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The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

Department of Geography and Faculty of History


There's no such thing as sin in the Alps. The historical geography of illegitimacy in Carinthia, Austria, from 1880 to 1950.

There's no such thing as sin in the Alps. The historical geography of illegitimacy in Carinthia, Austria, from 1880 to 1950.

Historians of the family and historical demographers often turn with a gleeful eye to the ways in which bastardy instructs about the nature of social change and the resilience of household structure, perhaps seeking its use as an indicator of the onset of modernity or its meaning as a marker of infamous later marriage in western Europe. This project regards bastardy not as a proxy, but as a demographic, structural and geographically-mediated phenomenon in its own right, and seeks to contextualise it in the most extreme of circumstances. Carinthia, Austria's southernmost province, has long been acknowledged as the area with one of the highest illegitimacy ratios in the continent. Moreover, Carinthia achieves this slightly dubious distinction with an enormous degree of spatial heterogeneity, with the variation in district by district illegitimacy ratios mirroring diversity in Austria as a whole. A strikingly rural and persistent pattern of bastard-bearing emerges, which aims to add a sense of place to existing correlations with household size and the presence of large numbers of life-cycle servants. We can then begin to understand the peculiar social milieu of the bastard in Gurktal, where (s)he served an economic purpose as a servant for much of his/her life but still suffered penalties of higher infant and child mortality, severely restricted marital opportunities and social stigmatisation within the strict hierarchy of village life. Despite the harshness of life for bastards and unmarried mothers, and indeed putative fathers, it seems coping mechanisms were found within the unwritten codes of behaviour in Gurktal. Children often spent little time with their parents, being passed from Hof to Hof, under the care of extended relatives, godparents or opportunistic farmers. Other couples managed a kind of unmarried marriage, with fidelity across the miles in between different farmsteads and villages; fathers contributed financially to the mother for each child she bore, in the happiest cases ending in the retrospective legitimation of the whole family by the couple's marriage.

By combining traditional methods of parish record linkage with GIS mapping and spatial analysis tools and autobiographical and oral historical testimonies, I hope to offer not only a more detailed picture of extra-marital fertility in Carinthia, but also provide an insight into the social reception and implications of its prevalence and persistence. The selection of the Gurk valley, in St Veit an der Glan district allows for this in-depth approach to the micro-histories and micro-geographies of its population between circa 1880 and 1950. By bringing a spatial turn to bear on histories of population and household, I hope not only to elucidate the local importance and geographical diversity of illegitimacy, but also to show how micro-histories and micro-geographies help rather than hinder our understanding of the functioning of more general demographic theories of population change.