The language of illegitimate birth reveals a rich, complex vocabulary.
Early this December, newspaper headlines made the sensational claim that recent DNA evidence had called into question the legitimacy of the British monarchy: scientists had identified what is known as a false-paternity event. Genetic analysis of the remains of King Richard III of England and his modern-day descendants indicated the possibility that Richard’s mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, or great-great-grandmother had a child with someone other than her husband and successfully passed that child off as her husband’s son and heir, thus corrupting the royal patriline with less-than-royal blood.
If a scholar of medieval law can be permitted to reassure a reigning monarch and her family, I would like to suggest that their dynastic claim to the throne remains safe. Medieval England by the time of Richard III had developed strict rules against allowing illegitimate children to inherit from their fathers, particularly royal or noble titles, but English law also maintained quite a generous presumption of paternity.
As long as it was remotely possible that the mother’s husband could have conceived the child she presented as his, that child’s right as heir could not be challenged.
That does not mean that illegitimacy raised no problems in the Middle Ages. It most certainly did. But the various ideas of illegitimate birth held by people in the Middle Ages were not necessarily the sorts of problems that we think of today. This year, I have the privilege of investigating the history of ideas of illegitimate birth, and the exclusion of bastards from royal succession, in the former institution of the great scholar of kingship Ernst Kantorowicz, and in the company of brilliant friends and colleagues who have repeatedly challenged and inspired me since my arrival in September.
As I am finding, analysis of the language of illegitimate birth reveals a rich, complex vocabulary used to indicate something less than fully legitimate birth. Terminology included both new and old words, plucked from ancient sources or transliterated from medieval vernacular languages. We find this terminology in the widest range of medieval sources, used to describe contemporaries, ancestors, and biblical and even mythological figures. Definitions vary over time and space, but also depending on the context, the kind of source, and, of course, authorial intentions.