The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 17 (2017)

Lucky Bastards: Illegitimacy and Opportunity in Carolingian Europe

Steven A. StofferahnMailto: Icon

Indiana State University

©2017 by Steven A. Stofferahn. All intellectual property rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2017 by The Heroic Age. Permissions granted for educational and personal purposes only.

Abstract: No early medieval family tree would be complete without its bastards. But despite their ubiquity in noble bloodlines, the history of illegitimate heirs is frequently reduced to the uneven dichotomy between the lucky few who realized dreams of power versus the pitiable many with lives marked by eternal frustration. The combination, however, of an often tumultuous political culture with the presence of hungry aspirants of vaunted ancestry placed bastards in a unique position in the early Middle Ages, allowing at least some of them to take advantage of the flexibility inherent in their status and background. Not bound by the normal constraints of their half-siblings, such figures nonetheless carried within them noble blood, which propelled them to the fore in moments of turmoil. Well-positioned to assume the places of those who fell out of royal favor, whether temporarily through disgrace and exile or permanently through execution, they were a force to be reckoned with. In exploring the ambiguity of bastardy in classical and Germanic society, highlighting the careers of successful Carolingian bastards, and analyzing key moments of transition in early medieval attitudes toward illegitimacy, the essay offers a more nuanced view of bastards taking fuller account of how their special status within royal and aristocratic families made them some of the most potent political figures of the Carolingian empire.

§1. 817 was the best and worst of times for bastards. Drogo, Hugo, and Theodoric—all sons of Charlemagne by various concubines—had been faring better than they could have expected as table companions of their elder half-brother, Emperor Louis the Pious (r.814–840). A troubling revolt in Italy had planted a seed of doubt in Louis' mind, however, until he succumbed to rumor-stoked suspicion and stripped the brothers of their nascent honors and offices and relegated them to monastic confinements a few months later. But they could always be recalled when the time was right. Turning to other matters, appointing a new count of Sens proved especially simple, as a fresh candidate by the name of Arnulf readily presented himself with the perfect credentials. Not only was he the grandson of the former count, he was also Louis' own first-born son by a former concubine. In this case, that was a selling point, as the emperor was ever keen to find replacements for open offices as an effective means of affirming his still-shaky imperial authority. It was just lucky for Louis that a bastard always seemed to be around when he needed one.

§2. It can be difficult to leave behind preconceptions with regard to illegitimacy, an intrinsically loaded term. As one modern conservative think-tank reminded the readers of its house journal:

"Bastard" has always been a pejorative term. The word is a Spanish idiom: bastardo, or "pack-saddle child," implying rootlessness. An alternative etymology derived from the Saxon "base" and "origin." Being a bastard was to be a "natural" child, lying outside of society. The name is an insult, "bastard" being associated with mongrel or inferior breeds of animals (Murray 1994, 9).

Such sentiments inevitably color both contemporary opinion and historical judgement—(in)famous examples like William the Bastard-turned-Conqueror notwithstanding. Yet were medieval bastards always only to be pitied in relation to their "legitimate" half-siblings, or could they enjoy an advantageous position on the political landscape, with a range of action sometimes underappreciated by later assessments? This study probes that ambiguity by focusing on the bastard's place within the political culture of the Carolingian empire of the eighth and ninth centuries, often noted for its transitional and transformational nature. As is well known, many western European political practices and traditions first congealed during the Carolingian crucible, which makes this era particularly attractive to those seeking a clearer understanding of the roots of later opinions on medieval and early modern illegitimacy. In surveying the ambiguity of early medieval thought on the topic, highlighting key case studies of successful (and controversial) bastards from the time, and probing a prescient source of late ninth-century opinion, this essay will suggest that the flexibility of Carolingian politics not only afforded illegitimate noble children great latitude of action, but also allowed available political talent to be tapped in times of impasse. It will also note how Carolingian sentiments and practices featured harbingers of the more restrictive approaches that would coalesce in the later Middle Ages, giving way to attitudes that would persist well into the modern period.

§3. Part of the difficulty in giving early medieval bastards their due inevitably lies in the nature of the scholarly consideration they have received. This has come in fits and starts, and, unsurprisingly, more has been said about other eras or about related conditions. Classicists, for instance, have probed just what "illegitimacy" meant to Athenians and Romans vis-à-vis private marriage traditions that rarely if ever involved political or religious institutions, with special attention to the range of citizenship or inheritance rights such figures could claim.1 The vast majority of scholarship on the post-Roman West has focused, however, on bastardy in early modern Europe, though naturally highlighting the wildly successful career of William the Conqueror as well.2 In a notable exception, the inheritance rights of early medieval bastards was treated in depth by two German scholars in the early twentieth century, but while their studies provide a wealth of foundational information, they also followed the well-established practice among Verfassungshistoriker of extrapolating key conclusions about the early Middle Ages from the broader evidentiary base of later Scandinavian societies.3 More recently, social historians have produced insightful works on medieval concubinage, although the period falling between the legal works of Justinian and Gratian typically receive little direct attention.4 Still, at least four scholars have studied issues very closely related to bastardy in the Carolingian era. Sylvia Konecny's groundbreaking work on the political significance of marriage in the Carolingian era focused, in part, on the place of bastard children in royal households, though principally in relation to their mothers. More recently, Simon MacLean, Karl Heidecker, and Carl Hammer have all had occasion to highlight the stories of Carolingian scions with checkered parentage vying for royal authority. Although its primary focus is Charles the Fat, MacLean's detailed study of late ninth-century politics tangentially chronicles many of the difficulties encountered by ambitious bastards of the time, including Arnulf of Carinthia and his own illegitimate heir Zwentibold as they tried to establish themselves in the eastern part of the decaying Carolingian empire, while Heidecker charts the evolution of ideas about Christian marriage by way of Lothar II's quest to gain a divorce in order to legitimize his concubine's children. Similarly, Carl Hammer's compelling reconsideration of the 792 revolt by Pippin "the Hunchback" relates this castoff's spirited attempt to reclaim what he believed to be his rightful place at court (MacLean 2003; Heidecker 2010; Hammer 2008). In all of these cases, though, a consideration of bastardy itself plays only a supporting role in the larger analyses offered, whether it be the shape of post-imperial politics in the twilight of the Carolingian era, the ongoing development of ideas about marriage in the ninth century, or the potential in recasting Pippin's revolt by viewing it through the lens of the fate of the Bavarian duchy. It may therefore be useful to return more directly to the fortunes of early medieval bastards, seeking to uncover their justifications of claims to power, as well as the nature and legacy of contemporary efforts to rein in their ambition.

