Watching Game of Thrones, and devouring the novels, made me a better medievalist. As fans of the show and novels know well, George R. R. Martin’s imaginary world offers a vibrant account of life and death, of royal power and magic, of political infighting, arranged marriages, sex, love, and despair. It is not an accurate depiction of medieval Europe, but why should it be?
Today we use the term “bastard” as an insult, or to describe children born to non-marital unions. Being born to unmarried parents is largely free of the kind of stigma and legal incapacities once attached to it in Western cultures. Nevertheless, it still has associations of shame and sin. This disparagement of children born outside of marriage is widely assumed to be a legacy of Medieval Christian Europe, with its emphasis on compliance with Catholic marriage law.