Illegitimate Children in the Middle Ages

By Lucie Laumonier

Stories of illegitimate children in the Middle Ages are often told through the lives of famous bastards, daughters and sons of kings and nobles, such as William the Conqueror, born to Robert I, Duke of Normandy, and his mistress Herleva. But what do we know about the illegitimate children of ordinary people?

This article delves into various sources from Languedoc, a region in southern France, to shed light on the stories of these non-noble bastards. Illegitimate children are, by definition, born out of wedlock. They may be the children of a married man and an unmarried woman or the reverse – a married woman and an unmarried man; or they could be the children of two unmarried people or the children of two married people who had had an affair together.

In the early Middle Ages, being born out of wedlock was not really a problem for the elite. Many early medieval kings – including Charlemagne – had concubines who mothered children who were fully part of the line of kings. However, from the 11th and 12th centuries, the Church put in place and applied a series of laws aimed at regulating and strengthening marriages. Marriage regulations focused on what a valid marriage meant, severely punished adultery and concubinage, and limited the rights of illegitimate children. Bastards, for example, could no longer become members of the secular clergy. Illegitimate children suffered from legal restrictions limiting the scope of their ambitions and careers, not to mention that illegitimacy tainted their reputation – at least in the case of non-noble bastards.

The birth of an illegitimate child was even a heavy burden for their mothers whose reputation was ruined. As we will see in this article, some mothers abandoned their child, leaving the baby on the doorstep of a church or hospital, but others kept the baby and raised him. The baby’s father could officially recognize the parentage. But that did not make illegitimate children legitimate. Recognition of parentage simply creates legal duties and responsibilities between father and child, as this article clarifies.

Children and their mothers in this 15th century manuscript – National Library of France MS Français 2609, fol. 12r.

Three times in a vineyard

From the 14th century, the urban authorities of Montpellier managed a charitable association dedicated to “exposed” children, abandoned children, orphans and babies whom they entrusted to nannies and foster families for their upkeep. In the case of abandoned children, the consuls endeavored to identify the parents in order to return the babies to them. A charter drawn up for this purpose on June 30, 1505 tells us the singular story of a little girl, aged one or two months, who was entrusted to them. The consuls wanted to identify the parents of the baby.

According to rumors, the little girl, named Jehanne, was born at the end of May. She “was said of Thomas Artault […]; said Artault would have had it with the participation [sic] of Agnès Gilbaude who currently lives with Jehan Rondellet, a merchant from Montpellier. Agnès probably worked as a servant at Rondellet. The lord consuls brought Agnès to the town hall. They spoke to her and inquired about the young girl. Agnès confessed that “it was true and that the little girl was and belonged to said Thomas Artault, who had participated [sic] three times carnally with her in a vineyard. In other words, Agnès and Thomas had made love three times in a vineyard, and a pregnancy had followed.

The consuls then ask Thomas to come to the town hall, where Agnès and the lieutenant of the local court of justice are waiting for him. The consuls urged Thomas to support the little girl financially before the story became the talk of the town, ruining his reputation and that of Agnes. But Thomas denied being the father of the baby. If Agnès was distraught, she was also certain of Thomas’ involvement in the pregnancy. She offered to repeat her assertions under oath and on the relics of Saint Anthony. The consuls therefore sent Thomas, Agnès and the lieutenant of the court of justice to the church of Saint-Antoine so that Agnès proceeded with her engagement.

In the church, the priest was standing, holding a book “in which were written the passion of Christ and the four gospels” and above which he had placed the holy relics of Saint Anthony, that is to say the arm of the saint. Agnès repeats that Thomas is the baby’s father and swears that it is true “in the hands of the priest”, on the holy book and the holy relics. This promise seemed to have made a strong impression on the lieutenant, who then told the consuls what had happened at the church. The consuls and the court lieutenant agree that Thomas will bear Jehanne’s expenses and recognize her as his daughter, on pain of a prison sentence. In the Montpellier region, fathers whose paternity was recognized or who freely acknowledged the paternity of a child were required to provide for the needs of their bastard child for three years.