§4. Bastards who found a way to flourish in the early Middle Ages certainly drew upon their own wits and resources, but they could also take advantage of space left open to them by amorphous legal traditions, flexible marriage practices, and a good number of successful exemplars. The specific vocabulary of early medieval bastardy was largely provided by Roman law compendia and, more importantly, Isidore of Seville. For the most part, Roman legalists concerned themselves with the problems arising from marriages between men and women of widely different social status. According to the Theodosian Code, high-ranking men attempting to pass off such matches as fully fledged marriages were supposed to suffer infamy, and their children could expect to inherit only a very small sliver of their parents' property (Theodosian Code 4.6.3).5 Drawing upon this and other late Roman precedents as he compiled his Etymologiae in the early seventh century, Isidore—so influential among succeeding generations of western European intellectuals and administrators—provided the key distinction between two types of offspring stemming from parents of mixed social backgrounds:

23. One is called nothus (lit. "one born out of wedlock") who is born from a noble father and from an ignoble mother, for instance a concubine. Moreover, this term is Greek … and is lacking in Latin. 24. Opposite to this is a spurius son, one who is born from a noble mother and an ignoble father. Again, the spurius son is born from an unknown father and from a widowed mother, as if he were the son of a spurium only—for the ancients termed the female generative organs spurium … that is, "seed"—and he has no name from his father. 25. Such children were also called Favonii, because certain animals are thought to conceive by receiving a draft from the Favonian (i.e. west) wind. Hence those children who are not born of legitimate wedlock follow the condition of the mother rather than the father. In Latin the word spurius is as if the term were extra puritatem … that is, as if unclean (Isidore of Seville Etymologiae 23–25, English translation Barney, Lewis, and Berghof 2006).6

§5. Of the two words, spurius appears exceedingly seldom in early medieval works, presumably because without a powerful father, such figures would have found it difficult (though not impossible) to gain political prominence.7 It also appears only three times in the Vulgate: twice to describe Goliath (I Samuel 17:4,23) and once to malign the children of the ungodly (Wisdom of Solomon 4:3). By contrast, nothus, as detailed below, was readily used by Carolingian writers to describe any number of bastard offspring, although, interestingly, the term itself never appears in Jerome's Latin translation of Scripture. The preference for nothus is easily explained, as noble and royal males were far more likely to form matches with partners of lower social status than were their blue-blooded sisters (with a handful of notable exceptions). The implicit insult to the father of a spurius was also unlikely to appear in sources sympathetic to the interests of the Carolingian dynasty. Weaponizing this particular term would have to wait for a later era.

§6. But while Isidore may have provided a helpful lexicon for those in search of terms to describe persons of interest, the daily reality for early medieval bastards was anything but clear-cut. Perhaps the most important element of that ambiguity was the fluid nature of marriage itself. Konecny's study catalogued the wide range of matches available to the male Frankish nobility, including formal marriage, concubinage with a woman from an influential kin group (often subsequently formalized in public), concubinage with a noblewoman of less stature, or connections with unfree women. All were relatively common for both Merovingians and Carolingians. Among the former, the dividing line between uxor and concubina was all too fine, with several instances of early Frankish kings marrying unfree women and even recognizing them as queens (Konecny 1976, 25–27).8 Although often compiled and revised much after the fact (and thus reflective of later Carolingian attitudes), Frankish law codes nevertheless reiterate this flexibility, as the only provision directly relevant to illegitimacy occurs in the Pactus Legis Salicae, and only then to rule out the inheritance rights of a child produced by an "illegal" marriage between a man and woman too closely related (Pactus legis Salicae 13.11; Drew 1991, 42, 78). Even then, most observers appeared to care less about the legitimacy of a match than whether the resulting offspring was of noble or royal lineage. Eduard Hlawitschka memorably asserted that Carolingian blood was, after all, royal blood, serving to propel its host far beyond the ambitions of most fellow nobles, prompting the question of whether bastards might even have been viewed in an enviable light by some of their peers (Hlawitschka 1960, 72). That possibility notwithstanding, the now-familiar argument is driven home that early medieval marriage was primarily a political and economic relationship, with the Church only taking meaningful steps to regularize it in the centuries to come (Brundage 1982, 127).9

