Internet Shakespeare Editions

Editor: Michael Best
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On Bastards

From The Book of Honor and Arms (1590)


In his Book of Honor and Arms, Richard Jones discusses in detail the justification of duelling and trial by combat as a means of protecting one's honor, despite his admission that " the Christian law willeth men to be of so perfect patience as not only to endure injurious words, but also quietly to suffer every force and violence" (sig. A2). Jones expounds in considerable detail Jones writes of the kinds of insults that permit an honorable man to challenge the speaker to a duel, and defines the social status required for a person legitimately to enter into a challenge. In this passage he considers whether an illegitimate child (male, of course) should be permitted to take part in this tradition of settling a matter of honor.

Whether a Bastard May Challenge a Gentleman to Combat

For that by law no bastard can inherit the lands and honors of his supposed father, it may be reasonably doubted whether he be of such condition as may challenge a gentleman to trial of arms. Notwithstanding, for that such impediment proceedeth not from the bastard himself, and that no man ought justly be repulsed saving such as are condemned or infamed for their own vilety, methinks that bastardy ought not to disable a man to be admitted unto combat. . . . Whereupon we conclude that every bastard, having well and virtuously served in the war, or that for his good merit hath aspired to bear charge of reputation in the army, ought be received to fight with any private gentleman or soldier, because men so born have not only been oftentimes advanced to honor, but they and their posterity also have attained and continued in high dignity and greatest estimation.

25True it is that men so born cannot maintain themselves to be gentlemen by birth and therefore directly must not claim such title or enter the trial of arms; and therefore in that respect may be repulsed, not as infamous but as ignoble, which defect either by valorous endeavor in arms or virtuous study in learning may be supplied.

Also all such bastards as have long served loyally in their prince's court and that by privilege of their prince are made legitimate, or hath lived orderly among other gentlemen, in place of reputation may not be repulsed.