Discourses versus life courses: servants' extramarital sexual activities in Flanders during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Matthys, C.
Journal of Urban History, 42:1, 81–100 (2016)


This article uses both qualitative and quantitative analysis to study the effect of rural-urban servant migration on the sexual behaviour of servants in Flanders during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the qualitative part, I compare various discourses on servants’ extramarital sexual behaviour in order to sketch the ideological context which affected women’s agency. Contemporaries were commonly convinced that urban servants more often became pregnant outside of marriage than other women, but disagreed on whether this was caused by the women’s vulnerability or immorality. In the quantitative part, I use life course analysis to determine differences in the behavioural patterns of servants and women who had never become a servant. Looking not only at extramarital fertility, but at marriage behaviour as well, I argue that servants appeared to be slightly more risk-taking when it comes to engaging in extramarital relationships. With this mixed/methods approach, By combining various approaches, this article avoids one-dimensional readings of the source material. Interpretations of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘sexual emancipation’ have been used in the literature to link increased illegitimacy with social isolation and urbanisation. I challenge the dichotomous use of these concepts since they are too basic to comprehend the complexity of sexual behaviour outside of marriage.
Das Max-Planck-Institut für demografische Forschung (MPIDR) in Rostock ist eines der international führenden Zentren für Bevölkerungswissenschaft. Es gehört zur Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, einer der weltweit renommiertesten Forschungsgemeinschaften.