The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Bound to Serve: Apprenticeship Indentures at the Folger

A guest post by Dr. Urvashi Chakravarty

In 1616, the apprentice Robert Dering received the following letter from his master Thomas Style.

Letter from Thomas Style to Robert Dering
Letter from Thomas Style to Robert Dering

Dering was bound overseas with one Mr. Culpepper, and in his letter, Style offers his apprentice several pieces of salient advice and stern admonition.1 Dering must be “delygent” to “learne the lanngwedge” (of his post abroad), to “spend not [his] time eydlye,” and to “mend and better [his] wryttinge” so that he “maye com to be Iimployed in [Style’s] affarres.” Style’s letter repeatedly emphasizes the ways in which his servant must edify and educate himself, from avoiding “Bad Companye” to applying himself to “wryttinge seyfferinge and Redinge of good Bookes.” If he does not follow these directions, his master warns, Style has “geven [Culpepper] order that if he ether see or heare any bad behaueyor or mysdemer by you…he shall shipe you home ffor England.” To be called home in disgrace, Style reminds his servant, would be “noe Comfortt to your ffreinds nor Credytt to your sellffe.”

Style’s letter offers a compelling insight into the expectations and obligations of early modern service, and reflects the ways in which apprentices must undertake both labour and learning during their term of service. This is apparent in the indenture contracts that I’ve been exploring as a long-term fellow here at the Folger this year as I complete my first book project, titled Fictions of Consent: Slavery, Servitude, and Free Service in Early Modern England. I am fascinated by the ways in which early modern servitude and labour were contracted and bound, and the material forms and language used to articulate this work as willing. In this post, I address some of the indenture contracts for English apprentices in the Folger archives to think about the forms and fictions that authorized the paradoxically bound performance of service, and to reflect both on the tensions within and the troubling afterlives of these documents.

I begin with a manuscript apprenticeship indenture from 1594 which binds “Johes Turke filius Johes Turke de Civitate London” to Edward Fisher for a term of nine years beginning on the 1st of May 1594.

Indenture of apprenticeship for John Turke
Indenture of apprenticeship for John Turke. Image from LUNA.

Enjoined to behave as a “good and faithful apprentice” (“bonus et fidelis apprenticus”), John Turke, like all early modern apprentices, is forbidden not only to contract a marriage or become betrothed, but also to commit fornication or even to play at dice (“Ad Talos non Ludet”).

These injunctions persist into the seventeenth century, in the English printed forms of these documents. The Worshipful Company of Cutlers’ printed indenture of apprenticeship (Folger X.d.734)—used in this case to bind “James Holden son of Humphrey Holden of Erdington in the county of Warwick Gent” to “Thomas Spencer, Citizen and Cutler of London, to learn his Art” for a period of seven years—explicitly forbids apprentices to “play at Cards, Dice, Tables, or any other unlawful Games, whereby his said Master may have any loss.” Repeatedly, indentures of apprenticeship emphasise the prospect of financial loss for the master; the apprentice must take care “not [to] waste the goods of his said Master, nor lend them unlawfully to any,” and in order to avoid wasting their labour, in addition to giving “Taverns” a wide berth, apprentices must also avoid the temptations of “Play-houses.”

Indenture of apprenticeship for James Holden
Indenture of apprenticeship for James Holden

But at the same time as the indenture (technically) binds individuals into a longstanding contractual obligation, it is also a fundamentally generic document, pre-produced and pre-printed, with spaces for the clerk to fill in by hand only the names of the parties, the length of service, and dates.2

Everything else about the type of service to be rendered is pre-ordained. As I explore in my book project, indentures also prescribe the manner of service: the apprentice “faithfully shall serve” his master, “his lawful Commandments every where gladly do” (emphasis added). The apprenticeship indenture attempts to mediate a relationship of both mutuality and hierarchy, of economic necessity and intimacy. If the apprentice is forbidden to “absent himself from his said Master’s service day nor night unlawfully,” he is also enjoined to keep his master’s “Secrets.” And in return, the apprentice will be allowed into his trade’s mysteries: “the said Master his said Apprentice in the same Art which he useth by the best means that he can, shall teach and instruct.” In addition, the master will, helpfully if rather paternalistically, “[find] unto the said Apprentice, meat, drink, apparel, lodging, and all other necessaries.”3