§7. In addition to the space afforded bastards through both terminology and contemporary forms of marriage, there was no shortage of precedent to inspire ambitious Carolingian nothi. The Merovingians themselves had provided many of these, including Clovis' son, Theodoric I (d.533), who shared power with his more "legitimate" half-brothers.10 Likewise, Sigisbert, bastard son of Dagobert I, had little difficulty establishing a claim to at least part of his father's realm. Early Pippinid Mayors of the Palace followed suit, as illustrated by Pippin II's own tortured decision in 714 about whom to designate as his heir. With no clearly legitimate children left alive, he was obliged to consider a range of candidates, including Charles Martel and Childebrand, born of his favored concubine, Alpais. In the end, he passed over both in favor of his grandson, Theudoald. But in the view of Pierre Riché, the decision stemmed more from exigency than principal (Theudoald himself being the bastard of Pippin's deceased legitimate son Grimoald), since it was "probably dictated to him by his wife, Plectrude, who hoped by this means to displace the sons of the concubine and herself direct the affairs of the kingdom. Worn down by age and sickness, Pippin accepted this solution" (Riché 1993, 33). In any event, Charles Martel prevailed in the end, which was a lesson in its own right. Examples could be found across the English Channel, too, as in Bede's Vita Cuthberti, composed around 721. Recounting the resolution to another troubling succession crisis, Bede has Aelfflaed, sister to the present king Ecgfrith, begging the holy Cuthbert to tell her who would assume the Northumbrian crown when Ecgfrith died, since he had no apparent heir. Finally moved by her exhortations, Cuthbert reveals the obvious solution:

"Do not say there is no heir. One will come whom you will embrace with as much sisterly affection as though he were Ecgfrith's own self." "Then tell me where he is!" she cried. "Look at the sea," he replied. "It abounds in islands. God could easily provide a ruler for the English from one of them." She realized he was hinting at Aldfrith, the supposed son of Ecgfrith's father, who was away in Ireland being educated. … His prophecy was completely fulfilled; next year Ecgfrith was slain by the Picts and the throne went to his bastard brother Aldfrith recently returned from his studies in Ireland, where he had willingly exiled himself for the love of learning (Bede Vita sancti Cuthberti 24).11

As precedents went, it was worth having one handy from Bede, considering the impact his works would have upon later Carolingian writers, commentators, and royal advisors.

§8. Such a provision of conceptual space and precedent helps explain the outsized impact bastards came to have on Carolingian politics. There were certainly plenty of them around: even a cursory survey of narrative, annalistic, legal, and epistolary sources points to more than twenty important figures from the late eighth and ninth centuries readily identifiable as bastards—most from concubines, but some from other kinds of unmarried pairings. The purpose at present is not to chronicle each and every one, but rather to highlight the experiences of a few in order to illustrate the eventful and influential life a Carolingian bastard could lead.12 The most surprising name potentially appearing on this list, of course, would be Charlemagne himself. While there is little doubt that Charles was born on April 2, all modern biographers have had to contend with the odd uncertainty surrounding the year of his birth. If taken literally, Einhard's Vita Karoli would place it in 742—at least two (and perhaps as many as seven) years before the generally accepted date of the formal marriage of his parents, Pippin the Short and Bertrada. Yet this has been much more a point of concern among modern writers—many of whom have wondered how a bastard could possibly have risen to such heights—than for Carolingian contemporaries, who seem to have taken little notice.13 But if Charlemagne did not quite make the cut on this list himself, Einhard made sure to inform his readers—clearly without any hesitation or sense of embarrassment—that in addition to Charles' eight legitimate sons and daughters, the emperor had six additional children with five concubines, and that he took great pains to care for and educate all of them in equal measure (Einhard Vita Karoli 18–19, adding Pippin the Hunchback in chapter 20). Indeed, the respect that Drogo, Hugo, and Theodoric received early on appears to have served them well in the wake of their father's death, and their subsequent careers (though subject to the whims of their half-brother, Louis the Pious) illustrate well both the perils and—if treacherous waters were deftly navigated—the rewards royal bastards might expect.

§9. Although Louis wasted no time banishing his sisters from court upon assuming power in 814, he felt perfectly comfortable keeping his younger half-brothers with him for several years afterwards.14 But in the troubling wake of his nephew Bernard's "revolt" in Italy in 817, the uncertain emperor felt obliged to have his younger half-brothers tonsured and placed in the custody of various monasteries (Nithard Historiarum libri IIII 1.2).15 Louis' biographer Thegan noted that this was "to mitigate discord," but added that Louis "ordered them to be instructed in liberal studies" and later placed them honorably (Thegan Gesta Hludowici Imperatoris 24).16 The point about staving off possible trouble shows, of course, that contemporaries must have viewed bastard offspring as perfectly viable rallying points for a noble insurgency—one of which had indeed coalesced around Pippin the Hunchback during Charlemagne's own reign in 792. Once Louis felt surer of his authority, however, he made good on his prior promises and recalled the three brothers from their bouts of exile in 823, rewarding Drogo with the bishopric of Metz and Hugo with the abbacy of St. Quentin. Drogo went on to enjoy a distinguished career at the heart of the empire, serving as one of Louis' key advisors, a power-broker during the civil wars of the 830s and 840s, and a patron of significant intellectual and artistic endeavors until his death in 855.17 Hugo likewise assumed an influential role in the aftermath of Louis' death, serving as one of Charles the Bald's most indispensable advisors in the early 840s. Naturally both cases fit the stereotype of bastard brothers relegated into ecclesiastical offices, but it is well worth noting that not only did these two men play an important part in forming the practical basis of that stereotype; they also began their careers as viable political actors in their own right.

