Monday, April 22, 2013

Illegitimate children

You know them - there are tens or hundreds of them in the registries. Children where no father is written, illegitimate children. What was their status? How they lived? Why are there so many of them? I try to provide answers - and a bit more, some (probably funny) examples too.

Fact: Illegitimate children were not welcomed.
Many of them died few days or weeks after the birth. Numbers of those who died early after the birth are stunning. The rate was much higher than in case of legitimate children. There were several reasons: 
  • mother of illegitimate killed the child - not only by directly killing it, but also by malnutrition, lack of care etc.;
  • mother of illegitimate was pushed to work as if she wasn't just after the birth of child - this was very common, she had to work and therefor was not allowed to take care for her child;
  • lack of care - not only disinterest of mother, but also unavailability of proper health care.
Fact: Mothers of illegitimate children were oppressed.
Having an illegitimate child was a kind of mark. Woman which had such child had to count with different kinds of oppression from the society. First of all, her own family usually cut her off. She wasn't allowed to inherit any kind of property, it was often directly written in the cadastral books that she is excluded from inheritance because of illegitimate child. 

They also were oppressed by the society. Mothers of illegitimates had to stand in front of the church before the masses and ask people for forgiveness. Usual formula was "Forgive me that I allowed to have this child". Society didn't help in case of need - if the mother was starving she was usually denied by her neighbours. 

She had to take care for the child by herself, there was often no help not only from father of the child, but also from her own family. Many illegitimate children died because of this ignorance. 

Fact: Illegitimate children had illegitimate children.
This is fact which I have proven by many records. If there was and illegitimate girl born it was very likely that she will become a single mother too. This was caused by her social status and the fact that she was taken as a person from the lowest ranks of the society. Prostitutes and sutlers were very often illegitimate daughters.

Fact: There wasn't just one illegitimate child.
Truth is that if a woman had one illegitimate child which wasn't legitimized later, it was most probable she had another. Having an illegitimate child was a mark and meant that the society will handle the mother differently from other women. 

One point of view was that her male neighbours usually took as a fact that she is willing to have an affair without regard to the consequences. But there is also point of view - she could have been living with her partner but they weren't allowed to marry (or didn't want to). It was possible to enlist as a father of a child, but it wasn't usual until the end of 19th century.

Fact: Illegitimate children married illegitimate children.
If they married at all, they very often married another illegitimate child. This is quite often mainly in the country - illegitimate children had their own social rank and it was usual to search for a partner in this rank.

Fact: Father of the child was often known.
Villages? Aaaaah, so many things known about other people. And yes, they knew who was the father. Of course they knew. 

If was often head of the family where single mother served. Or his son. Or someone domestic - another farm help or hind. Or someone from the higher society who promised a girl better occupation or something she wanted. Clerks of the estate manor. 

Or soldiers. Not only those who were passing by in wars, but also those who were recruited in meantime. But the second sort returned to the village and often married mother of their children. It was usual that soldier's marriage was accompanied by a number of pair's children.

Fact: Illegitimate children were usual.
Yes, they were. There were hundreds or probably thousands of them born every year. Even in 17th or 18th century. Even in times when "young people behaved better than your generation!" as our grandparents are used to say.

And now to some nice examples from the registries... Priests often commented the fact that some child was illegitimate. Here are some of these cases:

Illegitimate children were often called "from the left hip" (z levého boku) as there was no marriage connected to them. 

Telč parish: Father of the illegitimate child was often mentioned as "drowned on the apple tree" or "he is mushrooming". We are today using "you were mushrooming" when we are talking to the child about something that happend before his birth.

Místek parish: Jan Konvičar ate cheese and drank brandy, he got down to Barbora and they made (child) Matěj. This case is very rare because the father of the illegitimate child is named. And that's real treasure.

Radnice parish: On 23rd May 1700 from Vranovice from the left hip was baptized bastard child Voršila Helena, father not known, mother doubled whore Ludmila Pešková. Well it probably wasn't Ludmila's first illegitimate child when the priest called her doubled whore...


