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The Social and Legal Reception of Illegitimate Births in the Gurk Valley, Austria, 1868–1945

  • Catherine Sumnall (a1)


This article uses a combination of sources, ranging from statistical material calculated from parish records, through oral history interviews and autobiographies, to letters sent by parish priests to their bishop, to illuminate the spaces between law, marriage and the church in the Gurk valley of southern Austria. It argues that local patterns and trends of illegitimacy were tolerated by the Catholic clergy, and that the relationships concerned were understood both as marriage without ceremonialization, and as stable unions where marriage was impeded by poverty. These attitudes hardened in the state legal practices that formed part of Nazi family policy and reduced rural illegitimacy.


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*Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, CB2 3HU. E-mail:


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1 Wrigley, E. A. and Schofield, R. S., The Population History of England 1541–1871: A Reconstruction (Cambridge, 1989), 457–66.

2 Malthusian thought on marriage as the key means through which a society limited fertility is often captured as a combination of prudential forethought, in deciding whether to contract a marriage, and a fertility valve, in that there might be lower incidence of marriage in a population when economic circumstances were harder and higher fertility might have difficult consequences for the household. For a brief account of Malthusian thought on marriage and fertility, see Wrigley, E. A., ‘Malthus on the Prospects for the Labouring Poor’, HJ 31 (1988), 813–29, at 817–18.

3 Legal limitations on marriage, referred to as politischer Ehekonsens, restricted the ability of those without property and resources to marry. These were repealed in 1867. See Josef Kytir and Rainer Muenz, ‘Illegitimität in Oesterreich’, Demographische Informationen (1986), 7–21, at 7.

4 Ibid. 8–10.

5 Impartible inheritance refers to the practice of not dividing land such as a farm upon its transfer to the next generation. Instead, in a family with multiple heirs, one person (often the eldest son) would take on the property, and pay any siblings their portion of the inheritance, calculated according to the value of the property, through other means.

6 Shorter, Edward, ‘Illegitimacy, Sexual Revolution and Social Change in Modern Europe’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 2 (1971), 237–72.

7 Lee, W. R., ‘Bastardy and the Socio-Economic Structure of South Germany’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 7 (1977), 403–25.

8 E. A. Wrigley, quoted in Outhwaite, R. B., Clandestine Marriage in England 1580–1850 (Cambridge, 1995), 146.

9 Max Voegler, ‘Religion, Liberalism and the Social Question in the Habsburg Hinterland: The Catholic Church in Upper Austria, 1850–1914’ (PhD thesis, Columbia University, New York, 2006), 4.

10 Peter Tropper, Das Christentum in Kärnten. Vom 19. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart (Kehl am Rhein, 2005), 14.

11 Michael Mitterauer, Ledige Mütter. Zur Geschichte illegitimer Geburten in Europa (Munich, 1983); Fauve–Chamoux, Antoinette, ‘European Illegitimacy Trends in Connection with Domestic Service and Family Systems (1545–2001)’, in Bolovan, Ioan and Teibenbacher, Peter, eds, Central Europe Population History during the first Demographic Transition: Romanian Journal of Population Studies special issue 2 (2012), 845.

12 See, for instance, Fauve-Chamoux on France; on Scotland, Andrew Blaikie, Illegitimacy, Sex, and Society: Northeast Scotland 1750–1900 (Oxford, 1993); and on northern Italy, Pier Paulo Viazzo, Upland Communities: Environment, Population and Social Structure in the Alps since the 16th Century (Cambridge, 1989).

13 Viazzo, Upland Communities; Mathieu, Jon, ‘From Ecotypes to Sociotypes: Peasant Household and State-building in the Alps, Sixteenth-Nineteenth Centuries’, History of the Family (hereafter: HF) 5 (2000), 5574.

14 Mitterauer, Michael, ‘Peasant and Non-Peasant Family Forms in relation to the Physical Environment and the Local Economy’, Journal of Family History 17 (1992), 139–59.

15 Mathieu, ‘Ecotypes to Sociotypes’.

16 Sumnall, Catherine, ‘Micro-Geographies of Illegitimacy and Social Change in the Gurk Valley, 1870–1960’, in Fauve-Chamoux, Antoinette and Bolovan, Ioan, eds, Families in Europe between the 19th and the 21st centuries (Cluj, 2009), 251–88.

17 Sandro Guzzi-Heeb, ‘Kinship, Ritual Kinship and Political Milieus in an Alpine Valley in the Nineteenth Century’, HF 14 (2009), 107–23.

