Servants in the early-modern Nordic countries

By Hanne Østhus <> and Carolina Uppenberg <>


Early studies of Nordic servants written in the first half of the twentieth century focused on legal frameworks, Lutheran teachings regarding the position of the servant in the household, and the role of servants’ labour in agriculture. These studies often viewed service from a functionalist perspective, explaining changes in laws and practices as effects of economic changes. Later studies instead foregrounded the continuity of the servant position.

The early-modern Nordic servant became a topic of renewed research interest beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly as a result of the growing popularity of demographic history and women’s history. Inspired by the work of The Cambridge Group for the History of Population & Social Structure, demographic historians examined the number of servants per household, as well as servants’ age, sex, and marital status. The findings identified what Peter Laslett termed “life-cycle service” – i.e., the situation when a large proportion of the population circulated between households working as servants before marriage. Moreover, several studies of rural servants employed the perspective of the household, and analysed servants as supplementing the workforce of the nuclear family.

With the emergence of women’s history, much attention was paid to work performed within the household and by women. Within this strand of research, a literature that was more uniformly geared towards exploring the lives of female servants also developed. Connected with social history and history from below, it emphasized the fact that household and domestic service was indeed work. At the same time, historians explored the power structures within the household, including those between master and servant and mistress and servant. This line of inquiry was fuelled further by an interest in court records as a historical source, which developed in the 1990s through large-scale pan-Nordic projects. Court records, together with laws and legal documents, remain important sources in current research as well. The focus on women has transformed into research on gender. In addition, theories on labour coercion and everyday resistance are developing as important perspectives in research on the early-modern Nordic servant.

Selected Literature

An early influential study analysing the position of the early modern servant was Arthur Montgomery’s article on the Swedish Servant Acts. It shaped what became the dominant view of early modern servants before the breakthrough of the demographic perspective.

In his work on preindustrial household formation systems, John Hajnal used data from the Nordic countries, Finland excepted, to construct a model of what he called the northwest European simple household system. He argued this was a particular kind of household structure where individuals married late, established independent households upon marriage, and often circulated between households as servants before marrying. Although researchers identified many of the features from Hajnal’s model in the Nordic countries, they also pointed out that there were considerable geographical variations. Beatrice Moring has followed up on this and argued against the notion of any common “‘Nordic’ levels of servanthood.” Correspondingly, Deborah Simonton and others have challenged the trope of the life-cycle servant, and explored how service did not always end in marriage in Nordic countries in the eighteenth century.

Issues of migration and mobility have informed much of the literature on servants. Sølvi Sogner, who has written extensively on many topics connected with servants, found that a large number of young women from southwest Norway moved to Holland in the seventeenth century to work as domestic servants. Martin Dribe and Christer Lundh studied migration over shorter distances, as well as when and how youth left home. Dribe and Lundh found that class affected the age when young people became servants and their future prospects, although they emphasized that service was a widespread experience among the peasantry as well.

A substantial part of literature has dealt with law and legal practice. Anette Faye Jacobsen challenged the modernization narrative of the progress of individual over collective rights between 1750 and 1920. Instead, she argued that the head of the household played an important role in Danish law. Servants were the social group most comprehensively subjected to the authority of the household head, according to Jacobsen. Börje Harnesk looked at the making of servant law, and explored debates on servant law in the Swedish Diet during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Paul Borenberg and Hanne Østhus studied legal practice and analysed servants’ involvement in court cases in Stockholm in the early seventeenth century, and Oslo and Copenhagen in the eighteenth century. Monika Edgren connected the legal evolution of the servant position to early-modern state formation.

A recent development within the study of the early-modern Nordic servant is inspired by global labour history and especially Marcel van der Linden’s proposal to analyse moments of coercion. This has led to a focus on compulsory service – a number of legal requirements found in all the Nordic countries that sought to force landless, unmarried youth from the peasant estate into yearly or half-yearly service contracts. Vilhelm Vilhelmsson studied everyday resistance to these harsh regulations for the case of nineteenth century Iceland. Carolina Uppenberg studied the practical handling of such regulations from a gender perspective in Sweden.

List of Literature Cited

Borenberg, Paul. “Tjänstefolk. Vardagsliv i underordning. Stockholm 1600–1635. PhD diss., Gothenburg University, 2020.
Dribe, Martin. “Leaving Home in a Peasant Society: Economic Fluctuations, Household Dynamics and Youth Migration in Southern Sweden, 1829–1866. PhD diss., Lund University, 2000.
Edgren, Monika. Från rike till nation: arbetskraftspolitik, befolkningspolitik och nationell gemenskapsformering i den politiska ekonomin i Sverige under 1700-talet. Lund: Historiska media, 2001.
Faye Jacobsen, Anette. Husbondret. Retighedskulturer i Danmark 1750–1920. København: Museum Tusculanum, 2008.
Hajnal, John. “Two Kinds of Preindustrial Household Formation System.” Population and Development Review 8, no. 3 (1982): 449–94.
Harnesk, Börje. “Legofolk: drängar, pigor och bönder i 1700- och 1800-talens Sverige.” PhD diss., Umeå University, 1990.
Lundh, Christer. “The Social Mobility of Servants in Rural Sweden, 1740–1894.” Continuity and Change 14, no. 1 (1999): 57–89.
Montgomery, Arthur. “Tjänstehjonsstadgan och äldre svensk arbetarpolitik.” Historisk tidskrift 53, no. 3 (1933): 245–76.
Moring, Beatrice. “Nordic Family Patterns and the North-West European Household System.” Continuity and Change 18, no. 1 (2003): 77–109.
Østhus, Hanne. “Contested Authority: Master and Servant in Copenhagen and Christiania, 1750–1850.” PhD diss., European University Institute, 2013.
Simonton, Deborah. “‘Birds of Passage’ or ‘Career’ Woman? Thoughts on the Life Cycle of the Eighteenth-Century European Servant.” Women’s History Review 20, no. 2 (2011): 207–25.
Sogner, Sølvi. Ung i Europa. Norsk ungdom over Nordsjøen til Nederland i tidlig nytid. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1994.
Uppenberg, Carolina. “I husbondens bröd och arbete. Kön, makt och kontrakt i det svenska tjänstefolkssystemet 1730–1860.” PhD diss., Gothenburg University, 2018.
van der Linden, Marcel. “Dissecting Coerced Labour.” In On Coerced Labor: Work and Compulsion after Chattel Slavery, edited by Marcel van der Linden and Magaly Rodríguez García, 293–322. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2016.
Vilhelmsson, Vilhelm. Sjálfstætt fólk. Vistarband og íslenskt samfélag á 19. Öld. Reykjavík: Sögufélag, 2017.