I would like to propose that "Category:Illegitimate" be removed

+31 votes
350 views

https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Category:Illegitimate

In response to this question : https://www.wikitree.com/g2g/1088987/guidance-for-modern-illegitimate-children

I had no idea, until seeing that question, that such a category even existed.

I question WHY we would need this category at all.  Children born outside the bounds of recognised "lawful" marriage have always existed, but do we need to stigmatise them forever?  The CHILD was not illegal.  The CHILD just was.

By the social mores of their time, the parents may, or may not, have acted outside the bounds of what constituted proper behaviour - but there were always exceptions to what was (and is) considered a "lawful" union.  If one was betrothed, that was often seen as even more binding than some ceremony held OUTSIDE the church (because until you were "lawfully" married in the sight of the people, you could not enter the building) on the verge, or the steps.

Yes, I understand that illegitimacy carried legal connotations, especially regards inheritance, but that can be explained in biographies.  It does not require a category to link together every. single. (so-called) illegitimate child ever born.

No child should ever carry a label seen as something that (in the words of another Wikitreer) "carries too much judgemental baggage with it".

Thanks for reading.


(If I have mis-categorised where I placed this, please move it. 

If I have misunderstood how to make a proposal, I apologise and ask for a more correct way to be explained.)

in Policy and Style by Melanie Paul G2G6 Pilot (296k points)
edited by Natalie Trott
I removed the proposal tag, since that tag has a specific meaning (proposing policy changes...this is just a category).

6 Answers

+6 votes
Illegitimacy has a specific historical context and meaning: illegitimate children were excluded from inheritance. This can be seen in letters patent for titles of nobility and in entail on landed estates: "To X and heirs/heirs male of his body lawfully begotten" (this language continued to be used in wills until relatively recently; I was just reading the will of an ancestor from the early 19th century where property was left to children and "the heirs of their body lawfully begotten"). "Illegitimacy" is thus a useful category in those circumstances (its modern relevance is minimal because of changes in social mores, but that doesn't mean that there is no reason for it to exist at all as a category).
by C Handy G2G6 Pilot (124k points)
If all that is explained in the biography - as it should be -  why would we need a category?  (I acknowledged the historical inheritance related aspects, but I still question the need for all children across the globe to be so linked.)
'If' the category is necessary, I could see limiting it to times of antiquity when 'it mattered' so far as inheritence.

But Melanie makes a good point, why do we need a category?  It is my understanding that categories group people with shared characteristics in order to facilitate the process of genealogical research.  Perhaps there is a reason to know who was born outside of marrige in order to conduct genealogy but I struggle to see it.
The legal status of a child at birth gets covered in his/her bio.  The category is linking ALL children in similar case, globally.  How can such be useful?  They are not related to each other (or mostly not, there are a few exceptions).  What possible research could be served by such?
There was no church marriage before mid-medieval times it was a private arrangement and followed local customs. The Church got involved when they saw money could be earned by a blessing and they may have feared a revival of local pagan beliefs. Not to say the Church was so superstitious at that time we would hardly see them as rational beings.

My grandfather was illegitimate. Illegitimacy is a real classification, and creates great pain to the victim and the mother. We cannot be political correct as that view is just as intolerant as the Church was when he was born in 1871 when thousands of girls committed suicide after falling pregnant and women's rights was just emerging from being property and chattels. I seriously advise anyone with such a case to investigate the appalling situation men and women lived during religious oppression.
hmm, Anonymous, please tell me where you get that there was no church marriage before mid-medieval times.  There are hardly any records of such, at least in France, before the mid 1500s, but they started being recorded and a copy sent to civil powers after an edict from the king of France requiring first baptisms, then marriages and funerals, to get recorded.  Doesn't mean they didn't happen in church.
I don't know about Anonymous, but I was taught that early marriages were civil affairs, to sort out dowries, children, inheritances, land, wealth - and that a church blessing "ceremony" was carried out under the eye of the people on the church steps before the bridal couple (and a favoured few) went into the building to celebrate a nuptial mass.

Early weddings were financial, not religious.
well, marriage contracts were indeed done to settle all the points you name, but the contract itself was not considered a marriage as such.  The practice carried forward for quite a long time.  First the contract to settle dowry and other obligations, then the marriage.  Which is why when the Filles du Roy came to New France, you get some who enter into 2 or 3 contracts before finally settling on one man.  The contract was cancellable at will, the actual marriage wasn't.
It was still a civil thing, when the king of the day could declare you married whether or not you wished it.
I did an extensive study of the subject for a book set around 1100 AD in England, It was the period when the Crusades were influencing Catholic Society and there seemed a need for Cannon Law rather than trial by ordeal. I also researched a screenplay for the latter nineteenth century on women's rights. Today we think out Liberal era has always been. We are very wrong, We often think of Medieval Hospitals as we do today but at that time medical care was the least important function. They were Hospices were you prepared for death by making indulgences and offering prayer. The Church seemed obsessed with taking peoples money as Martin Luther noted centuries later. Two forms of marriage occurred at that period. Traditional village customs where a bridegroom wove a rung from rushes and placed it on his intendeds finger settling the arrangement. If a man had elicit sex with a woman a woman could go to the Church and report the matter. If proven the man was forced to become the partner. Only after this were marriage blessings introduced. These became increasingly legal and by 1845 the state registered marriages. There were marriage settlement for aristocrats and kings but that was to protect family property. Without property one had no status and thereby no worth. This is emphasised by a story about a farming couple in East Anglia during a major flood (Circa 1700). They allowed their children to drown to save the family cow because without it they would have been totally destitute.

