Book Review: “The Legitimacy of Bastards: The Place of Illegitimate Children in Later Medieval England” by Helen Matthews

43972540In the medieval world, a person’s lineage was everything. It determined who you could marry, what job you could have, and where you could live. To be considered a legitimate child meant that the world was your oyster, for the most part. It was a bit difficult if you were considered an illegitimate child. We often look at lineage when it comes to royal families, but what about the nobility and the gentry. If you were considered an illegitimate child in the late medieval time period to a family who is part of the nobility or the gentry, what kind of opportunities would be available to you? This question and others are explored in Helen Matthews’ book, “The Legitimacy of Bastards: The Place of Illegitimate Children in Later Medieval England”.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. I thought that the title sounded rather intriguing, since illegitimate children are rarely mentioned in history books, so I thought it would be interesting to learn more about them and their role in society during the late medieval period in England, which is classified as being from the 13th to the end of the 15th century.

Matthews’ book is all about exploring the theory of illegitimate children under both canon and common laws to understand why families treated them differently. What is interesting is that although they are both forms of law, canon and common laws diverge on certain definitions of illegitimacy (which there are numerous definitions). I found this part fascinating to read, albeit a bit dense since it is written in legal jargon. If you do read this book, I would suggest taking your time to digest every definition because it is the foundation of this book. To put these theories into practice, Matthews shares the story of the Warenne family and how they dealt with numerous family members who were illegitimate.

The next three chapters explore how society dealt with those who were illegitimate and the parents of illegitimate children. To ensure that the reader can understand the social implications for illegitimate children, Matthews includes tales from medieval families, nobles and gentry alike. It was a bit difficult to keep the families straight, but Matthews does include a list of Dramatis Personae in the Annex to help those who do get confused. Finally, Matthews explores how the change in religious attitudes and the concern about legitimacy changed how illegitimate children were viewed from the 16th century and beyond.

Although there were some grammatical mistakes, my big concern with this book was that it felt a bit dry to me. Matthews is very knowledgeable on this particular subject, but by including so much legal jargon and so many stories in such a small book, in my opinion, it did not flow as well as it could have. It is a book that I would have to read a second time to grasp everything that Matthews included. Overall, I found this book informative and well researched. I think it will make a great resource for those who want to learn more about the late medieval period and illegitimate children. If learning about illegitimacy and late medieval England, you should check out, “The Legitimacy of Bastards: The Place of Illegitimate Children in Later Medieval England” by Helen Matthews.