§10. Apart from serving in important Church posts, royal Carolingian bastards found many other avenues open to them. Nithard, the product of an open affair between Charlemagne's daughter Bertha and Angilbert of St. Riquier, was apparently raised alongside his twin brother, Hartnid, at court without stigma. Bertha probably used her significant influence to further her son's interests, which may help account for the remarkable fact that he went on to receive important honores from Louis the Pious, although he eventually gained his most enduring fame through his chronicle of the civil wars of the early 840s (Nelson 1985, 269). Nithard would also have seen his illegitimate cousin Alpais, daughter of Louis the Pious by a concubine, flourish in high circles as a match of interest for kin groups eager to foster closer connections with the Carolingian dynasty. As it happened, she was eventually given in marriage to Count Bego of Paris, one of Louis' closest friends and confidants (Boshof 1996, 59, 65).18 A number of bastards also served the dynasty as trusted advisors, ambassadors, and missi dominici. Jerome, a natural son of Charles Martel installed as a monk at St. Armand, not only contributed to Carolingian historiography through the Vita of the monastery's namesake, but also served alongside Abbot Fulrad of St. Denis as one of the emissaries to Pope Stephen II in 754 on behalf of his half-brother Pippin the Short's ongoing efforts to solidify the new dynasty's hold on power. Abbot Louis of St. Denis, son of Charlemagne's daughter Rotrude and Count Rorgo of Maine, served his cousin Charles the Bald as a circuit-rider (ad iustitias faciendas) in 853, handing down judgements in Paris, Meaux, Senlis, and Beauvais (Krause 1890, 272, 284). And last but not least, the very late ninth century witnessed the rise of Arnulf of Carinthia, bastard son of the Bavarian king Carloman, as king in his own right, followed in turn by his illegitimate son, Zwentibold, whom he installed as king in Lotharingia. Both figures were highly controversial and their reigns were notably short-lived (Riché 1993, 219–249). Still, the fact that father and son had been able to overcome what some modern observers might be tempted to regard as an insurmountable barrier to independent rule speaks to the continued relevance and potency of bastards within Carolingian political culture.

§11. Yet for all of their successes, the lot of a Carolingian bastard was never an easy one. Challenges always lay in store, and their status would undergo a significant transformation during and after the reign of Louis the Pious. Already in the late eighth century one begins to see changing opinions in ecclesiastical quarters. In a 786 report to Pope Hadrian on the state of the Church among the Anglo-Saxons, for example, a group of legates lamented that people's continued laxity in sexual matters. Particularly troubling was the fact that bastards were still allowed to become kings. Alcuin (who transcribed these reports in his own correspondence) later added in a letter to Osbert in 797 his own specific concern that the Anglo-Saxon king Eardulf was courting disaster by keeping a concubine—a veiled critique, perhaps, of what he saw happening much closer to home (Alcuin Epistolae 122). Louis the Pious's first act as emperor in 814 was, as noted before, similarly revealing. Yes, he had immediately banished his sisters from Aachen, but why, exactly? Janet Nelson has suggested that it was because these influential females (especially Bertha, "the celebrated unmarried mother") had just arranged their father's funeral and may well have been preparing to back an alternative imperial candidate, their uncle Wala (Nelson 2000, 152). But Wala was hardly alone in his availability. In terms of royal blood, their uncle would have paled in comparison with, say, Charlemagne's natural son Drogo, who, though only thirteen years old but yet untonsured, would have appeared attractively malleable in the eyes of an ambitious aristocracy. Louis prevailed over his sisters, of course, but the subsequent tonsuring and monastic exile of his half-brothers in 818 does belie any sense of security he may have projected vis-à-vis their supposed unsuitability for the throne.

