“Oh my God! They killed Kenny! You bastards!”
So goes one of the best known catchphrases of the past decade, a line from Comedy Central’s South Park. In every episode of the animated show, the pre-teen character known only as “Kenny” usually dies a horrific death, whereupon one of his young friends will invariable pronounce judgment on the killers. They are bastards.
Bastardy, of course, is generally not a condition that a person can actively pursue for oneself. Absent creative time travel, it is in fact impossible (absent an Act of Parliament!) to influence that condition for anyone in our own generation. Nevertheless, even though none of us would choose to be bastards, the term has come to be synonymous with rapscallions and scallywags. That is a shame, really, so it is not a surprise that over the years, we have searched for different words to describe children born to unwed mothers. Unfortunately, terms like “illegitimate,” “chance child,” and “catch colt” are not particularly more appealing than bastard, are they? Sadly, for any child born out of wedlock, life has not been easy for most of recorded human history.
In Great Bastards of History: True and Riveting Accounts of the Most Famous Illegitimate Children Who Went on to Achieve Greatness, Juré Fiorillo explores the hardship suffered by fifteen now-famous people who overcame the obstacles imposed on them from birth, and because of their birth, to become hugely successful shapers of nations, art, culture and science.
In the classical world, it was not considered remarkable for a child to be born from the union of an unmarried couple. The fact that a child’s parents were unmarried was recorded solely for legal, and not societal, reasons. A child born out of wedlock was not a legitimate heir of his parents and thus he was “illegitimate.” With the spread of Christianity, however, attitudes regarding sex outside the sanctity of marriage began to change and children born of such unions grew to be regarded as the “living embodiment of immorality.” More to the point, however, unwed mothers were often poor and thus a burden to the state’s treasury. Whatever the reasons, it was not fun to be born a bastard in the European world of the past ten centuries. More than a few bastards, however, were able to rise above their circumstances.
Leonardo da Vinci, for example, was a bastard who might never have achieved the greatness that he ultimately found but for the fact that he was a bastard. Da Vinci’s father was a successful notary (more of a financial advisor than what we would consider a notary today) when he fell in love, or more accurately when he fell in lust, with the beautiful Caterina. Out of their passion was created one of the greatest minds of their, or any age. Young Leonardo was not rejected as much as he was ignored by his parents, both of whom quickly married (but not to each other) and raised families. Leonardo was sent to live with his paternal grandfather and an uncle who provided for him but did little to raise him. He became a wanderer among the fields of rural Tuscany and got his education from observation, not from the indoctrination that he would have received had he gone to a proper school. As Fiorillo notes:
If Leonardo had been legitimate, he would have been compelled to undertake the classical education that made it possible for him to follow in his father’s footsteps. A lack of formal education was instrumental in the development of Leonardo’s philosophical system. Instead of trusting received wisdom, Leonardo believed in the primacy of knowledge that was acquired from nature via the eye. Throughout his life, he would remain skeptical of people who bolstered their views by quoting the experts who had gone before them, as was the tradition in classical education. He believed that it was knowledge from direct experience that counted.
Such concepts were fundamental to the advancement of the scientific inquiry that began to gather momentum during the Renaissance and without da Vinci, the Renaissance would not have had one of its dominant forces and guiding lights. Indeed, if da Vinci’s parents had married each other, da Vinci very likely would have ended up a notary like his father and one can only wonder how the world might have evolved differently as a result. At the time, the notary guild did not allow bastards to become notaries. For that, the modern world can be grateful to the bigotry of the fifteenth century.
Fiorillo explores the lives of soldiers like William the Conqueror and Francisco Pizarro, nation builders like Queen Elizabeth I (who became a bastard by order of Parliament!) and Alexander Hamilton, and writers such as Alexandre Dumas fils and Jack London. Each story is engaging in its own way, but no two stories are alike. Pizarro may well have yearned for acceptance from his father’s family but the bloodlust that he inflicts on the people of Central America is so shocking in its violence that one does not hesitate to feel that he truly deserved the label of bastard. By contrast, we feel the pain of young Alexander Hamilton who was mocked by the other school children on his home island of St. Croix and, later in life, suffered the epithets of his fellow founding fathers, such as John Quincy Adams who referred to Hamilton as “the bastard son of a Scottish peddler.”
Billie Holliday was the bastard daughter of a bastard daughter. Her father, an itinerant musician, had little time for her. She would spend her short but brilliant lifetime looking for a man to give her the comfort and security that her own father never did. Billie Holliday would be arrested for prostitution many times before she turned twenty years old, with her first arrest and jail term coming at the age of fourteen. Had record producer John Hammond not discovered Billie singing in a nightclub, her future might well have been even darker than it already was.
The personalities that Fiorillo explores are the personalities of fifteen children who in one way or another were cast aside by family or society or both solely because of the nature of their conception and birth. Some will be known to readers, Elizabeth I and others already mentioned among them. Others may be new to American and European readers, whether because they made their mark in countries little studied by American and European students (Bernardo O’Higgins of Chile, for example) or because they have been all but forgotten by history (such as James Scott, First Duke of Monmouth). Whether or not readers know these fifteen bastards of history that Fiorello describes, what all will quickly understand is that none of them chose to be born out of wedlock and all suffered in some way because of it. Whether that suffering led to greatness or whether they found greatness despite it, each is a victim of their parents’ passion.
Fiorillo demonstrates, credibly at times but at other times less so, that bastardy was one of the key defining factors in each of the lives that she explores. Elizabeth I for example, was a bastard only in the sense that her father, Henry VIII, caused Parliament to have her declared so in conjunction with his execution of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother. Although Elizabeth was only a toddler when her mother was killed, one might also speculate that growing up with the knowledge that one’s father has murdered one’s mother and then nearly being executed oneself as a young woman by a half sister known to history as Bloody Mary . . . well, you get the picture. Elizabeth I had far greater issues than a Parliamentary proclamation that she was a bastard.
That does not detract from Fiorillo’s effort. Although the condition of having been born out of wedlock may not have the sole determining factor in the development of the fifteen subjects in his book, it does provide a nice unifying theme for the exploration of fifteen unquestionably interesting, and often little explored, historic personalities.
As the Bard, in King Lear, wrote far more beautifully than I ever could:
Why bastard? Wherefore base?
We are fortunate to live in an age in which most contemporary cultures no longer stigmatize children born to single mothers. More to the point, our society is improved because we do stigmatize parents who abandon their children and because we recognize that a child born out of wedlock is not solely the responsibility of the mother. Moreover, we recognize, too, that whatever hardship society or family may force on a child, any child can rise above it. In Great Bastards of History, Fiorello has shown us fifteen such children and she has shown us well.
Books mentioned in this column: