This paper investigates causes and consequences of the prejudice towards extramaritally born infants. The main rationale for such defamation seems to have been religious teachings. However, rather than a matter of sexual morals, “illegitimacy” became an economic issue when infants were maintained on taxpayers’ money. Under most civil laws, “bastards” could not inherit. In German-speaking states, they were excluded from the guilds, which deprived them of professional training. They found refuge in “dishonest” professions and life in poverty. In the Late Middle Ages, a third of the population was probably born extramaritally. From 1400 to 1600, the illegitimacy ratio dropped markedly, but from 1650 to 1850, it seems to have gradually risen from around 5 to 9% in most European states. French authorities did not search for the putative father but offered the mother the possibility to abandon her child in a foundling asylum. In 1990, the term “illegitimacy” was replaced by “born out of wedlock.” After an extramarital birth, the infant mortality rate was elevated by 40–50% above that of maritally born infants. After 1960, effective contraception changed sexual morals, but marital fell more than extramarital fertility. Paternity was no longer uncertain. The Catholic church’s influence decreased; and legal reforms protected the infant. Today, half of all infants in Europe are born out of wedlock; that is no longer a proxy for poverty.

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