A Brief History of Bastardy

One of the difficulties I’ve had in writing a series set in the fourteenth century is the dearth of appropriate insults. Many of the “fighting words” of today had different meanings back then, or were not used in a pejorative sense. I first noted the problem in my blog, Curse you, Shakespeare!
But today, I’d like to go a little further in-depth, with a history of the bastard.

We know that marriage was important during the Middle Ages, but the period is also rife with nobles, especially kings, princes and dukes, who have a large number of acknowledged children out-of-wedlock. The practice was, if not encouraged, not especially punished either. There are even a fair number of clergymen with acknowledged bastards of their own, and Barbara Tuchman, in A Distant Mirror, noted that, of 614 grants of legitimacy (ie, to legitimize an extramarital birth) in 1342-43, 484 were to members of the clergy. So there was a system of recognizing these children and no particular stigma to being one.

There was even a heraldic symbol used to denote bastardy on a nobleman’s Coat of Arms, typically a “bar sinister” meaning a stick that crosses the shield to the left (“sinister” in Latin). You can see what I mean on the Arms of the Duke of Grafton, one of several illegitimate sons of Charles II. These guys couldn’t succeed to the throne, but Duke isn’t too shabby. Likewise, the duke formerly known as “William the Bastard” has come down to posterity as “William the Conquerer”.

So when did the term enter the lexicon of insult? The OED notes the first figurative use of the term in 1583, to describe someone who was not literally a bastard. However, there are earlier references to its use to describe something as “mongrel, hybrid, or inferior breed” (1398) so it seems likely the crossover from an adjective for something of mixed parentage, to an insult, comes from that direction. The word first shows up in the historical record in 1297, as either a noun or an adjective. After about the 1500’s it pops up all over the place, to describe anything that might be a combination of disparate items.

The OED gives its origin as Spanish for something like “pack-saddle child,” while a few early Modern period dictionaries try to deduce specifically pejorative origins, for instance, from the Dutch for having an “abject nature” or from the Anglo-Saxon for base origin.

So it seems that, not long after it starts to be applied as an insult, the writers of the time are trying to justify that use. Just as I would like to justify it now, for my own purposes. Some things never change.

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in essays, etymology, history, medieval, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Brief History of Bastardy

  1. This is a test. I’m having trouble posting comments on WordPress blogs.

  2. Aha! It worked! I had to change my email address to gmail, which is not associated with any WordPress account! It’s really irritating to write a nice comment and then lose it because the site won’t let you log in! And I always forget to copy what I’ve written!
    So … here’s what I tried to say:
    Great post as usual! I’ve had a similar problem, not with bastards, but with finding the right insults. There is no guarantee that either present-day insults or complimentary words will mean the same in the 30th century. I’m not sure I did a very good job of finding new ones – I mostly kept the old because they will be familiar to the reader. But in my WIP The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars (which I’m serializing on the termitewriter blog), I introduced the “g-word” – “garbage.” By that time, absolutely everything is recycled, and to call somebody a “piece of garbage” is to imply that they are completely worthless – not even good enough to grind up and turn into biofuel.

  3. So useless, you wouldn’t be recycled! That is harsh. And a great way to demonstrate the values of your future society. I am reminded of my sojourn in Italy where, rather than say someone is “as good as gold” you would say “as good as bread,” suggesting an interesting value difference between Italy and America.

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