B is for Bastardisation

2 April 2019

Where did the word originate from? 

The English dictionary refers to bastardisation as two things:

  1. To debase or corrupt
  2. To declare illegitimate

This transitive verb and archaic meaning is in relation to objects and words, and this word can also relate to people. In fact, the word bastard derives from the old 13th Century French word bâtard, meaning “illegitimate child… acknowledged child of a nobleman by a woman other than his wife”, which according to one source, this definition has possibly derived ‘from fils de bast “packsaddle son” meaning a child conceived on an improvised bed (saddles often doubled as beds while travelling)’.

It is also seen as a figurative sense of something not ‘pure’ or ‘genuine’. A good example is William The Conqueror, who is referred to in some documents as William the Bastard. In that day and age, the word was seen as a vulgar term of abuse for a man.

We know nowadays that the word bastard is used colloquially as a term of endearment, or to express empathy for another (sometimes).



How has its meaning shifted as societies and stigmas changed? And how does illegitimacy affect family trees and beneficiaries in heir tracing cases?


The shift in meaning: was it social or spiritual?

We need to remember that in the Middle Ages, religion was extremely prevalent throughout all social classes. Society then did not operate subject to rigid Christian canon law rules. Instead, it measured the value of its leaders based on their claims to celebrated ancestry and the power attached to that kind of legitimacy. Nevertheless, if you dive into the pre-13th-century world, you will find that acute attention was not focused on the creation of legitimate marriages, but to the lineage and social status of the parents. Being born to the right parents, regardless of whether they were married according to the strictures of the church, made a child seem more worthy of inheriting parents’ lands, properties and titles. It was only in the second half of the 12th century that a birth outside of lawful marriage began to render a child illegitimate, a ‘bastard’, and therefore made ineligible to inherit a royal or noble title.

According to an article in The Wire magazine, written by Associate Professor of history, Sara McDougall, ” ‘Bastard’, as we now understand it, began to emerge here. This shift in the meaning and implications of illegitimacy did not arise as an imposition of Church doctrine. Instead, ordinary litigants began exploiting bits of Church doctrine to suit their own ends.”

church stained glass window of baby Jesus

Unmarried mothers in the Victorian era were blamed for everything

In the Victorian era, unmarried mothers were blamed, for everything.

Society valued virginity, modesty, chastity and purity. These concepts were the only prophylactics they had. A single woman with a child was guilty of breaking these taboos. She and her child were therefore ostracised. She had little chance to develop such a stable relationship after conceiving. This is because of another feature of the society; the existence and prevalence of venereal diseases. While they did not have the germ theory of disease, nor antibiotics, they were ignorant towards such subjects. Not to mention that society also had additional taboos enforcing sexual purity although only on the woman’s behalf. Similarly, there were taboos of inheritance, requiring marriage to a virgin. Thus, the woman and her child were perceived to be guilty of breaking these forbidden laws.

painting of a mother putting washing on the washing line will a baby is sat in the grass

Are illegitimate children common when it comes to researching family history cases?

When we begin to trace our ancestors, you might be drawn to illegitimacy by a blank space on a birth certificate where a fathers’ name should be. I bet you’re also wondering why those dates don’t add up!

Such findings can make your work more difficult (although, who doesn’t love a challenge!). Surprisingly, earlier illegitimate ancestors are easier to trace than more recent relations. The author of Was Your Ancestor a Bastard? Ruth Paley, says “Before 1834 it was the responsibility of the local parish to pay upkeep for an illegitimate child …  so they would go after the father to seek maintenance, which created documentation about who he was.”  In order to determine this, bastardy examinations were the first step in this process. Examples of such are now mostly available in Poor Law records held by county record offices.

So to conclude, it’s definitely not uncommon to come across illegitimacy when researching family history cases, in fact, the challenge of finding the father is welcomed!

family history documents

Written by Rhianna Selkridge-Carty

Since you’ve gotten this far, you’re definitely going to enjoy these short poems of childhood in different eras!

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