18 Therese Meyer, Dienstboten in Oberkärnten, Kärntner Landesarchiv 19 (Klagenfurt, 1993), 228–35.

19 Franz Eder, ‘Sexual Cultures in Germany and Austria, 1700–2000’, in idem, Gert Hekma and Lesley Hall, eds, Sexual Cultures in Europe: National Histories (Manchester, 1999), 138–72.

20 David Sabean, ‘Aspects of Kinship Behaviour and Property in Rural Western Europe before 1800’, in Jack Goody, Joan Thirsk and E. P. Thompson, eds, Family and Inheritance: Rural Society in Western Europe, 1200 to 1800 (Cambridge, 1976), 96–111.

21 Michael Mitterauer and Reinhard Sieder, The European Family: Patriarchy to Partnership from the Middle Ages to the Present (Oxford, 1986), 53–7.

22 See, for instance, for other parts of Austria, Sigrid Khera, ‘Illegitimacy and Mode of Land Inheritance among Austrian Peasants’, Ethnology 20 (1981), 307–23; for Scotland, Alice Reid, Ros Davies, Eilidh Garrett and Andrew Blaikie, ‘Vulnerability among Illegitimate Children in Nineteenth-Century Scotland’, Annales de démographie historique 111 (2006), 89–113.

23 This has been argued for Scotland by Andrew Blaikie, Eilidh Garrett and Ros Davies, ‘Migration, Living Standards and Illegitimate Childbearing: A Comparison of two Scottish Settings, 1871–1881', in Alysa Levene, Thomas Nutt and Samantha Williams, eds, Illegitimacy in Britain, 1700–1920 (London, 2005), 141–67.

24 Catherine Sumnall, ‘There's no such thing as Sin in the Alps: Some Reflections on the Historical Geography of Illegitimacy in Carinthia after 1868’, in Ioan Bolovan et al., eds, Demographic Changes in the Time of Industrialisation (1750–1918): The Example of the Habsburg Monarchy (Cluj, 2009), 195–224.

25 Judith von Schmädel, ‘The History of Marriage Law in Austria and Germany: From Sacrament to Civil Contract’, Hitotsubashi Journal of Law and Politics 37 (2009), 41–7. Von Schmädel's excellent discussion highlights the tension in Austrian law between the sacramental and church-based elements of marriage and the contractual elements gradually claimed by the state during the absolutist period. In highlighting changes in the nineteenth century, she demonstrates that the tension between the absolutist and the liberal state continued, and it is this tension, she suggests, which underpins the changes between 1855 and 1868.

26 Michael O'Neill Printy, Enlightenment and the Creation of German Catholicism (Cambridge, 2009), 101–4.

27 Von Schmädel, ‘Marriage Law’, 46.

28 Peter Teibenbacher, ‘Natural Population Movement and Marriage Restrictions and Hindrances in Styria in the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries’, HF 14 (2009), 292–308; Christine Pelikan, ‘Aspekte des Eherechts in Österreich’ (PhD thesis, University of Vienna, 1981).

29 Peter Teibenbacher, ‘The County of Styria in the Eighteenth Century: Socio-Demographic Structures and Processes’, in Harald Heppner, Peter Urbanitsch and Renate Zedinger, eds, Social Change in the Habsburg Monarchy, The Eighteenth Century and the Habsburg Monarchy International Series 3 (Bochum, 2011), 23–36.

30 For the nineteenth-century changes in marriage law, see Isabel Hull, Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany 1700–1815 (London, 1996); for commentary on parochial poor relief, see Blaikie, Illegitimacy, Sex and Society; and for a Foucauldian interpretation of the state's increasing legal interest in illegitimacy and marriage, see Gail Reekie, Measuring Immorality: Social Inquiry and the Problem of Illegitimacy (Cambridge, 2003).

31 Teibenbacher, ‘Styria in the Eighteenth Century’, 26.

32 Calculated from the Relatio synodalis of the Gurk deanery, 1880–1960: Klagenfurt, Archiv der Diözese Gurk, HS.80.

33 Hartmut Hanouska-Abel, ‘Not a Slippery Slope nor a Sudden Subversion: German Medicine and National Socialism in 1933’, British Medical Journal 313 (1996), 1453–75.

34 The name of the diocese of Gurk reflects its original home in the eponymous town in the Gurk valley. However, the seat of the bishop during this period was in Klagenfurt rather than the cathedral in Gurk; returns from the Gurk valley parishes were thus sent to the bishop of Gurk in Klagenfurt.