Indenture of apprenticeship for John Holden
Indenture of apprenticeship for John Holden

It is therefore striking when this exchange is troubled. Folger X.d.735 records the indenture of John Holden (quite possibly the brother of James Holden in X.d.734) to “John Purdue Citizen and Salter of London,” but “apparel,” in this document, appears to be effaced from the list of “necessaries” the master will provide during the term of his apprentice’s service. It is unclear when and why this component—which was both common and, presumably, quite necessary—was omitted from this document, although since apparel would have been an expensive provision, leaving it out would reduce the financial burden for the master. This indenture form itself also reveals a larger political change; printed to accommodate the succession of a new monarch if necessary (“in the ____ Year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King _______ of England, &c. Anno Dom. 16__”), the form nonetheless fails to anticipate the accession of a female monarch: tightly squeezed into the space for the “Lord King’s” name is the handwritten entry “William & queene Mary.”

If X.d.735 registers William and Mary’s unexpected accession to the throne, X.d.646, conversely, has to work around the sudden nature of Mary’s premature death.

Indenture of apprenticeship for Jeremie ffeere
Indenture of apprenticeship for Jeremie ffeere, a poor child of the parish. Image from LUNA.

In this indenture, the printed words “the Reign of our Soveraign Lord and Lady” are amended, with “and Lady” effaced, and “William the third” written in by hand. Unlike the previous indenture, contracted and signed by the apprentice himself, this document for “Jeremie ffeere” comprises an instance of binding out a poor child to avoid the economic burden of paupers on the parish.4 And although the provisions for apprentices are properly laid out, the interests and beneficiaries of this labour are difficult to ignore: masters and mistresses, this document insists, must “provide for the said Apprentice, that he be not any way a charge to the said Parish, or the Parishioners.”

This fascinating indenture is particularly striking for the way in the way it navigates and manages its record of consent; note, for instance, that it is the “Church Wardens of the Parish” and the “Overseers of the Poor of the said Parish” who bind the “poor Child of the said Parish” in question. It’s been very exciting to have the opportunity to work extensively not only with the materials noted here, but also with the Folger’s incredible collection of 66 indentured servant contracts (V.b.16), an astonishing record of the contractual successors and siblings of the documents I’ve discussed here. I’d like to end, however, by remembering that the indenture, as a legal instrument, also notes the conveyance of goods and the transfer of property. Y.d.554, contracted between John Popel of Barbados and Pentecost Teague of Philadelphia “of the one part” and Robert Quary of Philadelphia “of the other part,” records the receipt of several goods noted in “an indented schedule.” But included as part of this transfer were “Severall Negroes,” named and enumerated in the attached schedule, and itemised alongside such goods and chattels as “Three old Iron Saws” and “One Grindstone.”

"Indented schedule" itemizing "Negros Goods Chatles."
“Indented schedule” itemizing “Negros Goods Chatles.”

The presence of this document in the Folger archives serves as a chilling but crucial reminder that indentures transacted people as well as property, and that sometimes, that property was people. Indentures contractually bound their nominally willing participants, but they also—as here—authorised the workings of bondage.

Dr. Urvashi Chakravarty is Assistant Professor of English at George Mason University, where she teaches on early modern literature and culture, and a Mellon Long-Term Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library for 2017-2018. She is currently working on a book project titled Fictions of Consent: Slavery, Servitude and Free Service in Early Modern England.

  1. The Hamnet record notes that “the references to William Culpepper, associated with the Eastland Company, suggest that Dering was bound for a Baltic destination.”
  2. For a discussion of emendations and blanks in Folger documents, please see Derek Dunne’s Collation post: For a recent discussion of the fulfillment—or lack thereof—of the full term of indenture contracts, please see Chris Minns and Patrick Wallis, “Rules and reality: quantifying the practice of apprenticeship in early modern England,” The Economic History Review 65.2 (2012).
  3. For a recent discussion of the use of indentures in binding female apprentices, please see Laura Gowing’s “Girls on Forms: Apprenticing Young Women in Seventeenth-Century London,” Journal of British Studies 55.3 (2016).
  4. For a fuller discussion of the practice of apprenticing poor children, see Steve Hindle, On the Parish?: The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England, c. 1550-1750 (Oxford: OUP, 2004), esp. 191-226.

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