Ebalus the Mamzer.

I knew the Hebrew/Yiddish word mamzer ‘bastard’ was widespread, but this still surprised me:

Ebalus or Ebles Manzer or Manser (c. 870 – 935) was Count of Poitou and Duke of Aquitaine on two occasions: from 890 to 892; and then from 902 until his death in 935 (Poitou) and from 928 until 932 (Aquitaine).

Ebles was an illegitimate son of Ranulf II of Aquitaine. “Manzer” or “Mamzer” is a Hebrew word that means bastard, son of a gentile man and Jewish woman. It appears that Ebles did not mind his name, and his “illegitimacy became a part of his style.”

I guess if you’ve got a problematic nickname, that’s the way to deal with it.


  1. “There would be little point in making references to someone’s illegitimacy if he chose to answer his telephone with ‘Bastard speaking, yeah?'” —Avram Davidson, The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy

    (The context was someone who referred to himself as Sludge, one of those derogatory/good-old-boy terms, in this case referring to a member of an ethnic group of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania, the Slovačkos.)

  2. That’s surprising. *m>n — nu, let’s call it place assimilation after the z. But were there enough Jews in Aquitaine in the 9th century, and would anyone have paid enough attention to them to have a Hebrew word enter the local language, even as slang?

    (Hebrew WP says the remains of some buildings indicate Bordeaux had a Jewish community as early as the 4th century.)

  3. From Fuller’s Worthies (1662):

    Henry Fitzroy, natural son to king Henry the Eighth. Here we confess our trespass against our own rules, who confined ourselves to the legitimate issue of kings ; presuming that the worth of this Henry will make amends for our breach of order herein. He was begotten on the body of the Lady Talbois [… etc.]. He confuted their etymology who deduced bastard from the Dutch words boes and art, that is, an abject nature ; and verified their deduction, deriving it from besteaerd, that is, the best disposition : such was his forwardness in all martial activities, with his knowledge in all arts and sciences ; learned Leland dedicating a book unto him.

  4. Henry Fitzroy, Canadian romance novelist.

    Etymonline says bastard < fils de bast ‘son of a packsaddle’, packsaddles often being used as improvised beds when traveling.

  5. I guess if you’ve got a problematic nickname, that’s the way to deal with it.

    Especially those involving bastards. From Game of Thrones (and my memory): “Never forget what you are, bastard,” Tyrion Lannister tells Jon Snow,” the rest of the world will not not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used against you.”

    It’s one of the show’s many motifs, turning who you really are to your advantage or, to put it more clearly if also more cumbersomely, accepting your true self (which everyone else sees easily anyway) as a prerequisite to being effective in the world.

    Littlefinger: “You know what I learned, losing that duel? I’ll never win — not that way. That’s their game, their rules. I’m not going to fight them — I’m going to fuck them. That’s who I am, that’s what I know. And it’s only by accepting who we are that we can get what we want.” From memory again, including that this one is from season 1, episode 7 and the earlier one from the pilot. (And what does Littlefinger want, BTW? “Oh, everything,” he answers, his tone and aspect bored at first glance, deadpan, but really inscrutable. “Everything there is.”)

    It’s an ingenious motif for the show, given the setting — a fantastical late medieval England and Europe — an actually interesting way to challenge medieval, chivalric values with modern notions of self-actualization: to illustrate how the latter (however obnoxiously, thoughtlessly ubiquitous they may be today) could be, and probably indeed were, consequential to the former.

    Tyrion Lannister, from memory, one last time: “My brother has his sword, and I have my mind. And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone. That’s why I read so much, Jon Snow.” That one is less relative to the theme of the night than the theme of the bar, of course.

