Why Are There So Many German Illegitimate Children (1700 and 1800s)?

Why Are There So Many German Illegitimate Children (1700 and 1800s)?

I was doing some genealogy research and was quite surprised to find that a great German grandfather and grandmother had eight children but their first child was born before they were married and the second right after. I know this family was also strongly religious.

When doing your German genealogy research, it can be quite shocking to discover that you had ancestors who had children outside wedlock. In fact, in some German parts, especially in Bavaria or Southern Germany, illegitimate children were quite common.

It is hard to know exactly why there are so many illegitimate children, but one reason, of course, is that getting married was not as simple and straightforward as it is today. In fact, in some parts of the German territory, getting permission to marry legally was very difficult.

Why So Many Illegitimate Children (Germany 1700 and 1800s)?

Many German peasants did not enjoy freedom in their choice of marriage. Technically the nobility in the area had the right to grant or deny a peasant the request to marry. Even though the nobility had this right, they rarely use it in denying someone to marry.

The Community Council, on the other hand, also had power over marriage choices. Many village councils prided themselves in knowing that those that wanted to marry could support a family. The more established families or people they felt were more established had an easier time getting permission to marry.

A newcomer in a village or area would also be dealt with cautiously. This is because the Community Council felt a responsibility to ensure that anyone who received permission to marry had the means to provide adequately for a family before they were allowed to wed.

In practical terms, this meant that a son of a farmer or a craftsman maybe had to wait until their father passed away or retired so they could inherit the business or farm. Some others could marry if they had a father-in-law ready to retire, and they could step into their business.

Your ability to marry was directly tied to how much money you had. If you did not have money, it was hard for you to get the permissions you needed to marry. Marriage during this time was an economic and not a human right.

Added to the problem was the German law of Primogeniture or the Law Of Succession. This law stated that the oldest son inherited everything. This law worked well for you if you were the eldest son, but you would have nothing if you were the second or third son.

If you want to find out more about the Law of Primogeniture or the Law Of Succession, you can read our blog on What is Primogeniture or the Law Of Succession? by clicking here.

Illegitimacy Data in German and Austrian Territories (c.1840)

Below is a chart that shows the illegitimacy of children born out of wedlock in Germany and Austria in 1840. The chart looks at the 1840 numbers and the annual frequency of Illegitimate Births. This table is taken from an article by W.R. Lee that was in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History Vol 7, No 3. Winter 1977, published by MIT press.


Territory (1840)
Illegitimate Births
Per Legitimate Births
(1840)
Illegimate Births
Per Inhabitants
(1840)
Austria Below the Ems3.77131.50
Steiermark 3.66142.06
Bavaria 3.98144.00
Baden5.61172.41
Saxony6.15184.58
Austria above the Ems 4.71196.14
Carpathia and Krain 4.95197.62
Bohemia 6.63201.42
Hessen5.71210.03
Mecklenburg – Schwerin6.50222.35
Silesia and Moravia 8.02228.67
Wurttemberg 7.69242.66
Saxony -Weimer 7.10242.67
Hanover 9.62308.12
Mecklenburg – Strelitz 10.86 335.80
Galicia 14.06366.26
Prussia 13.49392.95
Tyrol and Vorarlberg 19.20655.98
Lombardy 25.16660.98
Oldenburg11.33748.26
Venetian Territory 31.38832.39
Dalmatia27.38952.15
Bastardy in South Germany by W.R. Lee

As you can see from these numbers in some parts of the German Territory, illegitimate births were quite high. In some areas, they were double and triple over another area.

Interestingly, in many of these same areas, the church attendance was extremely high, over 90%, and in some cases 98%. In 1823 in Ruprechtsberg, a priest claimed that few single women had not given birth to illegitimate children. The priest exclaimed:

“A virgin! Rara Avis (rare bird)

Priest Ruprechtsberg. Germany

Another interesting fact is that despite the fact the reformed church was gaining acceptance, Catholicism was still a semi-official religion; in 1902, over 92% of the population was still Catholic in Bavaria. Germany

Data Comparing European Countries Illegitimate Births (1845 to 1870)

This data becomes even more interesting if we compare Bavaria and Southern Germany to other countries in Europe. Below is a chart that looks at the illegitimate birth rates per 100 births compared to other countries in Europe from 1845 to 1850 and 1865 to 1870.