  1. In my own Czech family, my grandfather's birth was recorded as "was born in the village Privetice No xx, (name), catholic, male, from the unlegal bed. The father (blank). The mother (named)

    As best I can tell, my grandfather's father arrived about a year and a half ahead of he and his mother.

  2. My grandfather (born in 1905 in Babice) was illegitimate. The listed guardian on his birth record was Vaclav Capek (owner or son of the owner of the farm where my great grandmother worked). Six months later she married a man from Olesna and moved there with him. They lived in house #75 in Olesna which was a poor house, but somehow acquired enough money to bring 6 people to the US. I believe the man who got my great grandmother pregnant paid her "hush money" to leave the area. Scott K.

  3. My great-great-great-grandmother arrived in the United State in 1854 at the age of 61 along with four sons. Some U.S. documents give her last name as Beranek or Risanek (I'm not sure of the writing!) but her married name was Krejci. When I found the record of her marriage in Laz (near Moravske Budejovice) I was surprised to see that her maiden name was Krejci also! It's very interesting that she is not identified in that document by her relationship with her father, a previous husband, or even her mother. She is simply "Anna Kritschie von Lhanitz Namieschty Herrschaft"(Častohostice 10150 image 92). Lhanice is a small village some distance away from Laz, near Mohelno. I don't think I've ever seen a case like this in the Czech records where a young woman is simply who she is, not someone's daughter or husband or widow.

    The birth records of her sons give a name for her father but do not agree on her father's name. Her mother's name is always given as Juditha from Lhanice but the information about her family is not consistent, either. Then I found the record of Anna's birth in Lhanice and discovered she was born illegitimate, no father listed. Same thing with a brother and sister. Juditha's father's name is given as Frantz--different from the names given in Anna's sons' birth records!--and her mother's name is Catharina. I've found a birth record for Franciscus Krejci, but no marriage record and no record of any kind for Catharina. So there are still mysteries about this part of my family.

    I wonder if the information about Anna's father in her sons' baptismal records was a deliberate attempt to hide the fact that she was illegitimate or if there is some truth in it.

  4. Tereza, the eldest daughter of my immigrant ancestors, was born out of wedlock on 26 Nov 1834, as noted by the local chaplain. But the record also said that Josef Wetzstein "proclaims to be the father of this child in the presence of witnesses."

    Later, Tereza's birth certificate was issued on 20 Oct 1839 with this note: Child was legitimized by marriage of her parents made on July 6, 1835. It's interesting that her parents' marriage alone didn't resolve her illegitimacy--that official steps were necessary to change her status.

    Her family arrived in New York City on 1 Sep 1855 and settled in Wisconsin. In April, she married another settler and the couple had 5 children together. A happy ending.

    1. I would be interested in knowing what the steps were for legitimizing a child or changing a mother's"status". I have illegitimate gg grandparents in both of my czech lines.

  5. I was so puzzled when I first read the birth registers in Litomerice. Why were all those father columns blank? How frustrating. I just did not believe it could be that common. No one ever mentioned this to me before, thanks Blanka. I have both a bastard for a great-great-grandfather in Litomerice and a previously unwed mother as a great-great grandmother from the parish of Lasovice, Trebon. Yet I am proud of them.

  6. Very interesting post. I confirms many of my suspicions and observations! Thank you very much!
    Do you know if the such a great social stigma on the mother and/or child where the birth was "Legitimata per subsequens matrimonium" ?

  7. I've been compiling a partial transcription of a Czech record containing many of my ancestors: 000-03133 Nemcice births 1837-1890. I'm roughly half done, and can tell you that about 11% of births are illegitimate; and of the legitimate births, about 3% were originally illegitimate but were upgraded when the parents later married.


  8. My great grandmother's birth certificate shows no father -- illegitimate. A Czech ethnographer with whom I discussed this told me that, under the feudal system (before 1848) generally peasants could not marry without permission of the lord of the manor to which they belonged. And sometimes the permission was refused, likely because the lord feared losing a worker. (Could not leave the lord's domain without permission either). That may account for at least some of the unwed births, something like a common-law marriage, not performed by the priest. In some aspects, more like slavery than not.

  9. The Kirchenbuch for St. George Catholic Church of Petschau, Karlsbad, Bohmen (Becov Nad Teplou, today) shows that a child was born in a prison! At least that was the translation I had from a genealogist.

