medieval servants

Life Below the Stairs: The Roles of Medieval Servants

In medieval times, the function of a household was incomplete without the presence of servants. Servants were an integral part of the social structure, and their labor was vital for the day-to-day functioning of the house. They were the backbone of the society, responsible for running the household of the nobility, the clergy, and even the commoners.

Their roles varied depending on the type of household and the social status of their employers. Understanding the roles and responsibilities of medieval servants can help us gain insight into their contribution to the society and their impact on history.

Key Takeaways:

The Different Types of Medieval Servants

Medieval households required an army of staff to run smoothly, and the roles and responsibilities of servants varied significantly. The types of servants in a medieval household depended on the size of the household, the wealth of its owners, and the duties required.

The Lord’s Retinue

The lord’s retinue, comprised of knights, pages, and squires, was responsible for the defense and protection of the household. They were also responsible for accompanying the lord to battles and tournaments.

The Steward

The steward was the second in command in the household and the head of all domestic arrangements. Their responsibilities included the recruitment, management, and payment of all household staff. They were also responsible for overseeing the household’s finances and managing the estate’s accounts.

The Butlers

The butlers were responsible for the household’s beverages and beverages stock. They oversaw the wine cellar, arranged for the purchase of new wines, and served wine during meals. They were also responsible for serving beer and ale, which were common drinks during the medieval period.

The Cooks

The cooks played a vital role in the medieval household. They were responsible for the preparation of all meals and ensuring that the food was of the highest standards. They worked in the kitchen, which was often located in a separate building from the main house to avoid the kitchen’s heat and smell from permeating the living areas.

The Chamberlain

The chamberlain was responsible for the household’s bedrooms, linen, and clothing. They maintained the bedchambers, arranged for laundry services, and ensured that the linen was of the highest quality. They were also responsible for overseeing the household’s clothing, which included the lord’s outfits and any guests’ clothing.

Medieval households were complex structures, and each servant played a crucial role in maintaining the household’s functionality. The roles and responsibilities of servants varied significantly, and each played a vital role in ensuring the household ran smoothly.

The Daily Chores of Medieval Servants

Medieval servants were an essential part of the household, responsible for maintaining the smooth functioning of the noble family’s daily life. The duties assigned to medieval servants varied depending on their rank, skills, and the size of the household. However, there were some tasks that were common to all types of servants, which they had to perform daily.

The daily tasks of lower ranking servants such as scullery maids and kitchen boys included cleaning utensils and preparing food ingredients. These servants also had to keep the kitchen neat and tidy, ensuring that everything was in its place before and after meals. In addition, they had to assist the cook in preparing, cooking, and serving food to the nobility and their guests. Some servants were also responsible for feeding and caring for the household pets.

Chambermaids, who were responsible for cleaning and maintaining the bedrooms and living areas, had to ensure that all the rooms were clean and tidy. This included making the beds, washing and ironing clothes, arranging furniture, and dusting. They also had to ensure that the fireplaces were set and the rooms were heated in colder weather.

The butler, who was in charge of the wine cellar and the table service, had to ensure that the household had an adequate supply of wine and other beverages. They also had to supervise the under-butlers and ensure that the dining table was always set for each meal. The under-butlers, footmen, and page boys, were responsible for serving meals and running errands.

Overall, the daily chores and tasks of the medieval servants reflected the complex and structured nature of the household hierarchy. The servants’ roles were crucial to maintaining order and ensuring the noble family’s comfort and luxury.

The Hierarchy of Medieval Servants

The social structure of a medieval household was based on a strict hierarchy, with each servant having a defined role and position. The number of servants in a household varied depending on the wealth and status of the family. A wealthy noble household could have over 100 servants, while a small cottage might only have a few.

At the top of the servant hierarchy were the senior staff, including the steward and chamberlain, who were responsible for managing the household’s finances and overseeing the work of other servants. They were followed by the butler, who was in charge of the wine cellar, and the cook, who was responsible for preparing meals for the household.

The middle ranks of servants included the valets, footmen, and maids, who performed various tasks such as serving meals, cleaning, and running errands. Valets were responsible for the personal needs of their masters, while footmen were typically employed to accompany and assist the family on outings.

The lowest ranks of servants were the scullery maids and kitchen boys, who performed menial tasks such as washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen. They were often young and inexperienced and worked long hours for very little pay.

The hierarchy of servants was not only based on their tasks but also on their living arrangements. The senior staff typically had their own rooms and more comfortable living quarters, while the lower ranks often slept in communal areas or even in the stables.

The hierarchy of servants was also reflected in the way they dressed. The senior staff wore more elaborate and expensive clothing, while the lower ranks wore simpler and less expensive clothing.

The Impact of the Hierarchy of Servants

The servant hierarchy played a crucial role in maintaining the social order of medieval society. It established a clear division between the wealthy, upper-class families and their servants, reinforcing the idea of social hierarchy and inequality.

Additionally, the hierarchy of servants created a sense of competition and rivalry among the lower ranks, as each vied for a higher position within the household. This competition sometimes led to petty squabbles and even violence.

Despite the inherent inequalities of the servant hierarchy, many servants were loyal to their masters and felt a sense of duty and honor in their work. Some even rose through the ranks to become senior staff, earning more respect and a higher standard of living.

The Life and Conditions of Medieval Servants

Life as a medieval servant was not an easy one. They were often subjected to long working hours and harsh living conditions. Servants were considered the lowest in the social hierarchy and had few rights or freedoms.

