The Household


The core of an affinity is the lord’s household, which comprises the lord, his family, and their servants, all of whom lived, slept, and ate together in the same house, whether on a permanent or a temporary basis. The higher the lord’s rank, the larger the establishment and the more numerous those in attendance on him; the Black Book of Edward IV expects a knight to have a household of 16. The aristocratic household was overwhelmingly male. The only uniquely female members were the laundresses, the nurses, and the lady’s attendants. Responsibilities were split up or combined according to the size of a household. A large household might have an entire office devoted to a task, while a small household might have a single person attending to that department, and a servant in a yet smaller household might find those duties only part of his job.

Once feudal residences developed private chambers for the lord and lady, the household divided into the upper and lower divisions.

The upper division was concerned with providing a congenial environment for the lord and included the chaplain, the chamberlain, and the chamber staff. Members were often of the same or slightly lesser rank than the lord. Additionally, there might be “household” knights and sergeants as part of this group. Such service was often a stage in the training of an aristocrat. The nobles of the upper house were probably little occupied by their “duties,” spending most of their time keeping company with their lord (advising, providing discussion partners, gaming, sharing in the hunt, running errands inside and outside of the house, and not least of all, providing suitable splendor). They were the men to whom the lord entrusted delicate, confidential, or complex matters. The men of the upper house were also available for military service, forming the core of his retinue, they also provided for his defense and were available to coerce the lord’s foes. These servants were able-bodied and expected to bear arms.

The lower division was concerned with toil such as the preparing the food, obtaining and maintaining supplies, and caring for the household’s goods and animals. The lower house was always larger than the upper, employing more staff. The lower house staff ran the kitchen, the buttery, the pantry, the stables, and other offices, employing yeomen, grooms, garcons, and pages. It seems likely that most of the staff were unmarried (since they were living in a house mostly lacking in women) and (presumably therefore) young.

Each of these divisions was overseen by one or more “head officers” (a steward or seneschal, sometimes aided by a treasurer and/or a comptroller). The “head officers” set general household policy, saw that order was kept, and closely monitored spending, but generally did not direct day-to-day tasks. These men were generally of a higher social rank than the other servants. In royal households they could themselves be aristocrats, though in such cases they likely delegated most of the actual work to their staffs.

Members of the household wore the lord’s livery (as appropriate to their station) and shared in his fortune.

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