Bastards: Politics, Family, and Law in Early Modern France

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Children born out of wedlock were commonly stigmatized as &quote;bastards&quote; in early modern France. Deprived of inheritance, they were said to have neither kin nor kind, neither family nor nation. Why was this the case? Gentler alternatives to &quote;bastard&quote; existed in early modern French discourse, and many natural parents voluntarily recognized and cared for their extramarital offspring. Drawing upon a wide array of archival and published sources, Matthew Gerber has reconstructed numerous disputes over the rights and disabilities of children born out of wedlock in order to illuminate the changing legal condition and practical treatment of extramarital offspring over a period of two and half centuries. Gerber's study reveals that the exclusion of children born out of wedlock from the family was perpetually debated. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France, royal law courts intensified their stigmatization of extramarital offspring even as they usurped jurisdiction over marriage from ecclesiastic courts. Mindful of preserving elite lineages and dynastic succession of power, reform-minded jurists sought to exclude illegitimate children more thoroughly from the household. Adopting a strict moral tone, they referred to illegitimate children as &quote;bastards&quote; in an attempt to underscore their supposed degeneracy. Hostility toward extramarital offspring culminated in 1697 with the levying of a tax on illegitimate offspring. Contempt was never unanimous, however, and in the absence of a unified body of French law, law courts became vital sites for a highly contested cultural construction of family. Lawyers pleading on behalf of extramarital offspring typically referred to them as &quote;natural children.&quote; French magistrates grew more receptive to this sympathetic discourse in the eighteenth century, partly in response to soaring rates of child abandonment. As costs of &quote;foundling&quote; care increasingly strained the resources of local communities and the state, some French elites began to publicly advocate a destigmatization of extramarital offspring while valorizing foundlings as &quote;children of the state.&quote; By the time the Code Civil (1804) finally established a uniform body of French family law, the concept of bastardy had become largely archaic. With a cast of characters ranging from royal bastards to foundlings, Bastards explores the relationship between social and political change in the early modern era, offering new insight into the changing nature of early modern French law and its evolving contribution to the historical construction of both the family and the state.

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