Bastardy and its Comparative History 
edited by Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen and Richard Smith.
Arnold, 431 pp., £24, May 1980, 0 7131 6229 5
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This is not an easy book to read, even though it is written clearly and at times elegantly; its authors have swathed and encumbered their interpretations in so many reservations and second thoughts that it takes some attentive detective-work to discover their meaning. One is reminded of the famous lines in which Horace celebrated the daring of the first navigator:

Illi robur et aes triplex
Circa pectus erat, qui fragilem truci
Commisit pelago ratum
Primus ...

There is no question but that if he had belonged to the Cambridge Group for Population Studies, he would have remained in harbour. And not for want of courage or of boldness.

The Cambridge Group has announced the forthcoming publication of a monumental reconstruction of the population of England, which will trace it backwards from the census of 1871 to 1541, using morbidity figures and data from a sample of parishes: a rasher undertaking even than that of the first sailor, but the Group has not shrunk from it – Illi robur et aes triplex ...

It is one thing, however, to erect a vast numerical system with the help of statistical data and informational techniques that are homogeneous: there is nothing to deter one there. But it is quite another to encompass a social phenomenon which was for a long time more private than public in nature, by a necessary combination of both quantitative and qualitative data, and to interpret the results of this very complex analysis. Then it is that one is tempted – or rather constrained – to remain in harbour, for perfectly good, scientific reasons: Fortiter occupa portum, as Horace also has it.

Such is the case with this collective study of bastardy. The authors, together with their conductor. Peter Laslett, have shrunk from the simplification necessary to communication: their concern for absolute accuracy has paralysed them. This is not a new attitude: we had grown used to it from scholars of the past. It is intriguing, however, to discover young, ‘computerised’ historians showing themselves to be just as much prisoners of their statistical methods as the old philological scholars were of their textual criticisms.

Having said which, Bastardy and its Comparative History must be read as it stands: we must wrestle with the book like Jacob with the angel, and a fine reward awaits the victorious. For this is a book of exceptional interest, which leads its reader to pose the problem of Western marriage in a new and enlightening way.

Practically everything that we know about the medieval origins of our system of marriage, and of its later development, we have learnt from men of the Church, of the law, of the state, or from moralists: in short, from men of the written word. But thanks to the bastards we now have access to the unwritten, oral source. And the picture changes. Up until now illegitimate births had been interpreted as indicating sexual freedom or repression, and the community’s tolerance or intolerance in matters of sexual morality. For example, the increase in the number of bastards at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries was taken to be the sign of a first sexual liberation, the second being that of the 1960s. This is the thesis of Edward Shorter. For Peter Laslett, illegitimate births have instead to be seen as part of a different set of problems relating to the nature of marriage and of ‘courtship customs’. Whether we acknowledge marriage to be the basis of the family, or contest it as a social imposition, we still look on it today as an official act which changes our lives – and, for one half of us, our names: it is a public and a punctual act, as a mathematician might say. Before the day and the hour when they sign, publicly, the public register, the future partners are not married; immediately afterwards, they are. It is a matter of a few seconds.

It is hard for us to get used to the idea that this punctual conception of marriage is a recent one. It is older no doubt in those countries where the clergy and the ecclesiastical courts enjoyed greater authority, as in France; it came later in England, and later still in Scotland. Before this major shift, marriage was less a registered act than a condition, a state of affairs recognised by the consent of the community, even if one of the various stages of that condition had been – though this was not necessary – the object of a public ceremony or festivity.

It thus belonged to the community to recognise marriage – or to refuse and to oppose it. And the community saw to it that there was no remarriage (even, at times, for widowers in the early days), which is the likely source of the indissolubility of marriage in the West, as contrasted with the repudiable marriage (wives essentially being repudiated) in Roman society, or in the Muslim societies that followed it.

We find that this conception of marriage also became – for other reasons no doubt – that of the Church. But in the later Middle Ages, before about the 12th century, the Church lacked any way of imposing its conception on a recalcitrant peasantry, who would have got round it, as has happened in the modern era in Latin America. Indissoluble marriage is, in my view, a collective creation, which explains its deep-rootedness and its powers of resistance today. A phenomenon simply imposed from above by the ecclesiastical power would not have been so soon ‘internalised’, and would have been swept away more easily by modern society.

The one way round indissolubility was flight. The cases recorded by Lawrence Stone in his magisterial Family, Sex and Marriage suggest that flight was often seen by the abandoned partner as giving them the right to remarry. But in spite of the mobility of English rural society from the Middle Ages on, life was not easy for the fugitive (any more than it was in France for the ‘exile’ – the malefactor sentenced to be banished).

In this type of marriage, the definition of illegitimacy lacked rigour: there was no mathematical moment after which it was legitimate to sleep together. People passed from ‘courtship’ to ‘final conjugality’ through a series of stages, of consents and agreements, and also of ceremonies. In these conditions, the only bastards were children born of a courtship which had been broken off, or of adultery.

For a long time the adulterine child – the most illegitimate of bastards – was able to take advantage of the ambiguity of illegitimacy in general, which was itself due to the ambiguity of the pre-matrimonial calendar. A proportion of illegitimate births in the 18th and 19th centuries must therefore have been due to some accident or other during courtship. The situation changed when the Church, the state and the progress of the law combined to make marriage what it is today: a public, punctual, written act. From then on, children born before or outside wedlock received a status of illegitimacy that was better defined, more precise and more rigorous – a status which for a long time depended on the mood of the parish priest and his willingness to act as the vehicle for new ideas. It is not impossible that this changed attitude towards marriage was one of the causes of the increase in illegitimate births at the end of the 18th century – though it certainly wasn’t the only cause.

Laslett and his fellow workers have discovered that in some places, groups of men and women – whom they assimilate, with an ever-increasing caution, to a sub-culture – indulged in illegitimate unions and births from father to son, and from mother to daughter, as if they had rejected the new written, punctual form of marriage, and perhaps also, the stricter morality that went with it. In point of fact, and so far as one can understand it, they rejected not so much sexual morality as the legalism which henceforth buttressed it. They were thus attached to archaic liberties and at the same time invoked a new freedom to act as they liked – a mixture which will come as no surprise to such historians as Richard Cobb or Eric Hobsbawm.

I am very much afraid that my friend Peter Laslett’s hair will stand on end when he finds out what his carefully swaddled infant has become in my uncouth hands. I must therefore warn my readers that any resemblance between the Cambridge Group’s data and interpretations and the present review is attributable only to the reviewer’s imagination.

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