  6. marie-lucie says

    In the Middle Ages, being a “bastard” of a king or nobleman was not necessarily viewed as a handicap, especially if the father did not have a “legitimate” son. This was the case for Guillaume le Conquérant, who was known at first as Guillaume le Bâtard. His father was Robert, the son of the duke of Normandy (a descendant of Vikings, closely related to the king of England at the time) and his mother a local girl, Arlette, the daughter of a tanner who lived nearby. The duke’s son, aged 17 and a tearaway, could see her from the high ramparts and had someone ask her to come and join him at midnight through a small side door. She told her father, who said something like: “You obviously can’t say no to the duke’s son, but I don’t want my daughter to sneak into the castle in the middle of the night like a common girl. Tell him you will only come in broad daylight, through the main entrance, and he should send a horse for you.” So she moved into the castle, and that’s where Guillaume was born, long before his father was married to a noble woman. The new duchess did not produce the required heir, so Guillaume was IT. This happened in the town of Falaise, where the castle still exists (though not intact), and visitors are shown the place from which the duke’s son could watch the lovely Arlette.

    Louis XIV also had a number of illegitimate children, and as his legitimate sons died before he did he had some of the bastard ones declared legitimate so there would be potential heirs to the throne, but in the end the only male heir left at his death was a five-year-old grandson, who right away became Louis XV. These problems would have been avoided if the “Salic law” denying monarchic rights to women had not been in force, since his daughters lived much longer than his sons.

  7. More French medieval mamzers. I still find it odd.

  8. I may have once learned what mamzer meant, but somehow I’d filed it away as one of those religiousy occupations – like rebbe, schachter, mohel and whatnot.

  9. Aha. Mamzer is in the Vulgate (Deut. 23:2 or 23:3), with the gratuitous and false interpretation de scorto natus, as in the Septuagint. There’s also Spanish máncer, from the same source.

  10. Trond Engen says

    And from what sort of a relationship is a chiromancer sprung off?

  11. A mamzer is not the same as a bastard. In Jewish law the offspring of an unmarried woman is generally not illegitimate. Note however that such laws can be arcane and elaborate, as you can see in the article about Mamzer in the English Wikipedia.

  12. Or a necromancer.

    In any case, the WP articles on mamzer and Ebalus say that Ebalus’s mother was rumored to be Jewish, in which case he would be no mamzer but a Jew like any other Jew. As Duke of Aquitaine, he would probably be the highest-ranking Jew who ever lived (well, outside Khazaria), though his title to the dukedom was mostly de facto; he was properly invested by the king as the Count of Poitou despite being illegitimate by Christian law, however.

  13. “The highest-ranking Jew who ever lived”? What about Esther and Mordechai during the period of the Persian Empire? Although, I suppose, they count only if you believe in the Bible. Another well-known Bible character comes to mind, this time from the first century A.C. What about Timothy? Being the son of a Gentile man and a Jewish woman, would he be considered a “mamzer”?

  14. Well, if you believe in the (Christian) Bible Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. I think we have to confine ourselves to secular knowledge.

  15. What about Dhu-Nuwas, the last king of Himyar, famous for his persecution of the Christians of Najran? That’s got to outrank a duke or even a queen. But of course he was a convert, so you could probably exclude him on familial grounds.

  16. -Esther and Mordechai during the period of the Persian Empire

    The highest ranking Jew in the Mongol empire was Rashid-Ad-Din, vizier of the Ilkhan Mahmud Ghazan.

    He was the greatest Mongolian-Persian historian of Jewish origin who ever lived…

  17. I had never heard of Ḥimyar before, but apparently it had a whole line of Jewish kings. So much for that idea.

  18. David Marjanović says

    Although, I suppose, they count only if you believe in the Bible.

    The Book of Esther is a historical novel.

  19. The royal family of Adiabene were Jewish converts from about 2000 years ago.

  20. David Marjanović says

    I had never heard of Ḥimyar before

    Not only hadn’t I heard of it either; it was the battlefield for several wars between Sassanid Persia and Aksumite Ethiopia that I had no idea of! I should be ashamed, and I don’t say this lightly.