§12. The most palpable change in attitude toward the rights of bastards came with Louis' promulgation of the Ordinatio Imperii in 817, which set forth the emperor's plans for how his sons Lothar, Louis, and Pippin should cooperatively divide the empire in the future, preserving imperial unity in the process. This important decree has been much debated, particularly with regard to the tensions it engendered between those embracing an emerging "imperial ideal" and those cleaving to older traditions of partibility. Such tensions subsequently developed into outright conflict in the 820s and 830s when Louis tried to alter its provisions to accommodate the birth of Charles the Bald (Boshof 1990, 161–190; Riché 1993, 145–149). But often lost in those discussions is the careful consideration given to the proper place of "illegitimate" children in the newly-envisioned system of imperial succession. Chapter 15, providing that the imperial mantle should pass to the next eldest brother if the designated emperor were to die without any legitimate children, also featured a telling exhortation: "And if it happens that [the deceased emperor] has children by mistresses, we advise the eldest brother to show mercy to them" (Ordinatio Imperii 15). Louis clearly took pains to follow his own advice, successfully mollifying his own bastard son, Arnulf, by investing him with the important county of Sens at the same time. Interestingly, the Chronicle of Moissac's account of these events first explicitly identifies Arnulf as Louis' son by a concubine, then records his investiture. It then immediately relates the opposite, rebellious reaction to the Ordinatio by Louis' nephew Bernard, King of Italy—the legitimate son of Louis' deceased brother (Chronicon Moissiacense an. 817).19 Bastards could therefore come in handy in setting forth examples of good behavior (and its resulting rewards) in imperial family affairs—an important precedent for future rulers to consider. Louis' direct action was echoed by at least three additional contemporary attempts to restrict the rights of bastards. Writing in the 820s, and citing behavioral precedents from the Old Testament, bishop Jonas of Orléans declared in his De institutione laicali that the sons of concubines should thereafter be obliged to defer in matters of inheritance to their legitimate brothers (Jonas of Orléans De institutione laicali 2.2).20 Toward the end of Louis' reign, Thegan took similar pains in his Gesta Hludowici imperatoris (composed between 835–838) to discredit the memory of certain opponents, including Bernard of Italy. The angle of attack was particularly revealing, as Thegan sought to undermine Bernard's a priori claim to rule in the first place by referring to his mother as "the concubine of Pippin of Italy" (Thegan Gesta Hludowici imperatoris 22).21 It is doubtful whether elder peers with clear memories would have taken this charge seriously, since the legitimacy of Pippin's marriage had never been questioned before. Indeed, Alcuin had explicitly referred to Pippin's "wife" in a letter from 796 (Alcuin Epistolae 119). Still, Thegan's attempt to bludgeon a long-dead opponent with the charge of bastardy is significant. Likewise, the potent interpretations of the visions of Rotcharius and Wetti among the "textual community" of Reichenau (helpfully delimited by Paul Dutton) add a further line of attack upon bastards in the years following Charlemagne's death. In criticizing the former emperor's sexual excesses through vivid portrayals of his torments in the afterlife, these dreams provided supporters of the new regime with an important ideological foundation for Louis' own rule, as well as his concerted attempts to clip the wings of his half-brothers and discourage any attempt by disgruntled nobles to build rebellions around them (Dutton 1994, 69–79).22 Nevertheless, even in all of these cases, the larger point remains that contemporaries would hardly have bothered attacking the rights of illegitimate offspring unless they were worth worrying about. They clearly still enjoyed de-facto legitimacy as political actors.

§13. A useful ending-point for this overview of bastardy in the Carolingian era may be found in a brief topical consideration of Notker the Stammerer's Gesta Karoli, a work both intimately familiar and perpetually perplexing to early medievalists. Composed for Charles the Fat between 883 and 887 at St. Gall, the Gesta has long presented modern readers with a challenge when it comes to recognizing its usefulness, reliability, and agenda. Calling attention to Notker's didactic strategy of imparting moral lessons to a troubled emperor, Thomas Noble has observed that "[t]he key issue is not whether Notker supplies new or accurate information. Rather, we read Notker to see how [Charlemagne] was coming to be remembered and to see how he could be used as a symbol" (Noble 2009, 57). Bearing that in mind, it is worthwhile to consider the portrayal of a handful of bastards that fortuitously appear in Notker's book. First, there is the picaresque anecdote about two apparently fictitious nothi who find their way into Charlemagne's innermost circle:

There were also two bastards from Colmar born [on the part of an estate where the women carried out their work]. When the emperor noticed that they fought most bravely, he asked them who they were and where they were born. When he learned, he summoned them to his tent one day about noon and spoke to them as follows, "My good young men, I desire you to serve me and no one else." They testified that they had come to him for that very purpose and that they would be satisfied to be last in his retinue. He said to them, "You ought to serve in my chamber." They said they would gladly do it, even though they hid their indignation. When the emperor began to take his rest, they seized the opportunity to go out to the enemy's camp, where they stirred up a commotion and washed away the taint of servitude [with their own blood, or rather the blood of their enemies] (Notker the Stammerer Gesta Karoli 2.4).23

What can be made of this story? True, these characters are clearly disappointed not to have won higher appointments, but then again, Notker scarcely balks at conveying a story about a pair of well-armed, well-trained, courtly bastards who have little difficulty gaining what everyone else wanted so badly: personal access to the king. But perhaps the larger lesson was simply that such figures could still be expected to show up now and then, making their own way in the world.24

§14. It would have been more surprising, however, had the most famous Carolingian bastard of all not surfaced in Notker's Gesta. Pippin, Charlemagne's eldest son by his first concubine Himiltrude, has garnered significant attention from a range of scholars concerned with issues of Carolingian succession. Most recently, Carl Hammer has provided a masterful explication of not only Pippin's royal viability (noting that the pejorative epithets of "bastard" and "hunchback" were only added much later), but also the deeper context behind his famous failed revolt against Charlemagne in 792.25 As Hammer and (in more limited fashion) Konecny have shown, Pippin was definitely regarded as a potential royal heir well into his early adulthood, at least before the disastrous end of that treasonous affair, since his name appears before that of his legitimate brother Charles on important contemporary documents. Indeed, it was not until the county of Maine was granted to Charles in the spring of 792 that it became clear that Pippin would not be in line for primary succession, which prompted a cohort of powerful noble supporters (who knew they were risking everything) to rally to his side in pursuit of various agendas of their own. But by Notker's time, Pippin's story had been radically transformed into a didactic caricature. Leaving no question as to Pippin's illegitimate status, Notker used every trick in the book, describing him first as "born of a concubine" (per concubinam progenito), then as a "dwarf and hunchback" (nanus et gipperosus), and finally as a "bastard" (nothus) (Notker the Stammerer Gesta Karoli 2.12). Interestingly, he also pointed out that his mother had "ominously" (or, in a variant manuscript, "criminally") bestowed upon him the regal name of "Pippin."26 That accomplished, the author felt comfortable having Pippin himself dispense some of most prescient political advice of the entire work. In the aftermath of yet another treasonous plot, Charlemagne dispatches envoys to Pippin (now confined at the monastery of Prüm) for guidance as to how best to deal with the traitors:

When [the envoys] got back to the emperor and were asked what message they had, they complained that after so much effort and travel they could not say a single thing. With the wisest of kings asking them one thing after another—where they found [Pippin], what he was doing, what answer he gave them—they said, "We found him sitting on a rustic stool weeding an herb garden with a pitchfork. We went over the reason for our journey again and again, and even with the most earnest requests we could extract from him only this response: 'I have nothing else to say to him except what I am doing. I am pulling out worthless crap so that useful herbs will be able to grow freely.'" On hearing this, the augustus, who was not lacking in cunning, indeed brimming with wisdom, rubbed his ears, breathed out through his nose, and told them, "Best of vassals, you have brought back a reasonable answer." Whereas the envoys thought themselves in mortal danger, he himself learned from the gist of the report what to do. He removed all those conspirators from the midst of the living and gave his faithful followers places to grow and spread out, places formerly occupied by those fruitless men.27

In a fitting codicil, Notker concluded this particular anecdote with an overt reference to Charles the Fat's own bastard troubles, noting that he would refrain from saying any more about Prüm's recent destruction by the Norsemen until "I see your little son Bernhard with a sword strapped to his thigh," apparently in the hope that Charles would prevail in his quest to have his concubine's son legitimized as his heir, so as to deal more effectively with Viking threats looming on the horizon. Alas for Charles and Bernhard, the plan came to naught.28

§15. As with so many aspects of the Carolingian era, this overview of the experience of early medieval bastards perhaps raises more questions than it answers. Despite the key roles they played throughout this time and the skill with which they played their hands on occasion, their status was always ambiguous. The emergence of an increasingly emboldened ecclesiastical establishment calling upon rulers to take the renovatio to the next stage of moral reform only strengthened the headwinds. Yet on the other hand, those same kings felt little need to abandon their concubines and alternative heirs. It was in this nebulous space between ideal and reality that such figures could survive and in some cases even flourish, thereby adding an important nuance to our understanding of dynastic dynamics. In the end, the importance of the bastard in such a transitional age may reside less in specific successes and failures than it does in the potential bastards carried for both. At the very least, like Pippin in his garden, they could always be counted on to give the best advice to those hoping to grasp and shape the political realities of their day.


1. For a representative sample, see Ogden 1996; Patterson 1990; Rhodes 1978; and Syme 1960. [Back]

2. There is a remarkably expansive body of scholarship on early modern bastards, including Gerber 2012; Zunshine 2005; Kuehn 2002; Adair 1996; and, more broadly, Teichman 1982. [Back]

3. See Sickel 1903; Kogler 1904; and, for a more recent investigation of related topics, Bund 1979. [Back]

4. See Brundage 1982 and, even closer to the present topic, Ross 1985. [Back]

5. Kogler maintained that provisions within the fuller Justinian Code to legitimize such offspring by subsequent marriage (legitimatio per subsequens matrimonium) were only meaningfully revived in western Europe in the thirteenth century. Until then, solutions on the ground remained more fluid, as reflected in the ambiguity of Carolingian sources discussing such cases. See Kogler 1904, 9–10; and Teichman 1982, 54. [Back]

6. 23. Nothus dicitur, qui de patre nobili et de matre ignobili gignitur, sicut ex concubina. Est autem hoc nomen Graecum et in Latinitate deficit. 24. Huic contrarius spurius, qui de matre nobili et patre ignobili nascitur. Item spurius patre incerto, matre vidua genitus, velut tantum spurii filius; quia muliebrem naturam veteres spurium vocabant … hoc est seminis; non patris nomine. 25. Eosdem et Favonios appellabant, quia quaedam animalia Favonio spiritu hausto concipere existimantur. Unde et hi, qui non sunt de legitimo matrimonio, matrem potius quam patrem sequuntur. Latine autem spurii quasi extra puritatem, id est quasi inmundi. Isidore's construct had a determinative influence upon later writers like Hrabanus Maurus, who transcribed this passage verbatim into his De Universo. In his brief commentary on the passage, he interpolated spurius (not nothus) through the theme of redemption from denigration. See Hrabanus Maurus De Universo 7.3. [Back]

7. Reflecting upon her own ongoing study of illegitimacy in the High Middle Ages, Sara Ann McDougall has noted that it was only in the twelfth century that the term came into wider usage as a tool of social slander (McDougall 2015). [Back]

8. See also Riché 1993, 135 on the continued practice of Friedelehe, along with the concomitant problems it presented for later moralists and those intent on establishing clear lines of imperial succession. [Back]