Country Illegitimacy rates
per 100 births
1845 to 1850
Illegitimacy rates
per 100 births
1865 to 1870
Bavaria 20.519.3
Saxony14.815.1
Wurttemberg11.815.7
Denmark 11.410.8
Austria 11.314.7
Scotland9.89.6
Norway8.39.2
Sweden8.89.3
Belgium 8.17.2
France7.47.6
Prussia 7.58.3
England 6.76.3
Netherlands 4.84.0
Spain5.8
Italy5.0
Sardina 2.1
Bastardy in South Germany by W.R. Lee

When you look at these numbers you can see that many of the German speaking countries had a very high illegitimate birth rate especially when compared to countries like Italy, Spain and even England. In some cases the rates of illegimate births were 2, 3 or even 4 times higher that these other countries.

The Politische Ehekonsens Affect On Marriage

The Politische Ehekonsens was the requirement of the Habsburg Monarchy in Austria that a couple obtains permission or a certificate from the government authorities before they could marry. The Politische Ehekonsens or the Political Marriage Consensus aimed to allow only those marriages deemed desirable by the authorities because the spouses were economically able to support a family. Their main reason for this was they did not want the marriage or the family to burden the government’s poor fund.

This government arm that allowed or did not allow marriage stopped many marriages. In fact, when the Politische Ehekonsens was repealed, there is shown an immediate and dramatic increase in marriages and a sharp reduction in illegitimacy birth rates. This shows that many in this part of Germany wanted to be legally married, but the government system and laws worked against them.

Württemberg Marriage Law Code (Eherechtsordnung)

Württemberg where many of my ancestors are from had a marriage law that men could not marry until age 25 and women age 22. There was also a Marriage Law Code (Eherechtsordnung) of the Duchy of Württemberg. To find out more about Württemberg you can read our blog A History of The Kingdom of Württemberg – Germany by clicking here.

The Marriage Law Code (Eherechtsordnung) of the Duchy of Württemberg is an early sixteenth-century law to help the monarchy establish authority over any matters pertaining to marriage and family law. Here are a few things about The Marriage Law Code (Eherechtsordnung) of the Duchy of Württemberg:

  • Marriage Needed Parents or Guardian Consent – Marriage needed to have a parent’s consent, or the marriage would be considered null and void. In speaking of this, the law and needing to have consent the law said, ” If however it nevertheless occurs, then such a betrothal shall count for nothing, and be unbinding, without the force of law and worthless. In addition, We wish that the same two disobedient male and female persons should individually or severally be severely punished with some time in prison, or something else according to the nature of the case, with a penalty against body and goods.” Marriage Law Code
  • Premarital Sex Outlawed – Premarital sex was outlawed. Concerning premarital sex, the law stated: ” We are plausibly informed that until now very many persons are given to performing the marital act both after the marital betrothal and even before the marriage has been proclaimed from the pulpit, as the confirmed common Christian and customary practice, from which results from much error and mischief and about which We then receive no small displeasure to prevent such light-headed and dishonorable living, so it is Our wish, opinion and command that Our subjects should abstain from such premature, disorderly, and improper sexual intercourse before the wedding to avoid Our penalty.  When, however, the betrothed persons are found to have been disobedient in this regard, then Our district officials (whom We herewith instruct to maintain a diligent attentiveness in such matters) shall inform Our Marriage Court justices and counselors and await their decision on a penalty and then obey the same.” Marriage Law Code There could be a legal punishment for premarital sexual relations under this law.
  • Adultery and Abandonment Grounds for Divorce – Under this law, adultery and abandonment are grounds for divorce. It is interesting to note that this law did allow for divorce.

When we look at why there were illegitimate children in German territory, the answer is not simple. In some parts of Germany, the legal system was set up so that it was almost impossible to get married if you were poor. In other parts of Germany, you had to have permission to get married, and getting that permission was complicated.

For most of our ancestors, there was probably a private ceremony, and then the legal ceremony followed. Most of the people during this time period were religious and attending church. The times they lived in are so different from the freedoms to marry that we have today – choice of marriage was not a basic human right as it is today. We should look upon these ancestors with compassion and love – after all, these challenges helped make them more human.

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Anita Hummel

Hi, I am Anita Hummel. I live in Hanoi, Vietnam. I love to share with you about my family history and the many parts of the world our ancestors have lived.

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Why Are There So Many German Illegitimate Children (1700 and 1800s)?