  21. From Eco’s “The Miracle of San Baudolino” in How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays:

    It was a spring morning in 1943. The decision had been made: we were definitely going to abandon the city [of Alessandria, where Eco was born]. Moreover, the splendid plan was to take refuge at Nizza Monferrato, where we would surely avoid the air raids. [….] Now it was early morning, and we were heading for the station, the whole family, in a hired carriage. At the point where Corso Cento Cannoni opens towards the Valfré barracks, the broad space deserted at this early hour, I thought I glimpsed in the distance Rossini, my elementary school classmate, and I called to him in a loud voice. It was someone else.

    My father, was irritated. He said that, as usual, I never stopped to think, and one doesn’t go about shouting “Verdini” like a lunatic. I corrected him, saying the name was Rossini, and he said that Verdini or Bianchini, it was all the same. […]

    […] I had thoughtlessly uttered a name. [….] You don’t tell your own name to just anyone and you don’t thoughtlessly call someone else by name, out in the open, where everyone can hear. An Alessandrian may talk with you for a whole day without once calling you by name, not even when he greets you. You say “Ciao” or, on separating, “Arrivederci”, never “Arrivederci, Giuseppe”.

  22. David Marjanović says

    An Alessandrian may talk with you for a whole day without once calling you by name, not even when he greets you. You say “Ciao” or, on separating, “Arrivederci”, never “Arrivederci, Giuseppe”.

    I was quite dismayed to learn that the Viennese seem unable to greet a group. It’s “hello, [name], hello, [name], hello, [name]” ad nauseam. And handshakes for everyone every time.

  23. By “hello” do you mean “Grüß Gott”?

  24. David Marjanović says

    No, hallo. I’m talking about children.

  25. I was pretty skeptical about this; the Wikipedia entries all indicate that this explanation is conjectural. But I did some digging, and the Vulgate includes the word mamzer, which in turn gave rise to the Church Latin terms manzer/manser/mancer; these show up in various glossaries. This suggests that there is no need to posit a Jewish mother for Ebalus.

  26. Marie-Lucie, even more startling application of Salic law was institution of Bourbons as French monarchs. They were related in the male lines to Valois somewhere more than 10 generations deep both ways.

  27. Greg Pandatshang says


    I’ve often wondered how it came to pass the le Bâtard was considered eligible to become Duke of Normandy and then eventually seize the throne of England, and yet, when his last son Henry 1 died some decades later, with no legitimate male heir on hand, a civil war had to be fought between two cognatic factions … despite the fact that Henry 1 had no shortage of bâtard sons, some of whom were influential nobles. To the best of my limited knowledge, no one proposed putting one of Henry 1’s living sons on the throne.

  28. marie-lucie says

    D.O., Greg,

    I think that the customs must have become more rigid with time. Increasing Church influence may also have been a factor. The famous Salic Law could have been discreetly set aside at any time, if it had not favoured the ambitions of many men. On the other hand, potential male heirs tended to disappear in battle or through assassinations.

    Guillaume’s claim to the throne of England was quite disputable, he had first kidnapped an English claimant and made him swear to support him before releasing him (of course, once back in England the prisoner reneged on his oath). Among other claimants in England there was no one who was obviously more eligible. Or if there was, he was killed in battle. In any case, in those times miilitary victory was considered to show which side was favoured by God, and Guillaume was definitely the victor at Hastings.

  29. William’s father Robert le Magnifique never married and had only one bastard son, who succeeded him as Duke of Normandy faute de mieux. In the case of Henry of England, whose legitimate son predeceased him, it was a straight choice between legitimate daughter (and heir by his will) and legitimate sister’s son. Descent to the sister’s son had plenty of precedent in England. With two plausible legitimate heirs, bastards got no look-in.

  30. marie-lucie says

    JC: You are right. I must have confused the marriage story with that of someone else, although I have no idea whom. William’s claim in England was based on being the grandson of the old king’s sister.

    William’s father was also known as Robert le Diable in his youth.