9. More broadly, see also Wertheimer 2000; Schmugge and Wiggenhauser 1994. [Back]

10. Although drawing upon earlier materials, the Quedlinburg Annals were compiled in the 850s and therefore reflect, at least in part, the sentiments of that time. While the Annals initially denigrate Theodoric's status ("Who, although a nothus … "), they go on to give him due credit for his accomplishments and for "having inherited wisdom and fortitude from his father," earning a respected place among his other brothers: Eodem anno Hugo Theodoricus rex, Clodovei regis filius ex concubina natus, cum patri successisset in regnum, ad electionem suam Irminfridum regem Thuringorum honorifice invitavit. Hugo Theodericus iste dicitur, id est Francus, quia olim omnes Franci Hugones vocabantur a suo quodam duce Hugone. Qui, quamvis nothus esset, a patre Clodoveo propter sapientiam et fortitudinem sibi divinitus collatam caeteris filiis suis plus dilectus, suo iussu totiusque populi consensu inter fratres suos nobiles, id est Clodomirum, Hildebertum et Lotharium, aequalem regni partem suscepit (Annales Quedlinburgenses an. Justinianus 39). [Back]

11. Qui parum silens: 'Ne, inquit, dicas quia caret; habebit enim successorem, quem germana ut ipsum Ecgfridum dilectione complectaris.' At illa: 'Obsecro, inquit, dicas quibus in locis sit ille?' Qui ait: 'Cernis hoc mare magnum et spatiosum, quot abundet insulis? Facile est Deo de aliqua harum sibi providere quem regno praeficiat Anglorum.' Intellexit ergo quia de Aldfrido diceret, qui ferebatur filius fuisse patris illius, et tunc in insulis Scotorum ob studium litterarum exsulabat. … Atque ut verbis ejus propheticis per omnia satisfieret, Ecgfridus post annum Pictorum gladio trucidatur, et Aldfridus in regnum frater ejus nothus substituitur, qui non paucis antea temporibus in regionibus Scotorum lectioni operam dabat, ipse ob amorem sapientiae spontaneum passus exsilium, trans. Webb 1998, 76. For a recent discussion of this episode, see Higham 2006, 250. [Back]

12. Prominent bastards culled from eighth and ninth-century sources include (with parentage, though the mother's name is often unknown): Charles Martel and Childebrand (from Pippin II and Alpais), Jerome (Charles Martel), Bernard (Charles Martel and Ruodhaid), Grifo (Charles Martel and Sunnichild), Drogo and Hugo (Charlemagne and Regina), Theodoric (Charlemagne and Ethelind), Adaltrude (Charlemagne and Gersuinda), Ruodhaid (Charlemagne), Pippin (Charlemagne and Himiltrude), Nithard and Hartnid (Bertha and Angilbert), Louis (Rotrude and Rorgo), Arnulf and Alpais (Louis the Pious), Bertha, Gisela, and Hugh (Lothar II and Waldrada), Bernard (Charles the Fat), Arnulf of Carinthia (Carloman of Bavaria), and Zwentibold (Arnulf of Carinthia). [Back]

13. Note the amusing somersault-like assessment in a recent reference work that Charles war also zwar kein uneheliches Kind, aber vorehelich geboren (Barth 2000, 74). Echoing Konecny's point about flexible marriage practices, Riché contextualized the uncertainty about Pippin and Bertrada's marriage date within the continuation of Friedelehe at the Carolingian court, noting that Charlemagne seems to have married Liutgard because of Pope Leo III's impending arrival at Paderborn; Louis the Pious and Ermengard may not have married until after Lothar's birth; and Charles the Bald and Richildis apparently enjoyed their pairing for many months before formalizing their bond (Riché 1993, 52; Konecny 1976, 73). With specific regard to Charlemagne's birth, the current consensus view holds that his parents' marriage probably took place in 744, with baby Charles arriving on April 2, 748. See Becher 1992, 37–60; and Nelson 2005, 24–25. At least one recent biographer, however, continues to hold fast to 742 (Barbero 2000, 12). [Back]

14. On the underlying causes of tension between Louis and his sisters (most notably Bertha), see Nelson 2000, 151–154. [Back]

15. Fratres quoque adhuc tenera aetate, Drugonem, Hugonem et Teodericum, participes mensae effecit, quos et in palatio una secum nutriri praecepit, et Bernardo nepoti suo, filio Pippini, regnum Italiae concessit. Qui quoniam ab eo paulo post defecit, capitur et a Bertmundo Lugdunensis provinciae praefecto luminibus et vita pariter privatur. Hinc autem metuens, ne post dicti fratres populo sollicitato eadem facerent, ad conventum publicum eos venire praecepit, totondit ac per monasteria sub libera custodia commendavit. For further discussion, see Stofferahn 2003, 152–153. [Back]

16. Eodem tempore iussit fratres suos tonsurare, Druogonem, Hug et Theodericum, discordiam ad mitigandam, et liberalibus disciplinis iussit instrui. Quos postmodum honorifice constituit: Druogoni episcopatum dedit et Hugoni coenobia, monasteria. [Back]

17. On Drogo's impressive set of accomplishments, see Hubert, Porcher, and Volbach 1968, 158–161, 233–234; Riché 1993, 333–339; and Nelson 2000, 157–159. [Back]

18. Note that Alpais was named after Charles Martel's mother, just as her brother, Arnulf, carried the name of the dynasty's founder. For the significance of royal naming conventions, with particular attention to illegitimate children, see Bouchard 1986, 645–646. In the later controversial case involving the attempt of emperor Lothar II to repudiate his wife in favor of his concubine Waldrada, their three children (never legitimized) were also much sought after in marriage and political relationships—Bertha to Hubert of St. Maurice and then Adalbert II of Tuscany; and Gisela to the Danish King Godofrid II (Riché 1993, 217, 225; and, more fully, Heidecker 2010, 184–187). [Back]

