“Images of Servants: The Late Medieval Aristocratic Ideal and its Alternatives”
Although medieval representations of household servants are numerous, no art historian has examined them. This paper will be the first to explore images of servants produced north of the Alps from the late fourteenth through the early sixteenth century. It will focus on the dominant ideal, which evolved in aristocratic courts and denigrates and marginalizes ordinary servants, who are generally shown as submissive and subservient boys. Then it will explore two alternatives ideals. The first, holy servitude, depicts Christ as a household servant, which sanctifies that role. The second expresses a mercantile ideal. As capitalism develops and merchants begin commissioning images, a new model emerges of the servant as a dignified adult who stands at center stage, without his master, and whose labor is valued. Medieval servants belong to a shifting, unstable category, and the rich contradictions in images of them can be explained both by the disparate viewpoints of patrons and by the fundamental economic changes that were slowly transforming the conception of the domestic worker from a childlike subordinate into an independent adult. Vagantes Conference 2016 brochure.
Diane Wolfthal is David and Caroline Minter Chair in the Humanities and Professor of Art History at Rice University. Her interests include feminist and gender studies, Jewish Studies, the history of sexuality, technical art history, and the study of the intersection of money, values, and culture. She has authored books on rape, the intersection of space and sexuality, Yiddish book illustration, and beginnings of Flemish canvas painting. Her article “Complicating Medieval Anti-Semitism: The Role of Class in Two Tales of Christian Attacks on Innocent Jews,” will appear in the Spring 2016 issue of Gesta. Her major current project is a book titled Household Help: Servants and Slaves in Europe and its Colonies, for which she was awarded grants from the Yale Center for British Art and the Getty Research Institute.