35 Sumnall, ‘No such thing as Sin in the Alps’, 197–9.

36 ‘Welche Mittel sind … verzuwenden, um die Verletzungen gegen das VI Gebot hinstanzuhalten … Unser Weisungen zur Hebung der Sittlichkeit u. Behebung der Concubinate’: Archiv der Diözese Gurk, HS.80, Gurk deanery submission to the Pastoralkonferenz, 1891.

37 The complete quotation is: ‘solus cum sola non cogitabuntur orare Pater noster’ (‘When a man and a woman are alone together, they won't be saying the Our Father’): ibid. (my translation).

38 ‘Abälard war nicht glücklich in der Erziehung seiner Heloise’ (‘Abelard was not successful in educating his Heloise’): ibid.

39 Meyer, Dienstboten in Oberkärnten, 228–35.

40 Infidelity was recognized as a weakness to which either sex might succumb: Archiv der Diözese Gurk, HS.80, Gurk submission to Pastoralkonferenz, 1892.

41 Von Schmädel, ‘Marriage Law’, 44–6.

42 ‘Contractus matrimonialis est vere et proprie unum ex septem Legis evangelicae sacramentis’ (‘the contracting of marriage is truly and properly one of the seven sacraments of the gospel law’): epistle of Pius VI, Deessemus nobis, 16 September 1788, cited in Archiv der Diözese Gurk, HS.80, Gurk submission to Pastoralkonferenz, 1892.

43 Richard Smith, ‘Marriage Processes in the European Past: Some Continuities’, in Lloyd Bonfield, Richard M. Smith and Keith Wrightson, eds, The World we have Gained: Histories of Population and Social Structure. Essays presented to Peter Laslett on his Seventieth Birthday (Oxford, 1986), 43–99, includes a discussion of spousal ceremonies across a long period of time and in a range of geographical areas.

44 Both these stories emerged in oral history interviews I conducted in summer 2007.

45 Sumnall, ‘No such thing as Sin in the Alps’, 200–5.

46 The argument of rural depopulation and limited economic development is made by Peter Cede, Die ländliche Siedlung in den niederen Gurktaler Alpen (Klagenfurt, 1994),

47 The Carinthian Civil War took place after the end of the First World War, and was largely about whether ethnic and linguistic Slovenes resident mainly in the south of the province should belong to Austria or Yugoslavia. To end the conflict, backed by the Paris Peace Conference, a plebiscite of the linguistically mixed regions of Carinthia took place in October 1920; 59 per cent of those voting chose to remain part of Austria. For a detailed discussion of the Austro-Slovene minority in Carinthia, see Thomas Barker, The Slovene Minority of Carinthia (Boulder, CO, 1984).

48 Ferdinand Hochsteiner, Es ist nicht alles Gold, was heute glänzt. Erinnerungen einer Bergbauern aus dem Gurktal (Glōdnitz, 2002), 47.

49 Ibid. 7.

50 Ibid. 25–6.

51 The impact of debt rescheduling is discussed by Maria Prieler-Woldan, Das selbstverständliche Tun. Die Salzburger Bäuerin Maria Etzer und ihr verbotener Einsatz für Fremde im Nationalsozialismus (Innsbruck, 2018), 106–10.

52 Stephen Legg, ‘Foucault's Population Geographies: Classifications, Biopolitics and Governmental Spaces’, Population, Space and Place 11 (2005), 137–56, at 145–6. Legg's work on India highlights the process of surveillance through population records.

53 Lisa Pine, Nazi Family Policy 1933–45 (London, 1999), 117–46.

54 Österreich Statistisches Amt für die Alpen- und Donau-Reichsgaue, Der Umbruch in der Bevölkerungsentwicklung im Gebiete der Ostmark. Statistische Ergebnisse der natürlichen Bevölkerungsbewegung vor und nach der Wiedervereinigung (Vienna, 1941), 10–15 (marriage), 21–3 (illegitimate births).

55 Pine, Nazi Family Policy, 117–46. For a contrasting view arguing for a pro-natalist stance in all cases, even those of single mothers, see Koonz, Claudia, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics, 2nd edn (London, 2013), 197.

56 Tooze, J. Adam, Statistics and the German State 1900–1945: The Making of Modern Economic Knowledge (Cambridge, 2001), especially 36–8.

57 Legg, ‘Foucault's Population Geographies’, 142.

58 Catherine Sumnall, ‘A Historical Geography of Illegitimacy in the Gurk Valley, Austria, c.1868 to 1945’, (PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 2011), 73.

The Social and Legal Reception of Illegitimate Births in the Gurk Valley, Austria, 1868–1945

  • Catherine Sumnall (a1)


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