Susan Marshall

Illegitimacy in Medieval Scotland is the first full-length exploration of bastardy in medieval Scotland. Focusing on the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, it explains the legal, political and social implications of illegitimate birth, and considers how the experience of being a bastard shaped the lives of particular groups, including women and clerics.

NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about?

Susan Marshall: The book is about illegitimacy as a legal, political and social concern in medieval Scotland. I look at how illegitimacy was defined and at its legal implications; discuss political events and developments in which illegitimacy played a significant role; examine what it meant for those in holy orders, and consider the topic from the point of view of gender.

NOTCHES: Can you explain what ‘illegitimacy’ meant in medieval Scotland? In what circumstances did an individual need to be born to be considered a bastard?

Marshall: To be considered a bastard, a person needed to be born of parents who were not married to each other.  This apparently straightforward definition was not always as clear-cut as it appears. For one thing, in Scotland as in many other parts of Christendom (though not England), if your parents married each other after you were born, this legitimated you, so you might be born a bastard but not remain one.  Alternatively, you might be born of parents who had previously gone through a marriage ceremony but whose union turned out not to be lawful, because it fell foul of the Church’s rules about who could and couldn’t marry each other. These regulations forbade marriage between various categories of people, including those who shared a common ancestor going back a certain number of generations, or between a proposed spouse and the relatives of a former lover. So despite your parents’ wedding, you might not be the product of a lawful marriage after all.  In that case, you were a bastard if both your parents knew they were contracting an unlawful marriage, but not if one or both of them were unaware of the legal impediment (or, at least, if they could convince Church authorities they were unaware of it). There were neither marriage nor birth certificates in medieval Scotland, so in some instances, a person’s status as a bastard or otherwise might be quite obscure.

NOTCHES: How far was illegitimacy a source of shame/ social stigma, for the children but also for the parents? Did the exact circumstances of the conception make a difference, or were other factors (social status, gender, etc.) more important?

Marshall: The matter of shame or social stigma is a complex one and seems to have depended on individual or local circumstance. The fact that there were detailed definitions in canon law of who was and was not illegitimate, that secular law and legal processes addressed the issue, and that people in general knew what these laws were, suggest that illegitimacy was not very unusual. A person’s bloodline, and status in a community, may well have been more important to how they were received than anything else.

As far as gender is concerned, there was something of a double standard: we find, for example, in seeking papal dispensations to marry, couples who already had children sometimes asked that the dispensation be granted so that the woman – never the man – ‘may not remain defamed’. Of course, they could have been playing to the Church’s prejudices, as they saw it, to strengthen their case, but using this tactic acknowledges a prevailing attitude that it was shameful for women to have children out of wedlock, in a way it wasn’t for men. In the book I discuss the example of a Scottish princess who was rendered unmarriageable by having an illegitimate child, whereas it was unthinkable that her nephew’s marriage prospects would have been compromised by his fathering illegitimate children, and indeed he married into the English royal house. But this attitude to female sexual conduct was not the whole story, as clearly women in all ranks of society had children with men to whom they were not married.

NOTCHES: According to the fifteenth-century abbot Walter Bower, illegitimate offspring were likely to grow up to be ‘insolent, degenerate and depraved.’ How prevalent was the view that the circumstances of one’s conception influenced one’s character?

Marshall: Bower was talking about two factors that brought about this result. One was the stain imparted to the character of the newly-conceived person by reason of their parents’ sexual act being reprehensible at best, and criminal at worst. The other was the fact that, according to him, illegitimate children were brought up either by the mother and her family – in other words, people who were morally faulty through being fornicators or permitters of fornication – or were fostered, which was common enough in medieval Scotland but for Bower meant that the children were raised by people who cared nothing about keeping them on the straight and narrow. It was the combination of the innate flaw in the illegitimate person and the absence of corrective influences that led to delinquency and immorality. This thesis is important to Bower, as it creates the possibility of some illegitimate people being good and worthy members of society, something he very much wants to be the case as he is full of admiration for certain illegitimate men.

