Advice Books

Thomas Fosset, from The Servant's Duty; or, the Calling and Condition of Servants

[Click on image to enlarge] All English households of the upper and middle classes depended on servants to perform the functions that kept the establishment operating. The "family" indeed was seen to consist not only of husband, wife, and children, but also of the household servants. Advice books urged the householder to oversee the religious practice of his servants, to summon them to daily prayer and Sunday worship, to monitor their morals, and so on. Servants were constantly enjoined, as in Fosset's manual, to obey both master and mistress except when commanded to something sinful, as explained in Thomas Fosset's Servant's Duty (1613). Their responsibility to resist in such cases (like the wife's similar responsibility for her own moral acts and choices) produces some tension in the hierarchical system. That issue is played out in the conflict between Kent and Oswald in Shakespeare's King Lear (NAEL 8, 1.1143).


Every creature is called to some one thing wherein his calling doth consist, as the bird to fly, the fish to swim; and man (saith Job) is called to travail and labor, as the sparks fly upwards. Yea, men being all of one and the same nature, have divers callings: the king to rule, the master to teach and command, and the servant to obey. Yea, the servant is called to three things: to labor, to suffer, >> note 1 and to serve.

* * *

The third thing whereunto a servant is called is to serve, that is, to obey and to be in subjection, to have no will of his own or power over himself, but wholly to resign himself to the will of his Master, and this is to obey. For what is obedience, but as it is defined by the learned [as] * * * a voluntary and reasonable sacrificing of man's own will: voluntarily, freely, and without any constraint, and reasonably, that is, according to reason and religion, in the obedience and fear of God, to deny his own will, his own affections, and to submit himself altogether to the will of God, and his superiors in God. * * * Here then servants may see and learn how they must serve and obey. They must be obedient at a word, at a call, and at a beck. * * * All obedience must be subordinate unto the divine obedience due unto God. If thy master bid thee do evil, hurt thy neighbor's cattle, or steal his goods; if he command thee, or give thee example to cog >> note 2 and lie, to steal or use any fraud or deceit in buying or selling, to sell that which is evil for good, to exact more than a thing is worth, to do anything which you should not be content would be done to you, then say, as Christ the Master of us all said, when one told him that his mother and his brethren stood without to speak with him: "Who," saith he, "is my mother, and who are my brethren, et cetera?"

© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page