Bastardy in Rome and the Middle Ages
I recently read an interesting article concerning the status of bastards, particularly high-ranking ones, in the medieval world. There were a number of words that could be applied to those born out of wedlock, from bastardus, to mamzer, to nothus or spurious. William the Conqueror was a Bastardus in his time, born to a concubine of the Duke of Normandy. What did this mean for inheritance? Well, answering that question requires an examination of different periods.
Classical Roman Bastardy
This is where the Third Empire of Miles falls in the 10th Age. In classical Roman tradition, the paterfamilias had absolute authority on who was a member of his family, who was his heir, etc. The recognition of bastards was a common practice, and once recognized they were essentially legitimized. Divorce was common in late Republican Rome, and Augustus had something approaching a mania about the extinction of ancient noble lines, requiring everyone in Rome to have as many children as possible.
Indeed, there was a long tradition of replenishing the population by relaxed heritance laws going all the way back to Greece where there were certain procedures installed in some city-states to completely nullify marriage laws for certain periods in order to bring the fighting population back to full strength.
Early Medieval Bastardy
This is intimately tied to notions of nobility and character. Legitimacy in the early middle ages was less of a disqualifier than it would be later. Part of this be traced to the Roman tradition, but (and this is without a great deal of research, so take this with a grain of salt) I believe a much larger portion stems from the polygamous marriages of Germanic kings. “Wedlock” was a much looser term throughout the period, with wives easily being put away and extra concubines being taken on. While there would generally be an official Queen named as wife, it was very common for rulers of, say, Frankia, to have a number of concubines producing children as well.
This is where William comes in. According to Sara McDougall’s “How do you say ‘bastard’ in Medieval Latin?,” William was taunted not for being born of someone other than his father’s wife, but rather for his mother’s low birth. The special bastard terms seem to deride someone born of a union that was illegitimate not because the couple weren’t married, but because one member of the couple was servile.
A brief foray into nobility
Roman nobility counted on tracing back one’s ancestry to the original great patrician families. Nobility could technically be granted through adoption, which happened at least once or twice that we know of. Pompeii Magnus and Marcus Tullius Cicero were both new men (novi homini) who rose from the common class. However, nobility generally was not imagined as transferrable. It was a combination of breeding and behavior that marked out patricians as morally superior. Even those non-nobles who made their way into the patrician class could find their humble origins used as political tools against them.
Nobility in early medieval Europe was much more permeable. Before the calcification of the concept in the 16th-18th centuries, one did not have to trace their lineage back to some progenitor to prove nobility. Indeed, nobility was as much a quality of character as it was a result of the blood. Thus lies the entire concept of partible title; being knighted, granted a barony, raised to the rank of comte (companion), made an ealdorman, etc. all display a certain meritocratic virtue. Being noble was as much a result of behavior as it was of station; those who could prove they had never owed servile duties were considered free men by communal courts of Frankish law, for example.
Why, then, does low station imply the birth of a noble man? Because the traits that made up nobilis itself were generally considered heritable. While it was always possible for a common man to show exemplary behavior and be, for example, knighted on the field of battle, as time went on and the appointed nobility of early medieval England and the Frankish empire entrenched themselves as semi-hereditary, the source of being a noble man was, more and more often, considered to be in both the upbringing and the blood.
Thus, deriding someone as a bastard (specifically one with low or servile origins on one side) could indicate a serious character flaw. Hated classes of people, such as tanners (who had to work with urine), actors (who were absolutely despised), or the servile and unfree, were considered especially prone to produce cowards, liars, and cheats. This notion, interestingly, did not rely on a permanent heritability of servility, but rather on an underlying idea of plasticity. Throughout one’s lifetime, traits were considered malleable and plastic, but the choices made would be inherited and set guiding boundaries or signposts for one’s children.
What does this mean?
Bastardy is a social construct, like any other relationship. However, to assume that medieval bastardy (or ancient/classical bastardy) is in any way comparable to the modern construction is to misunderstand the tensions of those worlds. There was no fear of an undermining of the institution of marriage; in the Roman world, marriage made room for bastardy and divorce easily, while in the medieval world the institution itself was weak and anemic for a very long period, mostly something people did voluntarily and, until the middle 12th and early 13th century something that was more or less unregulated by the Church. In fact, as an aside, the involvement of Rome in marriage seemed to be rather a good thing from the perspective of wives since it gave tools by which to annul marriages conducted without the wife’s consent, a tiny smidgen of protection for wives who would be put aside, etc.