Living conditions for servants were typically cramped and uncomfortable. They slept in small, damp rooms with no privacy and often had to share a bed with other servants. Sanitation was poor and they had to use communal outhouses. Servants were also exposed to various diseases due to the unsanitary conditions.

Servants’ diets consisted mainly of bread, porridge, and vegetables. Meat was a luxury and was rarely included in their meals. Alcohol was also limited and was only provided during special occasions.

Despite the difficult living conditions, servants were often treated as part of the family and were provided with basic necessities such as clothing and medical care. Some servants were also able to save money and eventually buy their freedom.

In conclusion, the life of medieval servants was characterized by hard work and poor living conditions. They were an essential part of the household and played a significant role in maintaining the estate. Understanding the conditions in which they lived and worked helps us to appreciate the sacrifices and contributions made by these individuals.

The Role of Servants in Medieval Society

Medieval servants played a crucial role in the functioning of society. While they were considered lower class, their contribution was essential in maintaining the household and supporting the noble families they served.

The work of servants extended beyond daily household chores. They also acted as companions, confidants, and even educators for the children of the household.

Servants also held a significant place in society through their role in hospitality. They were responsible for the smooth running of feasts and banquets, ensuring that guests were welcomed and well-catered for.

Despite their lower social standing, medieval servants were valued members of society. They played a vital role in ensuring the smooth running of households and the success of noble families. Their hard work and dedication made them an indispensable part of medieval society.

The Relationship Between Servants and Nobility

In medieval society, the relationship between servants and nobility was a central aspect of daily life. Servants were responsible for carrying out a variety of tasks, ranging from cooking and cleaning to caring for children and horses. The nobility, on the other hand, held the power and authority to employ and control these servants.

The social hierarchy of medieval society was reflected in the relationship between servants and nobility. The higher-ranked the servant, the more prestigious their position within the household. This meant that those working directly for the nobility, such as personal attendants or advisors, were held in higher regard than those in more menial positions.

Despite the hierarchical structure, there was a level of camaraderie between servants and their masters. Over time, servants could build close relationships with their employers, even becoming trusted confidants and friends. However, it was essential to maintain a level of respect and deference to the aristocracy at all times.

The relationship between servants and nobility was not without its tensions, however. Conflicts could arise over wages, working conditions, and expectations. Disputes could also arise between different members of the household, with servants competing for favor or resources.

Overall, the relationship between servants and nobility was a complex one, shaped by the social norms and expectations of the time. Understanding this dynamic is essential to gaining a comprehensive understanding of life in medieval households.

Famous Medieval Servants

While medieval servants tended to be overlooked and undervalued, history has shown that many of them made significant contributions to their societies. Here are a few famous examples:

Name Contribution
Geoffrey Chaucer Chaucer was a medieval English poet who served as a page, soldier, and diplomat before becoming a member of the royal court. His experiences as a servant inspired some of his most famous works, including The Canterbury Tales.
Giovanni Boccaccio Boccaccio was an Italian author and poet who worked as a servant for the wealthy Cavalcanti family in Florence. During his time there, he was exposed to a wide range of literature and culture, which influenced his later works such as The Decameron.
Jeanne d’Arc Although she is best known for her military leadership during the Hundred Years’ War, Jeanne d’Arc began her career as a servant in her father’s household. It was during this time that she began to experience visions of saints, which would later inspire her to lead France to victory.

These individuals demonstrate that even those in humble positions can have a profound impact on history and culture. Their stories serve as a reminder that everyone, regardless of their station in life, has the potential to make a difference.


Medieval servants played a crucial role in the functioning of households and estates in medieval society. Though their work is often overlooked, they were instrumental in ensuring that the daily needs of the household were met, and the residence ran smoothly.

This article explored the different types of medieval servants, including their daily chores and the hierarchy of their roles. We also examined the living conditions of these servants and their contribution to medieval society.

The relationship between servants and the nobility was also discussed, and we were able to see how servants fit into the wider social hierarchy of the time. Additionally, we highlighted some famous medieval servants and their significant impact on history.

Overall, medieval servants played a vital role in maintaining the order and functionality of the households and estates that they served in. Their contributions are a testament to the importance of all workers in society, regardless of their societal status.


Q: What were the roles of medieval servants?

A: Medieval servants played various roles within a household, such as serving meals, cleaning, and attending to the needs of the noble family.

Q: How many types of medieval servants were there?

A: There were different types of medieval servants, including butlers, cooks, chambermaids, stable hands, and more.

Q: What were the daily tasks of medieval servants?

A: Medieval servants had a range of daily chores, including cooking, cleaning, fetching water, tending to the stables, and assisting with dressing the noble family.

Q: How did the hierarchy of medieval servants work?

A: The hierarchy of medieval servants was based on a strict structure, with higher-ranking servants overseeing those beneath them and managing specific areas of the household.

Q: What were the living conditions like for medieval servants?

A: Living conditions for medieval servants varied, but they often lived in cramped quarters within the household and had limited privacy and comfort.

Q: What was the societal role of medieval servants?

A: Medieval servants played a vital role in maintaining the functioning of a household and ensuring the daily needs of the noble family were met.

Q: How did servants interact with the nobility?

A: Servants had a hierarchical relationship with the nobility, serving their needs and often adhering to strict protocols and etiquette.

Q: Can you name any famous medieval servants?

A: Some notable medieval servants include Joan of Arc, who served in the household of Isabeau of Bavaria, and Geoffrey Chaucer, who was a servant in the royal household.