The responsibilities of the father

Testamentary sources from Languedoc testify both to the abandonment of illegitimate children, as illustrated in the story above, and to the upbringing of children by the mother and her family. Sources also show that the fathers of these bastard children sometimes recognized their paternity and exceeded the three years of maintenance that the Montpellier charter had made compulsory. Half a dozen wills show fathers making bequests to their illegitimate children, all boys or adult men. These fathers had no living legitimate heirs at the time of their wills and most of them granted them generous bequests. The wills suggest that these fathers had maintained a close relationship with their illegitimate sons and behaved towards them as most fathers did towards their legitimate children.

In 1483, for example, a Montpellier nobleman left 100 gold crowns and his upkeep to his bastard son Philippe. The father said he made the gift so his son could have an honest life and “maintain his rank”. Half a century earlier, a certain Antoine Bonet, a peasant from the village of Prades, gave all his possessions to his minor and illegitimate son Guilhem on the condition that Guilhem take care of his father and his father’s wife, sick or in good health. health. , until their death. These examples show fathers of illegitimate children assuming traditional parental responsibilities by providing for their descendants. The case of Anthony Bonet and his bastard son also illustrates the reciprocal duties and responsibilities linked to filial ties: children are supposed to take care of their parents.

15th century depiction of a cobbler / cobbler – Wikimedia Commons

The son of an abbot

A final example emphasizes that once paternity has been recognised, fathers cannot avoid their responsibilities. On May 10, 1414, a woman also named Agnès, daughter of a deceased shoemaker and wife of another shoemaker from Béziers, made a singular declaration under oath. She spoke before Johan Castanhier, abbot of Valmagne, a small Cistercian monastery near Montpellier, a notary and five witnesses. Agnès told those present that “some time ago, before you, Johan Castanhier, were appointed Abbé de Valmagne, I spoke to you and you knew me carnally and impregnated me with a child named Antoine”.

Agnès added that “in front of a notary and witnesses, I affirm that Antoine, my son, is your son, that you generated him and procreated him in me. This Antoine, my son, I give it to you and you will do to Antoine, your son, as any father is supposed to do to his son”. The notary then noted the words of Johan Castanhier, who said: “I receive him as my son and I promise you, Antoine, my son, to do what every good father should and is supposed to do, and that, I promise you. with my hand on my chest. Johan Castanhier acknowledged in it that he was the father of the child and that he would take him into his custody and provide for him.

The fact that the child’s father was a cleric is not surprising. Medieval records are full of documents and stories of clergymen having affairs and fathering children. In medieval Spain, it was customary for clerics to have concubines and children well integrated into the social fabric. In medieval France or England, such indiscretions were also common – though not customary – and much more repressed. The case of Agnès, Johan l’Abbé and little Antoine does not say whether Johan would suffer the consequences of his actions on the professional level. What is clear, however, is that the cleric was ready to take on his parental responsibilities.

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While many illegitimate children have been abandoned by their parents, this has always been the case. Women who could and wanted to keep their children could do so. In some cases, the baby’s father would become involved, at least financially, in the upkeep and maintenance of their bastard. It seems from testamentary documents that men were more inclined to acknowledge their paternity if they were deprived of legitimate heirs.

Lucie Laumonier is an assistant professor affiliated with Concordia University. Click here to see his page or follow her on Instagram at The French medievalist.

Click here to learn more about Lucie Laumonier

Further reading:

Avignon, Carole (ed.), Bastards and Bastardises in Medieval and Modern Europe, RennesPURE, 2016.

Laumonier, Lucia,Bastards and illegitimate children in Montpellier (14th-15th centuries): from caritas to full paternity», in C. Avignon (ed.), Bastards and Bastardises in Medieval and Modern Europe, Rennes, Rennes University Press, 2016, p. 319-334.

And a special thank you to my friend Lucie Galano who found, photographed and made the paleography of the document of the affair of the vine of 1505. You are the best

Top image: National Library of France MS Latin 10426, fol. 134v.

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