For illegitimate people in holy orders, who required a dispensation to hold offices in the Church, the circumstances of their conception had to be declared: were they born of adultery, or incest, or a sacrilegious union, or of simple fornication? In the thirteenth century, Aquinas explained that since ‘a man’s good name is bedimmed by sinful origin’, dispensations were ‘the more difficult to obtain, according as their origin is the more discreditable.’ The association between ‘defect of birth’ (one of the terms for bastardy) and a flawed character was certainly widely known outside the Church, and could be a useful tool in the armoury of political propaganda. That said, lived experience surely taught most people that someone’s capacity for virtue or vice need not be related to the circumstances of their conception.

NOTCHES: How far did illegitimacy limit life choices, for example in terms of marriageability and careers?

Marshall: In Scotland, we know of many illegitimate men who attained high office, and their birth status seems not to have affected their marriage prospects. That said, a common career destination for illegitimate men – who could not expect to inherit from their fathers – was the Church, which meant that marriage was impossible for them. Some did have children anyway, so they too were illegitimate.

NOTCHES: Was concern about illegitimacy more about power and property than morality? And it is fair to say that there was a great deal of pragmatic exploitation of rules which could relatively easily be overturned when convenient?

Marshall: Yes, the principal disadvantage of being illegitimate was the legal disability of bastardy (as it is termed); that is, the law prevented illegitimate people from inheriting. This meant that property usually passed through legitimate descendants, thus upholding marriage as a foundational unit of society. This did, of course, have a moral dimension. The Church was keen to promote marriage as the proper context for the procreation of children, and the rules about inheritance – the province not of Church law but of common or royal law – reinforced this. It was not so much a case of the rules being ‘overturned’, though that happened too, as the rules allowing certain exceptions, which were indeed pragmatically exploited to ensure some illegitimate offspring benefited from the family’s wealth.

NOTCHES: What role did (il)legitimacy play in succession disputes in medieval Scotland? Were kingship and illegitimacy compatible?

Marshall: It’s true to say that kingship and illegitimacy became incompatible in the Scottish middle ages. It took time for societies across Europe to align their traditional marriage practices with the Church’s rules governing lawful marriage. The latter were subject to a programme of development and refinement in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, giving rise to some grey areas in respect of whether certain individuals of royal blood could be defined as legitimate. Once the Church had established and embedded matrimonial law, it then had to have a system of limited, permissible exceptions, since when it came to choosing a spouse, political and dynastic considerations might be more important to a ruling line than conforming to Church-imposed rules.

As far as royal succession and illegitimacy is concerned, Scotland has a fascinating history in this regard. It includes a deceased king being proclaimed illegitimate, unsuccessful claims to the throne by men of dubious legitimacy, a bastard-born son actually becoming king, and a royal assassination which some historians have thought was related to his royal father’s illegitimate origins.

NOTCHES: What challenges did you face in writing this book, particularly in terms of source material? Were there any questions that you were unable to answer, or anything that you had to leave out? 

Marshall: The sources for medieval Scotland are notoriously patchy and so there are a number of questions that remain unanswered: we are unlikely ever to quantify the incidence of illegitimacy in the general population, and the lives of those who left no trace in our written records are inevitably very difficult to recover.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

Marshall: Our modern perception of what illegitimacy meant in previous centuries has largely been shaped by post-Reformation ideas about sexual conduct and morality, such that we think of bastardy as something that was a terribly disgraceful condition until relatively recently. It is useful to realise that before the second half of the sixteenth century, in Scotland as elsewhere, there was a much more nuanced view of it.

NOTCHES: What are you working on now that your book is published? 

Marshall: I have done some work on how bastardy was represented in medieval Scottish narrative sources and poetry, and plan to do more on this.

Susan Marshall gained her doctorate in History at the University of Aberdeen, where she has also worked as a Teaching Fellow in Celtic & Anglo-Saxon Studies. Before undertaking academic study as a mature student, she worked in the public sector, mainly in communications roles. Illegitimacy in Medieval Scotland 1100-1500 is her first monograph.



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