New Worlds: The Wrong Side of the Blanket

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Bastards aren’t the inevitable consequence of adultery, but they’re pretty common.

They don’t have to be, of course. With birth control, one can have oodles of standard-issue heterosexual intercourse without ever producing a child. But the kind of society that stigmatizes bastardy — being born out of wedlock — is often the kind of society that doesn’t practice much in the way of contraception, either. The connection isn’t accidental; patriarchy usually demands both that women produce offspring only for their legally recognized husbands, and that they produce offspring.

That “bastard” is a term of deep stigma is clear from the fact that it survives in English as a pejorative, long after we stopped using it to describe out-of-wedlock children. We as a society may tut-tut the “problem” of single mothers (a phrase that covers not only unmarried women, but widows and divorcees with minor children), but that’s more about economic stability or the notion that children should have one male and one female parent than it is about the child’s conception. While specific groups may feel differently, the general zeitgeist in the West doesn’t see such a mother as a “fallen woman,” nor does it assume the circumstances of conception transferred any effect to the child.

But oh, was that ever not the case in the past. It’s extremely common for people to believe that moral traits are just as heritable as physical ones, and some of those traits are pseudo-Lamarckian: anyone conceived in sin is stained by it. In this view, a bastard naturally lacks moral fiber, because his parents tossed theirs aside when they made him. He might be more prone to lust, or to lying, or to envy, or to treachery. I mean, just look at Mordred! (Incest and adultery: a double whammy of sin.)

Where bastardy is considered an important issue, the law takes a great deal of interest in regulating the situation. The practice of child support or child maintenance, where the father is required to contribute toward the expense for rearing their offspring, isn’t a new innovation; after all, financial punishment is a time-honored response to violating laws and social norms. Of course, that requires you to know who the father is — and without genetic paternity tests or magical equivalent, proving that might be easier said than done, especially if the father is influential. Whether he bothers to uphold his obligation is also an open question.

Additionally, the law often takes steps to enshrine the stigma attached to that status. George R.R. Martin’s notion of regional surnames for bastards (Snow, Sand, etc.) is more elaborate than anything I know of in the real world, but it’s very common for illegitimate children to be barred from using their father’s family name. Furthermore, an illegitimate son is frequently ineligible to inherit his father’s estate, even if he’s older than his legitimate half-siblings. In that sense he shares a great deal in common with the son of a concubine, even when concubinage is a legally recognized relationship.

It isn’t necessarily the case, though, that once a bastard, always a bastard. (At least not in the legal sense.) In some jurisdictions, an illegitimate child can be legitimized by his parents’ marriage, sometimes with the restriction that they must have been able to marry at the time of his conception — meaning no such luck for anyone born of an adulterous affair. Other cultures might allow for the formal adoption of illegitimate offspring, granting them legal status via another route.

In the absence of such elevation, though, the outlook for a bastard may be bleak. If he’s criminal or covetous, it’s less because he absorbed that tendency through the placental barrier, and more because he spends his life disenfranchised. He grows up seeing what his legitimate half-siblings get to have, or he’s abandoned to be raised as a penniless foundling by a religious or charitable institution. Or he does have one parent, usually a mother . . . who may have been thrown out of her home by an angry father or a divorcing husband, leaving her to survive however she can.

You may have noticed that I’m saying “he” a lot more than “they,” the way I normally would. That’s because society tends to get a lot more worked up over bastard sons than daughters. The latter may be in for as much pity and disdain as their illegitimate brothers, and just as vulnerable to the accusation that any moral failings are inherited from their parents (their mothers especially), but again, patriarchy: this issue becomes the most fraught when inheritance is patrilineal. A son is a threat to the family line; a daughter is not.

And that’s been a real issue at countless points throughout history. Whatever the law may say about bastards not inheriting, swords can say something different — especially when there are factions that see political gain in backing a different contender. Ambitious upstart or hapless pawn, a bastard son may have a very interesting future.

Mostly at the highest levels of society, of course. As with adultery, status matters: history is littered with royal bastards, some of whom were open secrets, others not even that concealed. More than a few kings have acknowledged their bastards and bestowed titles, wealth, and even land on them, or married them into good families. You’ll receive relatively little stigmatization then, given the benefits of association with even a by-blow of the king. Mind you, that’s still an uncomfortable place to be, especially if you’re a son; you never know if your legitimate half-brother the heir is going to decide to clear the board of rivals.

