The Strange History of the ‘Bastard’ in Medieval Europe

The insult used to describe a person born out of wedlock and without any claim to patriarchal lineage has a past intertwined with Catholic marriage law.

King William I or William the Bastard. Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Today, ‘bastard’ is used as an insult, or to describe children born to non-marital unions. Being born to unmarried parents is largely free of the kind of stigma and legal incapacities once attached to it in Western cultures, but it still has echoes of shame and sin. The disparagement of children born outside of marriage is often presumed to be a legacy of medieval Christian Europe, with its emphasis on compliance with Catholic marriage law.

Yet prior to the 13th century, legitimate marriage or its absence was not the key factor in determining quality of birth. Instead, what mattered was the social status of the parents – of the mother as well as of the father. Being born to the right parents, regardless of whether they were married according to the strictures of the church, made a child seem more worthy of inheriting parents’ lands, properties and titles.

Consider, for example, the case of William the Bastard, more commonly known as William the Conqueror. Born to Robert, Duke of Normandy and Herleva, a woman clearly not his wife, William was nevertheless recognised by his father as his heir. Despite his youth and questionable birth, William managed to conquer and rule first Normandy and then England, and to pass his kingdom and titles on to his children.

Why then was William called ‘the Bastard’? Writing about William in the 12th century, the chronicler Orderic Vitalis called him ‘nothus’, an Ancient Greek term used to indicate birth to anything other than two Athenian citizens. What might Orderic have meant by this? The only elaboration he offered suggests a concern not with William’s mother’s marital status but rather with his maternal lineage. During William’s siege of Alençon in the 1050s, as Orderic wrote, the people…

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