    Although William was born in Falaise, the French town most closely associated with the conquest of England is Bayeux, still the seat of the Catholic bishopric. There is an interesting museum which holds and exhibits the famous Tapisserie. It also puts on lectures, films, books etc in French and English on the period and the pros and cons of the various historical documents regarding the conquest. During William’s youth there was also a school in Bayeux where Norman nobles sent their sons to learn the old Norse language which was no longer the native language of the fathers. Bayeux is also still a very picturesque town, well worth a visit.

  31. During William’s youth there was also a school in Bayeux where Norman nobles sent their sons to learn the old Norse language which was no longer the native language of the fathers.

    Boy, I’d love to be able to sit in on those classes! I wonder what the Norse equivalent of Mme Ruegg’s “Pas un mot d’anglais!” was…

  32. Those not familiar with the Himyar, obviously haven’t enjoyed Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword about the origins of Islam and stuff.

  33. William the Bastard’s great-grandfather Richard I of Normandy, Rollo’s grandson and William I Longsword’s son (that is, a third-generation Norman noble) was sent by his father from Rouen to Bayeux as a young boy to be raised there (for a variety of reasons, one of them being reportedly the fact that the family’s ancestral language was still spoken in Bayeux and could be learnt there). Was it really still the case during William’s lifetime?

  34. I’m surprised no one’s mentioned the two respectable bastards in Shakespeare:
    1. The “largest and most conspicuous role”* in King John is Philip the Bastard. Born Philip Falconbridge, in the first scene he gives up the Falconbridge inheritance to his younger brother for the title Sir Richard Plantagenet, since he looks like the late Richard Coeur-de-Lion and his supposed father was out of the country when he was conceived. His mother is initially offended at the insult to her honor, but then admits that Richard was his father.
    2. In 1 Henry VI, one of the top French leaders is “The Bastard of Orleans”, illegitimate son of the Duke of Orleans. He introduces Joan of Arc (“Joan la Pucelle”) to the Dauphin (“Dolphin”).
    Neither seems to have much objection to being referred to as a bastard. The first quite clearly thinks being a royal bastard is better than being an ordinary knight’s legitimate son.
    – – – – – – – –
    *Quoting the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare.

  35. marie-lucie says

    PG: the Norse language in Bayeux:

    If the Norse language was still spoken by some families in Bayeux in the time of William’s great-grandfather (who may have been “fostered” there, as was often done with noble boys placed in other noble families), the existence of a specialized school (perhaps later) suggests that a conscious attempt was being made to preserve the language at least among the noble, “Norman” upper class. I don’t have any information about how long that school lasted. William supposed to have been “uneducated” (perhaps because he was a bastard), so he probably did not get sent to Bayeux or anywhere. If he had, the fact might have been remembered. His half-brother Odo who became a bishop was probably educated for the priesthood, by members of the clergy, learning Latin rather than Norse.

  36. marie-lucie says

    MH: being a royal bastard is better than being an ordinary knight’s legitimate son


  37. “The Bastard King of England”, probably not actually by Rudyard Kipling despite the persistent rumors to that effect. Not safe for work (unless you have earphones).

  38. Boy, does that make me miss thegrowlingwolf — he used to love to sing it.

  39. With two plausible legitimate heirs, bastards got no look-in.

    And a great pity too. If Romano-British law (which made all children acknowledged by their fathers legitimate heirs to their lands) had applied instead of Church law, Robert of Gloucester, the oldest surviving son of Henry One, would have probably been an excellent monarch. But he himself relinquished any claim he had in favor of his sister’s son, later to be Henry Two.

  40. Lars Mathiesen says

    Double cousins = half siblings = 25%

    If you squint at it right, it’s not so complex — ‘you’ have 1/4 of your genes from a given grandparent, and so does your double cousin, so 1/16th of your genes are in common through that relation. And there’s 4 such grandparents. For a half sibling that is just one lot of 1/4 (from the common parent), but what matters is the probability that each individual allele in the genomes is the same between the individuals — so the number of identical genes is the same Poisson distribution in each case.