    What might the situation be in that case? Was there a prison or a nunnery in that village?

  10. my gt gt gt grandmother had a son out of wedlock in 1841, no father listed, another in 1848, no father listed, but the house # 20 is given, for the mother she is listed at house # 15 with her parents. Would house 20 be were the father lived? Or were she worked? This gt gt grandfather married in the U.S. a second time and said his fathers name was John on the marriage record. He might have been told his fathers name. He married his first wife in CZ and she was not illegitimate.

  11. After rereading this blog it occurred to me that since my gg grandfather married my gg grandmother (who had an illegitimate daughter) so soon after his wife's death that perhaps he actually was the father of the illegitimate child! I am a slow learner!

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  13. The birth record I am currently viewing is of an Illegitimately born relative of mine from 1902. Unlike all other birth records of my family that I have viewed this one does not give a baptism date. Is that common of an illegitimate child? We they not allowed to be baptized in a Catholic church?

    1. They had to be baptised - didn't the child die after the birth?

  14. Hello. In my familly tree is also one interesting case of birth of illegitimely children.
    My great-grandfather parents had 5 children, then father died in 1874. The children were named Bezděk after the father. But in 1879 mother gave birth to my great-grandfather and he obtain his mother maid name Rosa. In 1881 and 1884 mother gave births to his two illegitimately born sisters. We do not know, if the fahter of the three illegitimately born children is same or there are more fathers. In population census from 1880 or 1890 there is no adult man listed on the house. All of that happend in small village with app 100 houses. But my great-grandfather changed his name Rosa to Bezděk when he was around 30 years old. Is possible that he knew who was his real father, probably another distant relativ named Bezděk?? :) Thank you.

  15. My gr-gr-grandmother was illegitimate and had no father listed... but I eventually realized that I had available to me the last two living gr-grandchildren of her mother, one thru her and one thru her half-brother (who had a known father). DNA comparison showed they were such strong 2nd cousins that *both* of their gr-grandparents had to be common, not just one. Hence the later husband was my gr-gr-grandmothers father.

    1. Lucky for you that you understand the DNA that well.

  16. I heard that a common man couldn't get married if he was in the service, was that true?

    1. If you mean military service, then yes, he was not allowed to marry until he reached certain rank (and income).

  17. The frequent question that pops up when discussing nonmarital children throughout the history, is: given that women who bore children out of wedlock were ostracized by the society, why did they choose to have children prior to marriage?

    The answer is that for many, if not most, young women at the time discussed, their offsprings were not the result of an amorous relationship, but that of rape. Either a forcible rape, or of a situation where the woman simply had no choice but to acquiesce to the sexual contact.

    This of course is horrifying to us, and I would imagine it was most likely well known and understood by the people at the time. Unlike some societies, I believe that in the area of the present Czech Republic rape has never been seen as a legitimate method of staking a claim by a man of an eligible woman, but a rape was seen as a crime.

    The question for us to consider is: given that nonmarital children were often the result of a rape, and given that the father was (as Blanka wrote) often known, why did the society not put pressure on the father, but placed the blame on the woman?

    I do not ask this question through the veil of political correctness of the 21st century; this question is germane even if assume unequality between the sexes, for the father of a young woman has a legitimate interest in protecting the family name, and is would be supportive in such a pressure.

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  20. Very interesting information and comments. In my family there is a recurrent "family lore" passed down that my gr grandfather was illegitimate but may have been given to a couple in another village in Ukraine so as to avoid the stigma. The story goes that his actual surname through his birth father was lost through this process. Everyone who could confirm that this is true are long gone but it is an intriguing bit of family history. I have read a bit about 19th century adoption: Adoptions taking place during the 19th century and before were conducted in a very secretive manner.
    Many of the children who were adopted were placed with other families to avoid them being labeled as illegitimate.
    The stigma against unmarried mothers and their children was enough of a social threat that birth
    mothers chose to place their children for adoption (or were pressured into the choice by the father or poverty). Like today, the choice of adoption was generally made for the best interest of the newborn child. [The history of adoption before the 20th century]