Commentary on Sara McDougall’s “Bastards and their Families in Medieval Europe” by ARC Student Fellow Priscilla Bustamante

Sara McDougall is an Associate Professor of History and French at John Jay and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her work broadly focuses on investigating the practices and consequences of adultery in fifteenth century France with an emphasis on the roles of gender and social hierarchy. Her most recent book entitled Royal Bastards: The Birth of Illegitimacy was published this past December, and is the single dedicated history of illegitimate children in Medieval Europe to date. On Thursday, February 23, we were fortunate to have Professor McDougall present her latest research on the topic.

Professor McDougall began by contextualizing her work, painting a vivid picture of the world of Medieval Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, along with its obsession with sin and the punishing of minorities. She described her initial desire to study identity within this context—identities tied to labels such as woman, wife, Christian and illegitimate child. McDougall was more specifically interested in how these identities interacted with the law, which at the time was understood as far from universal with many recognizing their position above law. Contradictions abounded as church and state sought to regulate marriage, and nepotism was simultaneously reviled and widely accepted.

Prior to McDougall’s work, scholarship revealed very little about illegitimate birth and its consequences, with available research focusing almost exclusively on fathers. Yet McDougall began to unravel these complexities for us, with a much-needed focus on their consequences for children and mothers. Born outside of legitimate marriage, illegitimate children were widely excluded, and neither able to inherit from parents nor attain high-status societal positions. Interestingly, false ideas circulating around illegitimate birth were founded on two misconceptions: 1) that the church was the leading cause of illegitimate children’s dispossession and 2) that illegitimate children were oppressed because of adverse societal notions about illicit sex. Catholic teachings and ideas of who could count as an heir certainly came into play; however, concerns about marriage were mistaken for concerns about lineage. McDougall illuminated the lineage and social status of both parents as the primary source of the oppression of illegitimate children.

According to McDougall in fact, prior to the thirteenth century, maternal lineage mattered far more than any ideas of legitimate birth. During this time, there were no binding rules of inheritance that uniformly governed variables for heir in/exclusion. Eldest sons of kings could be excluded for any number of reasons unrelated to being illegitimate. Status depended on a combination of paternal and maternal descent, and a child with a high-status mother could be considered an heir regardless of illegitimate birth. It was only after the ushering in of a new dynasty that an altered concept of marriage was utilized to solidify control.

Perhaps most significantly, in studying who counted as illegitimate children and what that meant for them, McDougall complicated a misunderstood reality, challenging many preconceptions about the circumstances of illegitimate children and women in premodern Europe. Between 1449-1533 at least 38,000 illegitimate children had dispensations, with thousands becoming priests. Many children of illegal marriages were a part of royal and famous families, while many more regularly inherited property. Moreover, people in Medieval Europe took advantage of many different familial relationships. Mothers successfully passed their illegitimate children off as the sons and daughters of their husbands, with no hard evidence of any public or private punishment for these mothers.

Professor McDougall’s work reminds us that we cannot project the knowledge we hold of current societal norms onto other historic periods. In questioning what constitutes marriage and family, she illuminates the concept of illegitimacy as a socially constructed spectrum. She breaks down the common binary that exists between our ideas of what marriage is and is not. In doing so, her work highlights a continuum of shifting legal/illegal, marital/non-marital relationships, and prompts us to historically contextualize the trajectory of gender roles today.

~ Priscilla Bustamante