    (So just giving the percentage is not a simplification, there don’t seem to be any gotchas and hidden dependencies that can make the ‘same’ percentage give different outcomes in practice. You should probably give separate percentages for X and Y chromosomes, though).

  41. SFReader says

    It just occurred to me that first part of Ebalus the Mamzer’s name also could be construed to mean bastard – in Slavic.

    Remember reading about 9th century Pannonian Slavic prince named Pribina whose name was etymologized as Prijebina on account of him being a bastard according to Frankish sources.

  42. David Marjanović says

    Day saved.

  43. @John Cowan: Welsh law at the time also allowed for the inheritance by acknowledged but illegitimate sons. (It’s not so clear about daughters.)

  44. John Cowan says

    Indeed. One of the great set pieces in the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) hangs on precisely this point of Welsh law. It’s too long for even me to quote in extenso, but here’s a few bits of it from Chapter Nine of Monk’s Hood. The murderer, still at large and unsuspected except by Brother Cadfael and his novice, approaches the court of the commote of Cynllaith (sitting of course in Llansilin):

    “My name is [omitted], son of Angharad, daughter of Ifor ap Morgan, who is known to all men here. By this same Angharad I am the son of Gervase Bonel, who held the manor of Mallilie while he lived. I am here to advance my claim to that manor, by reason of my birth, as the son, and the only child, of Gervase Bonel. I am here to introduce testimony that that same land is Welsh land, and subject to Welsh law, and that I am that man’s son, and the only child he ever engendered. And by Welsh law I lay claim to Mallilie, for by Welsh law a son is a son, whether born in or out of wedlock, provided only that his father has acknowledged him.” He drew breath, and the pale, drawn lines of his face sharpened yet further with tension. “Will the court hear me?”

    Of course they will: nothing a Welshman loves better than a good lawsuit. He brings witnesses to show that the manor, though held by Normans for three generations, is in fact within Wales, and that cases involving it have been tried by Welsh law as well as English. Then he calls similar witnesses to show that he is Bonel’s son, but the judge isn’t having it:

    “There is a difficulty here,” said the presiding judge. “It is not enough that the common opinion should be that a certain man is father, for common opinion could be mistaken. Even the acceptance of the duty of providing for a child is not in itself proof of acknowledgement. It must be shown that the father has himself acknowledged the child as his. That is the validation the kinship requires for the admittance of a young man into full rights, and that is the validation necessary before property can be inherited.”

    But our plaintiff is able to show that too by virtue of his apprenticeship contract, which is signed by the lord and names him as the lord’s son. The judge then points out that there are multiple claimants to the land, and that although is claim is prima facie the strongest, a formal lawsuit with lawyers is in order. But the man has an answer to that as well:

    “With respect,” said [omitted], paler and brighter than ever, and with hands cupped and curled at his sides, as if he had already filled them with the desired and coveted soil, “there is a provision in Welsh law by which I may take possession even now, before the case is tried. Only the son may do so, but I am the son of this man who is dead. I claim the right of dadanhudd, the right to uncover my father’s hearth. Give me the sanction of this court, and I will go, with these elders who uphold my claim, and enter the house which is mine by right.”

    The court agrees. But Cadfael, torn between Welsh blood-right and universal justice, speaks up. He says he is not here on behalf of the other claimant to the land, as the court at first assumes, but on behalf of the victim:

    “I am a Welshman,” said Cadfael. “I endorse and approve the law of Wales, that says a son is a son, in or out of marriage, and has the same rights though English law may call him a bastard. Yes, a son born out of wedlock may inherit — but not a son who has murdered his father, as this man has.”

    Cadfael almost completes his proof there, but the murderer escapes before the court’s officers can react, and the book comes to a far more surprising and (to my mind) satisfying conclusion.

  45. @John Cowan: I confess that that scene is exactly where I learned that bit about Welsh law, although I saw the television version before I read the book.

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