This is another error that I come across often in historical novels, especially in the type that I write: romances. ‘Error’ is probably the wrong word to use here, though, as I’m fairly certain the novelists know that what they’re doing is misrepresenting what really could or could not happen in the Middle Ages. The heroine of a romance novel, in this case of noble birth, will often be alone, sometimes even travelling away from home unaccompanied by a maidservant, and, as I discussed last week, sleeping alone in a bedroom.
It’s easy to see why a novelist might do this, as the heroine has to meet the hero and get to know him somehow, and the purpose of the maidservant is to prevent just this kind of thing from happening. For my part, I quite like the challenge of working out how they can meet despite the maidservant.
The maidservant was supposed to be with the noblewoman day and night, which usually meant sharing a bed with her, although there might not be much room if there were sisters and female cousins in the household. It was a great responsibility, so the maidservant had to be someone of good character. We’ll see, though, that maidservants, and servants in general, were only human.
What was the point of this? The daughter of a nobleman or a king was really a political object. Her marriage would confirm or deny an alliance with another family and her sons would be noblemen. No nobleman really wanted to take the chance that he was bringing up someone else’s child as his heir, and, given that women in this class usually married when they were little more than children and might be easily led astray, there had to be someone to keep an eye on daughters of noblemen at all times.
It clearly was possible for young women to meet and to be alone with a man despite having a maidservant, though. The wealthy heiress Joan of Kent famously met, married and, according to her later testimony, was bedded by, Thomas Holland when she was twelve years old and a member of Queen Philippa’s household. This had all been done so secretly that no one believed her when she said that she was married and she was forced to marry the heir of the earl of Salisbury. I wonder how much it cost her or Holland to bribe the servant who was supposed to keep an eye on the woman who wasn’t just the richest woman in the country, but also the king’s cousin.
I’m afraid some dreadful things have happened to maidservants in my novels, not because I want to get them out of the way so that the heroine can spend time with her beloved, but because they’re characters who inhabit a world where dreadful things happen sometimes and I like them to be something other than a generic servant.