The last case of a man selling his wife was 1850. Rich women only got property rights in 1858. Beatings was considered appropriate treatment for wives at least up to 1900 and still has not fully ended today. Up to 1950s, divorce was only possible by Act of Parliament if I remember correctly. That meant only the exceptionally rich could afford one. To show how late mistreatment ended an employer could still legally beat an employee up to 1949 in UK and Children were not protected until 1999. I could go on about white slavery to US, prisons, conditions in the army and deportation.

hmm, don't know who ''we'' is that you are referring to that thinks our Liberal era always was, having studied history at various times, and even more so since I started doing my family tree, that is not the case here.

Women's rights are quite variable depending on which society and era you look at.  The village customs for marriage that you describe sound like for a specific area of the world.  Looks to me like you have been looking at English history mostly.  I can tell you that marriages were being done in church in France since before the 1500s, having looked at records that far back.

Illegitimacy is a strange thing back then and some time later, I know my direct paternal ancestor who came here was born out of wedlock, his parents later married, but I am aware of one family tree done by somebody in France who totally missed my ancestor.  laugh

This is getting rather off track  but... Marriages at the church porch had disappeared  in England by 1549 ( prayer book says quite clearly body of the church)

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage_Act_1753 explains the legal position of marriage at and beyond that date (in England and Wales). Divorce very  gradually became more common after 1858: (from1550 until then 1858 was indeed only possible by act of Parliament  ) Wife 'selling as a  'custom' seems to have started in the 17th century. It had no legal basis and isn't representative of normal practice.There are a handful of reports of it in the 18th C with about 100 during the 1820s and 1830s. 

In Australia in the 1980s if a couple's marriage was annulled the children were thereafter deemed as legally illegitimate - because the annulment made the marriage having never been.

+20 votes
I agree with Melanie. This category should be eliminated. The most offensive use of it is placing people who are living now or who are recently deceased (say in the last 70 years) in the category when it is neither historically nor genealogically relevant.
by Nelda Spires G2G6 Pilot (352k points)
Agreed! It is offensive and irrelevant.
My mother in law born 1913 died in 2000. I knew I would need to provide her father’s name on her death certificate, but she didn’t remember his name. Her mother’s name was easy and she insisted her father had died in WW1. (I’ve since found out they were married in 1916 and he supported mother and child, and he was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.) That an old woman would “forget” her father’s name is so sad. Melanie, I’d like this category to go too. (The father had been born outside of marriage as well.)
+12 votes
There might be some social history information that could be derived if someone did a study of percentage of children born in a community fell into the category. Not a strict genealogical study. Also, how do children who were later legitimized get categorized?  Anyway, I'm not a fan of overly broad categories, especially where the meaning varies depending on context (location, time period). Some might want to infer that it means the mother was not married at the time of birth but that is not always the case. In some places the husband could refuse to acknowledge the child as his in other locales this wouldn't happen. For it to be meaningful you need to look at the broader context.

Anyway, I don't personally see a need for such a category but others might. It would be nice to see what an argument for keeping it might be. I prefer using the bio.
by Doug McCallum G2G6 Pilot (425k points)
Sorry Doug, didn't see your very similar answer until after posting.( I started to answer and got distracted)
I'll bet an app could do this by calculating the person's birth date and the parent's marriage date - if they were married at all.  If a researcher needed this info, I'm sure they could find a way without relying on the category.
I totally agree with you Doug. There's a lot of categories that have lots of potential as research tools including this one.

But I'd put a caveat on that, saying it depends on people using the category consistently and broadly enough for it to be able to detect patterns. If a category is languishing, and it's also potentially offensive and inconsistently applied, does that theoretical application really matter?
Was recently working on the profile of a child whose mother strayed from the marital bed during a voyage, the child is clearly marked as of ''unknown father'' on the baptism.  She got raised by her mother's husband and used his name on marrying, but she wasn't his daughter.  Another one was born before wedlock, also using the step-father's name, that one went to court re inheritance rights, and she got ordered to not use the name.

Both these ladies fall under the term ''illegitimate'', but I would never put them under such a category.  There is no way the category could be rendered meaningful or usefull in any sort of demographic study, there are just too many children whose birth may be questionable who didn't live long and aren't on our tree.
+10 votes

We were discussing this in the categorization google group. 

