A Monstrous Ideal

Early Modern Servant Emblems and the Concept of Skill


  • Robert Stearn




The paper suggests that 17th-century writers sometimes thought about disciplines, methods, and concepts as skilful, in the sense that these objects and processes held information, were used as tools to aid discrimination (where their use might also be skilful), and were the aggregated experience of people with skill as well as the product of their activities. The paper also suggests that servants were thought about in a similar way. Drawing on range of printed texts and a series of 'ideal servant' emblems from the 16th to the 18th century – in which servant chimeras and cyborgs appear with limbs and heads replaced by animal parts and/or inanimate objects connected with domestic service – the paper asks: in what ways did these materials place servants placed in relation to skill, or make them part of an institution in which one might be skilled, or part of a practice susceptible to modification by skill? The paper concludes by looking closely at a 1682 print and argues that it articulates a similar sense of skill as that found in 17th-century written materials. The print – in which a servant holds the tools of high-status arts in which one might be skilled, but servants were not – occupies an intermediate position between the emblematic servant of the sixteenth to mid-seventeenth century (whose capacities and attributes are expressed by the conventional significance of animals and tools) and the joke automaton maidservant of the eighteenth and nineteenth (made out of the objects around which and through which the work of domestic service takes place – the composite servant-body figures the energy of the living servant that puts them in motion).