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  • Bastards: Politics, Family, and Law in Early Modern France by Matthew Gerber
  • Sybil M. Jack
Gerber, Matthew , Bastards: Politics, Family, and Law in Early Modern France, New York, Oxford University Press, 2012; hardback; pp. x, 288; R.R.P. £45.00; ISBN 9780199755370.

There is no necessary reason for defining a family as a group of people closely related by blood solely legitimated by the vows of monogamous marriage. Cultures with different mores have existed and can do so. When, for whatever social reasons, compulsory exclusion of extramarital children from the family is accepted as not merely the norm but as a structure to protect legitimate members of the family from any other rights or claims and when adoption was rare if not impossible, it has a distinctive political outcome. It creates a perilous situation for those who were located outside the bonds of wedlock. A mind-set that stigmatizes illegitimacy moreover, once established, is peculiarly hard to dislodge and becomes tied up with the religious and political structures that direct the fate of nations.

Professor Gerber, drawing on an impressive array of neglected archival material, some of which is summarized in useful appendices, has found a new and illuminating way of examining the effects of this social 'given' on the life of both individual and community in France. The position of illegitimates there, as he briefly demonstrates, was more liberal than that of their counterparts in the Holy Roman Empire where in many states bastards could not hold public office or even be a full-time member of a guild. It was, nevertheless, still restrictive. One other aspect that he might have investigated was the ability of an illegitimate child itself to marry where parental consent (in secular law) was required. Indeed, as Gerber is not considering marriage as a sacrament but as a civil union under state-based laws, he has little to say about the ecclesiastical courts, which gives the work a one-sided slant.

Gerber is particularly concerned with the ways in which lawyers in secular courts manipulated the rules about the legal disabilities of those termed bastards. Their right to inherit and even the ability of either parent to pass money or estates to them by will were matters that demanded considerable finesse. Gerber's presentation makes effective use of key examples to clarify how the system worked in different courts and what effect legal rulings had on the development and modification of attitudes and behaviour in the community.

The most remarkable revelation in this work is the number of different laws that governed the treatment of illegitimate children, their different origins, and the very varied results that could be produced in consequence of their application. Gerber demonstrates that bastardry was not a simple matter and was differently viewed in different courts, in different parts of the [End Page 243] country, and at different times. The possible intervention of the monarch by the issuance of a lettre de cachet adds to the slippery mess.

Gerber shows that changing legal attitudes and practices did not necessarily mean that the position of the bastard improved. Some reform-minded lawyers, as they sought to snatch jurisdiction from the ecclesiastical courts, actually sought to make the rules stricter so that the power and property of the upper classes were kept unsullied. As the lot of the extramarital child slowly and unevenly improved - at least the lot of a child not abandoned as a foundling, 'a child of the state' whose parents would not acknowledge it - people slowly and often reluctantly recognized the folly of attributing to the child the sins of the parents.

Paradoxes abounded. In 1697, Louis XIV was prepared to tax bastards and their descendants to fund his wars but also sought to enable his own various male bastards to claim the throne. The issue was a contentious one throughout the early modern period, and, as the Enlightenment philosophers became involved in the debate about the nature of the bastard, the widespread belief that they were debased, degenerate, and somehow inferior stock was modified by ideas drawn from natural law. Gerber points out that this was not pure altruism: the cost to the central government...


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