The problem is that the category has been misused. I randomly chose 5 of the profiles to examine the use of the category and 4 out of 5 had the category assigned either incorrectly (no source supporting it, parents were "unknown" therefore someone assigned the category of "illegitimate," which is not the same), etc. Only one of the five fit the category in the manner "Legitimacy was a legal status that determined what surname a child was allowed or obliged to use, and legitimization by later marriage of the parents was an option." The category holds 284 profiles currently, so who knows how many are added incorrectly.

by Natalie Trott G2G6 Pilot (838k points)

 - 284 is not significant -  - however , perhaps a 'time frame' should be considered such as 'to 1841' or 'to 1900' - -

 - 'WDYTYA' programmes enjoy using the term ! - (shock / horror) - - -

 - BtW the majority of profiles are based in Italy / Italia etc - -

 - good news - the Cat now holds 277 profiles - -

 - one at random is a peasant girl - with no parents known or found - so parent-less rather than illegitimate - - - -

 - contadina, born in and resident of Corleone of unknown parents - - - - - qed - ja

Yes, it looks like somebody has used the category for a study of Italian children with unknown parents.

I don't know about Italy, but if it had been Sweden, children with unknown parents would in almost all cases have been born out of wedlock, so "unknown parents"  signals illegitimacy. From 1778 unmarried mothers had the right to remain anonymous and the midwife was forbidden to ask for the name of the father. For people who could afford it this meant they would go to one of the bigger cities and give birth anonymously. Often - but far from always - the child would later be acknowledged and legitimized.

The English were not nearly so understanding . Above all parishes wanted to avoid the potential costs of supporting an illegitimate child. For researchers  the  resultant records can be a gold mine  

The laws in Sweden changed over time, of course. In the 17th century any extramarital sexual activity - as evidenced by a pregnancy - was drastically punished. I have among my distant kin a woman who was executed for twice having children with married men. For a "first-time offense" between unmarried youngsters the punishment was fines and public shaming. Part of this was connected to the church extending its legal "territory" into areas previously handled according to the old province laws. At this time the church records often mention only the father - you need to find the case in court records to get the name of the mother.

The 1778 law, passed by Gustav III, was intended to reduce the number of infanticides. It seems to have mostly benefited the affluent.

Ordinary women didn't have the means to bear their children in secret. It also, over time, seems to have become increasingly difficult for them to get child support from the father - at least I read a study claiming this. And of course I notice all the children with "father unknown".
Interesting information, Eva, and thanks for adding it.

The Italian ones I looked at had NO explanation of the illegitimacy other than "unknown parents." For me, this is not enough to support use of the category.

 - Yes , thanks Eva for info - -

 - Just looked at a post 1900 English 'green' profile - Cat just added at 19:20, 14 August 2020. - (last Friday) - with no comment in Bio - -

 - ? what about a mini project to write to post 1900 PM's to reconsider/remove their Cat decision - - -

+6 votes
I agree that as a category it is far too wide to be of much value. I'll be honest, I think that of many categories

 If it were illegitimate births grouped by time periods within a defined  locality  that might  be  very different and be a legitimate part of a local study.  (I've recorded such data, together with data on later marriages and marriages within 7 months of first childs baptism. If I ever transferred the study to wikitree, I woudn't like to feel relevant categories couldn't be created)

Certainly within a biography,  the label  can't and shouldn't  be censored,  if only for acuracy when  transcribing sources. The clergy didn't hold back in the baptismal register. Ilegitimate was the most neutral term they used.
by Helen Ford G2G6 Pilot (344k points)
Since I always translate / paraphrase from Swedish I get away from using the most common term in the Swedish records, "oäkta", with all it's connotations of fake and counterfeit. I use "out of wedlock" a lot, "by an unwed mother" sometimes and "illegitimate" now and then (mostly concerning more or less disproven royal byblows, I think). The Swedish vicars sometimes used Latin, spurios/spuria and possibly ignotus/ignota. I don't think I've seen "bastard" although we have the word.

I very often use "pre-marital", when that is clearly the case - even when the local vicar stubbornly keeps designating the first child as born to the wife before marriage.

I haven't made a special study, so I have never felt the need for a category.
+5 votes
Legitimacy is a legal status, just like "married" or "non-citizen" or "homeowner". The value judgements are supplied by the beholders, not by the status itself.

Like most categories, the utility of "illegitimate" is in the aggregate: if consistently applied, categorization answers questions like "what proportion of people in group X were Y?"

Of course, "consistently applied" is rather a sticking point, but getting rid of a category simply because some people don't use it correctly is well down the path of letting the best be the enemy of the good. I say leave it, but point out on the category's page that it's not relevant to most modern (mid-20th-century or later) profiles, and that even on earlier profiles, the exact legalities varied greatly.
by J Palotay G2G6 Mach 6 (61.8k points)

Legitimacy is a legal status.

Legitimacy is was a legal status.

We don't have categories for "married," "non-citizen," or "homeowner."

lol, a study on ''what percentage of...'' would have to group these by location in the first place.  This category is worldwide, thus you have people who are totally disrelated and very far apart geographically.  Hardly useful.  Delete it.

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