Sunday, June 21, 2015

Medieval bastards

It's probably due to the popularity of "Game of Thrones," but there has been a great deal of interest in how bastards were defined and treated during the Middle Ages.  As you have probably come to expect if you've been reading this blog for a while, it was complicated.

We now think of illegitimacy as simple: if the parents are married the children are legitimate, if not, not. But even now there's a lot of gray area.  These days many couples are living together, with their children, on an essentially permanent basis, but are not married.  The children are not mocked as bastards at school (or at least one hopes not).  Some children were born to married parents, but now the parents are divorced--does this change things?  Sometimes a man recognizes paternity and pays child support, even if he is no longer a couple with the child's mother, whom he's never married--how different is this from Divorced Dad?

There were at least four different categories of illegitimate children in medieval law.  A manzer, a term with Hebrew roots, was a child born to a prostitute or sometimes to an incestuous union, that is a child whose parents' relationship was considered morally wrong.  A nothus, a word with Greek roots, was the child of a married woman due to an adulterous affair, also morally wrong.  A spurius was the child of a couple who could not have been married, such as a citizen and a non-citizen (in those cities that regulated who citizens could marry), or a well-born man and a slave in late antiquity, or a married man and a concubine.  A naturalis was the offspring of a couple who could have married and indeed might do so in the future; this last category was treated fairly indulgently, the product of "young love" that got carried away.

In spite of medieval lawyers' efforts to create clear categories, the exact definitions of these four terms was fairly fluid.  A chronicler might decide to call the son of a lord and his concubine a manzer rather than a spurius if he disliked the son.  Someone showing off his Greek might call any child of an unmarried couple a nothus.  Whether the mother or the father was the highborn adulterer, some chroniclers would use nothus, some spurius.  By the twelfth century, the words illegitimus and bastardus were also in common use, meaning any child whose birth seemed somewhat irregular.

Even though there was an expectation that a bastard (especially a manzer) was more inclined to bad behavior than the average (we still use bastard to mean someone behaving especially badly, without necessary reference to his parents' marital status), in practice bastardy did not always carry a stigma.  Children of concubines might be brought up along with their half-siblings.  Fathers could and did legitimize illegitimate children.  Parents might be severely chastised for irregular unions, but the children generally got off easy.

The biggest concern was the inheritance.  Children of a married couple would automatically inherit, but it got tricky if the parents were not married to each other.  A nobleman might take a noble woman as his concubine as sort of a "test drive," then marry her when she got pregnant, and there would never be a question about their children's inheritance, but on the other hand the children of the same nobleman and a peasant woman didn't stand a chance--though they might get some nice gifts occasionally.

Some bastards did very well for themselves.  Charlemagne's grandfather, Charles Martel, was the product of a bigamous union.  William the Conqueror, who became king of England in 1066, was considered a bastard because his parents were not properly married.  Henry I of England had at least twenty illegitimate children, and many of the boys became bishops.  When King Philip II of France rejected his wife, he had several children with other women (during the time while his wife tried unsuccessfully to get back her position as queen), who were eventually legitimated and given comfortable lives.

Even in the stories, bastards might do well.  Sir Galahad, the peerless knight in the King Arthur stories who finally found the Holy Grail, was a naturalis, son of Lancelot and Elaine (whom he'd thought was Guinevere, it was dark, but that's another story).  Even in the Bible, King Solomon would have been a nothus by medieval law standards, son of David by an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba.

14 comments:

  1. where were these laws? was it the same everywhere?

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    1. All medieval cities and countries had laws. As noted above, things varied a lot, though there were general patterns.

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  2. Very interesting. I write novels set in Occitania in 1150-1158 so slightly different laws from Northern France /England Could a nothus be legitimised by the real father if the adulterous couple marry (the husband and assumed father having died?) Would that child be the equal of a child born when the couple are married? I know that is possible with a legitimised 'naturalis'

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    1. Children could *always* be legitimated if the parents married. But there would always be a sense that they weren't quite as good as a child who was legitimate the whole time. Children born after their parents were married would both look down on and feel uneasy about children born "naturally" earlier.

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  3. I didn't think there was really a concept of lawyer in the middle ages and that issues were decided by kings & lords. But I'm no scholar - far from it. Anyway, I came across this wondering how custody and "child support" issues were handled, especially early middle ages.

    Do you have any suggestions for sources?

    thanks!

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    1. Like everything in the Middle Ages, they believed in the rule of law and were figuring it as they went. There were no clear "child support" statutes. Someone who couldn't or wouldn't support a child was considered despicable, but it, like custody, would have to be negotiated by the principals.

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  4. The parent (usually the father) would declare the child their real heir. But unless it was a question of becoming the heir, one wouldn't bother with a legal fiction, because everyone would still know the child's origins. Henry I of England had at least 20 bastards who did very well because the king was their father, even if they were never legitimated.

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  5. If the only "legitimate" heir a lord could produce was a daughter, would she inherit over an illigimate half brother the father refused to legitimize? Or would said "bastard" have a chance?

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    1. Women could and did inherit frequently. In the case of Henry I of England (see above), he designated his daughter Mathilda as next king (not queen) of England, not any of his illegitimate sons. A lot of the English barons refused to follow her, but they turned instead to her cousin, not her half-brothers. The half-brothers kept a low profile deliberately. In other cases, a bastard half-brother might have argued for his "rights." It was, as I said, complicated.

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  6. I'm writing a fiction story. There is a courier attached to the household of an older sister to Robert the Bruce. The man is a bastard to Robert the Bruce, making him a loyal but illegitimate nephew to Christina. I'm trying to figure out his surname.

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  7. Most people didn't have surnames at this time. They are just coming in. You could call him Fitzrobert. Note that if people did have surnames at this time, they were attached to them personally, not a family name.

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  8. I have a question. Doing a bit of research, I can find plenty of information about king's who had illegitimate children. But what about queens? I understand cheating on the king was considered treason but what would happen to a child born out of a union between a queen and the man who was not her husband? Would they be treated any differently?

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    1. If a child were really recognized as the illegitimate offspring of the queen and someone who was not the king, s/he would be cast out. This is a situation where politics took precedence over the normal medieval willingness to deal with "natural" children.

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