Were there servants in the Bach family household? (Part I)

Servants (Gesinde) is the term used for people responsible for various jobs in the house, who belonged to the household and were paid and fed. The question whether servants were employed in Anna Magdalena Bach’s household and if so, how many, would be very important. If many of the daily chores were done by maids, she would be free for other pursuits. The image of the housewife who had to look after the children all day, cook the meals, clean the apartment, and do the washing would not be so convincing.

One can often read that Friedelena Margaretha Bach (1675-1729) was a great help. She was Bach’s first wife’s sister and belonged to the household even before his marriage to Anna Magdalena. (Bach’s first wife was distantly related to him and, like her sister, a born Bach.) But there is no further information about Friedelena Margaretha. Maybe she did do a lot of the housework. Or perhaps this sort of work was beneath her dignity. It is also possible that she was disabled and needed support herself. In short, we can only speculate about her contribution.

Unfortunately, there are no contemporary reports about the life of the Bach family which would tell us exactly how many employees were in the household. But the initial question can be answered with “yes” in so far as wet nurses also belonged to the servants (see the blog article “How many children did Anna Magdalena Bach have to care for?”) and the presence of other servants can be confirmed: in August 1721 a “maiden Anna Elisabeth, in the service of Capellmeister Bach” appears as a godmother at a baptism in Köthen (Dok II, page 81). At this time, Johann Sebastian Bach was a widower. It can be ruled out the Anna Magdalena took on her work after the wedding in December 1721. An encyclopaedia entry from this time states that a wife had the right to refuse this: “if a man expects things which are more suitable for a maid”. (Zedler 1735, vol. 12, column 914). It is therefore not surprising that a maid can be shown to have been in the Bach household later as well. The catalogue of Johann Sebastian Bach’s estate shows that she was still owed 4 Taler (Dok II, page 497). That was a relatively large sum, for example a mine worker in the Electoral Saxon mine would have had to work for a month for that amount. It cannot be assumed that a maid would have been able to wait so long for payment if she had to provide for her own food and lodging. This indicates that she lived with the Bach family and was fed there. This was usual in those circumstances. (Elsas 1940, page 597 ff.)

But was there only one maid in the Bach household? Even students had maids in attendance when they shared a lodging. These cleaned their shoes, cleaned the rooms, lit the fires, and did the shopping. (See for example Müller 2007, pages 200, 218.) Johann Sebastian Bach had a significantly higher status. For example, on the title page of the Partia V (BWV 829) we can read that this work was composed and published by “Johann Sebastian Bach, true Cappellmeister of the high court of Anhalt-Cöthen and Director of the Chori Musici of Leipzig”. In 1748 he signed a report for a pupil as “Joh. Seb. Bach, Composer to the Royal Polish and High Court of Electoral Saxony, Capellmeister, and Director of the Chori Musici of Leipzig”. He appeared in the Leipzig address book under “People who are honoured with special dignities and titles, including foreign ones”. (Dok I, pages 150, 231 f.; Dok II, page 327)

St. Thomas Church courtyard in Leipzig 1749 (Extract from a coloured etching by Johann Georg Schreiber)

The building in the middle (No. 13) is the St. Thomas school. The Bach family apartment was on the left side. (Source: Leipzig City Historical Museum, as image on home page)

The Bach family apartment was spread over several floors and was about two hundred square meters, had eight rooms and a kitchen. (Spree 2021, page 47 f.) Many private pupils were taught here who were also students. (Koska 2018, pages 13 ff.) Some of them lodged there. (Dok II, page 396; Dok III, pages 479, 613) To have only one maid employed in this household would hardly have been compatible with the status of the Capellmeister and Court Composer. The funds to pay the personnel were also at hand. Over the years several people can be shown to have worked as private secretaries and tutors. (Dok I, pages 118, 141) There was money for a wet nurse, who earned a lot more than a household or kitchen maid. (Spree 2021, page 87) For example Johann Sebastian Bach was paid 50 Taler for composing and performing a cantata in honour of the Elector in October 1734. This was sufficient to pay a maid in the household for several years. In her dissertation on the Leipzig professors, Theresa Schmotz states: “no Leipzig professor’s household could have functioned without servants and is not even conceivable without these services” (Schmotz 2012, page 47)

This all leads to the conclusion that there were more servants than just one maid in the Bach family household. Further evidence for this will be presented in the next article.

Translation: Alan Shepherd