I want to close with a quick tour through some of the English terms for this situation, because they shed a fascinating light on how we view it. Unsurprisingly, the Oxford Historical Thesaurus lists over thirty synonyms, and that’s not counting phrases like “born on the wrong side of the blanket” — meaning not conceived in the marital bed, where such things ought to occur. Illegitimacy refers to the individual’s status in law, which is why it can be removed through legal remedy; something like “base-born” points more toward social class (since it can also just mean “of common birth”), and implies that even if you’re elevated to a higher status, your origins aren’t going away. The same is true, even more pejoratively, of a term like “misbegotten.” Conversely, the more modern phrase of “love child” casts the situation in a romantic light. But I think my favorite euphemism is “natural child.” I suspect it’s meant in negative contrast to civilization, i.e. the parents have given in to their bestial instincts . . . but it always makes me wonder if there’s something unnatural about the children conceived in wedlock!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: The Wrong Side of the Blanket — 13 Comments

  1. Two things to add about Bastardy: Legitimization sometimes didn’t require actual marriage, just the possibility of it. For example, Joan, Lady of Wales was John I of England’s daughter and was legitimized despite her father being married when she was born to someone who was not her mother – the argument made to the Pope by her brother (Henry III) was that John’s then marriage was illegitimate because of consanguinity, for which they didn’t receive a papal dispensation. As such, John was never legitimately married to his then wife and could have plighted troth with Joan’s mother, making her legitimate.

    Also, one of the terms I like best for bastardy (though generally only relevant for the nobility) is ‘bend sinister’, later corrupted to ‘bar sinister’, indicating the heraldic custom of adding a diagonal bar to the heraldry.

    • I’ll add that to the list of euphemisms! And interesting about Joan. I feel like the argument that if you could have married somebody, your kids are legitimate even if you don’t marry might epitomize the kind of slack popes have sometimes been willing to cut for kings — somehow I can’t see the local clergy accepting that argument from John the Tenant Farmer. 🙂

  2. The concept of bastardy and legitimacy is mostly confined to European, Christian cultures. Even as late as the great figure of Charlemagne (and all Europe was not yet christianized then), marriage and bastardy didn’t exist. So it is in his era that Church fought to create marriage as a sacrament, because with multiple sons, came political instability — as witnessed spectacularly after the emperor’s death and the partition of the empire that he had made. With the sacralization of marriage within the already patriarchal culture and practice — and the parallel specific Sallic Law outlawing females of the line from succession — the Church, and supposedly the realm(s), achieved a political stability with first born male heir inherits all, a primary platform of the feudal hierarchal system.

    Perhaps England’s most famous semi-royal bastards, were those fathered upon Chaucer’s sister-in-law, Katherine Swynford, by the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. They were legitimized as the Beaufort line — though still barred from inheriting the monarchy — after the Duke was able to marry Katherine. Their descendants filled large roles thereafter in English history, in various ways. One of them ultimately was Diana Spencer.

    • I wouldn’t say that “marriage didn’t exist” — it absolutely did, though you’re right that it wasn’t necessarily sacrilized, and the stigma of bastardy wasn’t necessarily there.

    • waitwait wait…Diana Spencer, as in, the late mother of the two Princes in the UK? Is her family *still* barred from inheriting?

      I’m looking for a phrase, and I think the expression is “oh dear.”

      thank you for the excellent read, though.

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  4. It’s marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman, with no wiggle room for secondary wives, concubines, etc. Charlemagne seems to have had a fuzzy marital setup, with four documented wives — state marriages — and five known concubines who produced children for him. I would guess that women who produced no children may well have existed but not have been recorded, especially if they were otherwise non-scandalous. The book to read is THE KNIGHT, THE LADY, AND THE PRIEST, by Georges Duby, on the 10th – 1th century time period when modern sacramental marriage was jelling. Duby reckons it was a way to protect the first/senior wife’s interests.

    • Excellent book. Also brings up that a legitimate son may actually find his bastard half-brothers more reliable — because they are not heirs, they need mutual aid, whereas his legitimate brothers are rivals.

  5. Much of Duby’s work and thought about the medieval era has been outdated by scholarship since his heyday, scholarship which also takes in the discoveries of archaeology and material and social history.

    Among the books to read that deal in detail with Charlemagne’s domestic relationships are those of Johannes Fried, Derek Wilson and E.R. Chamberlin — particularly Fried. Unlike most of the important work done on Charlemagne, which is naturally out of Germany and France, Fried’s work is available in good English translations.

  6. The sacrilizing of marriage and drawing a line between legitimate and illegitimate children became a means of controlling inheritance. The Church made these decisions, allowing divorces and adoption of children from the wrong mother to suit their needs, not the wishes of the participants.

    • What I’m finding as I dig into this — and it’s kind of fascinating — is that the earlier meaning of “bastard” wasn’t somebody born out of wedlock; it was someone whose parentage, especially on the mother’s side, was of a lower class (so, more like what we see with Roman concubinage). The shift didn’t start happening until about the thirteenth century, and then it actually wasn’t driven by the Church — instead, what you see in the law records is lay people grabbing bits of Church doctrine and canon, and leveraging those for their own ends.

      This is definitely one of those essays I’ll be revising when the book gets assembled!

  7. Fascinating, everyone! Here’s a fun story: Thor and I were talking with another prof at WWU (originally from England), and he revealed that at the age of 50 he’d learned that his “sister” was actually his birth mother, and he was officially a bastard. He seemed amused that he’d then discovered he was listed in the British Registry of Bastards.