggle against sexual harassment.

© HMH 2017

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