19. Quartum vero filium habuit ex concubine, nomine Arnulphum, cui pater Senonas civitatem in comitatum dedit. Audiens autem Bernardus filius Pippini regis rex Italiae, quod factum erat, cogitavit consilium pessimum, voluitque in imperatarem et in filios eius insurgere, et per tyrannidem imperium usurpare. See also Boshof 1996, 59, 65. [Back]

20. Nam et filii, qui ex tali concubitu generate sunt, licet uterque parens liberae sit conditionis, in haereditate tamen cum fratribus ex legitimo matrimonio natis, quod dolendum est, minime juxta mundanae legis censuram, succedere valent. [Back]

21. Ipso eodemque anno Bernhardus, filius Pippini ex concubina natus, per exortationem malorum hominum extollens se adversus patruelem suum, voluit eum a regno expellere habebat enim impios consiliarios hinc et inde. See also Konecny 1976, 72. [Back]

22. Additionally, three minor codas may also be considered as part of the mid- and late-ninth century campaign to circumscribe the rights of bastards, including the harsh decree of the Synod of Meaux-Paris in 845–846 barring any child of illegitimate birth (even one stemming from rape) from advancing to the clergy. This may, however, have had more to do with the attempt to implement Deuteronomy 23:2 literally (depending on how one translates the Hebrew "mamzer") than with attacking bastards writ large (Council of Meaux 845–846, c. 64; Landau 1994, 42–43). Add to this the decree by Pope John VIII in August 878 defending the inheritance rights of Count Boso's daughters against the claims of the spurius Godefredus, marking this as one of the few appearances of the word in ninth-century sources (Letter from Pope John to Archbishop Liutbert, Jaffé Reg. 3167; Kogler 1904, 8). Finally, there is the faint but tantalizing trace of bias against nothi in a list of abbots and kings compiled at St. Vedasti sometime in the ninth century, on which nothus is scrawled above the names of Grimoald, Pippin II, and Charles Martel in MS Bern 83 (as noted in the critical apparatus of Waitz 1881, 724). [Back]

23. Erant quoque ibi duo nothi de genicio Columbrensi procreati. Qui cum fortissime dimicarent, requisivit imperator ab illis, qui et unde nati essent. Quo comperto, meridiano tempore eos ad tabernaculum suum vocatos sic allocutus est: 'Boni iuvenes, volo, ut mihi non alii serviatis.' Qui cum se ad hoc venisse testarentur, ut vel ultimi in eius essent obsequio, dixit ille: 'Ad cameram meam servire debetis.' Quod etiam dum indignation dissimulata libenter se facturos esse faterentur, captato tempore, quo imperator quiescere cepisset, exierunt ad castra adversariorum et tumultu concitato, suo vel hostium sanguine servitutis notam diluerunt, English translation Noble 2009, 92, though with slight bracketed ameliorations to the first sentence to incorporate a rough translation of gynaeceum, and the final sentence, where it is crucial to avoid using "in" for "with their own blood." [Back]

24. Nelson 1985, 289, makes a similar point about the challenges faced by Nithard, who in his later years likewise found himself without recourse to much else besides his own wits. [Back]

25. See Hammer 2008, 237–238 regarding the gradual and purposeful delegitimizing of Pippin in various records, particularly annals, between the 790s and the 880s. [Back]

26. Sed extraneorum victor Karolus a propriis est mira quidem sed cassa fraude circumventus. Nam de Sclavis ad Reginam regressus, a filio per concubinam progenitor, nomine gloriosissimi Pippini a matre ominaliter [al. criminaliter] insignito, pene captus et, quantum in eo fuit, est morti dampnatus. [Back]

27. Venientes autem ad imperatorem et requisiti, quid referrent, conquesti sunt se tanto labore et itinere ne in uno quidem sermone certiorari. Sagacissimo autem rege per ordinem interrogante, ubi eum vel quid agentem reppererint quidque responsi illis reddiderit, dixerunt: 'In tripetio rusticano sedentem eum invenimus et tridente areolam holerum novellantem; causamque itineris nostri revolventes hoc solum ab eo responsi magnis flagitationibus extorquere potuimus: "Nihil" aiente "aliud ei demando, nisi quod facio. Inutilia recrementa extraho, ut holera necessaria liberius excrescere valeant".' His auditis astu non carens et sapientia pollens augustus confricatis auribus et inflatis naribus dixit ad eos: 'Rationabile responsum, optimi vassalli, reportastis.' Illis itaque de periculo vitÄ™ metuentibus ipse vim dictorum ad effectum perducens, cunctos illos insidiatores suos de medio viventium auferens, fidelibus suis occupata ab infructuosis loca crescendi et se extendendi causa concessit, English translation Noble 2009, 105–106. [Back]

28. Quam antea non absolvam, quam Bernhardulum vestrum spata femur accinctum conspiciam, English translation Noble 2009, 106. MacLean 2003, 168–169 provides further context regarding the difficulties Charles the Fat encountered in his ultimately futile attempts to legitimize Bernhard. [Back]

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Last Modified: 02-Feb-2018