This is a genuine question, not an attempt to start a debate. :-)
Has there ever been a civilization before ours that has had a higher proportion of children born out of wedlock? I truly have no idea and would appreciate any facts anyone can supply. Thanks!
I did a little digging around last night and found (among much else) this paragraph, based on work done by Peter Laslett, a very respected scholar:
The rate of extramarital births during the sixteenth century is generally perceived to be quite high, but it later sank during the age of absolutism. It is stipulated that only 2 to 3 percent of all births in the mid-1700s were extramarital, but a century later numbers hovered between 7 and 11 percent in the Nordic countries and around 7 percent in France and England. Certain countries and regions had higher figures; in Iceland more than 14 percent of all births occurred outside of marriage, and in the Basque Country the illegitimacy rate was exceptionally high. The following century or so, from the 1840s to 1960, witnessed a new decline of illegitimate births, particularly conspicuous around the turn of the century. Regional differences, however, were still to be found.
I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that there have been high rates of out-of-wedlock pregnancies in past eras in the United States, many of which resulted in "shotgun" weddings or long stays out of town to conceal the pregnancy. Illegitimate births also were dealt with by a relative raising a child, often presenting the child as her own, an "informal" adoption. And of course, there have always been abortions here, albeit illegal ones in many states prior to Roe v. Wade. It is difficult to know, really, what the statistics might have been, particularly in rural areas, where there were many home births and not such great record-keeping.
I do think that in some societies there were more children born out of wedlock among the upper classes, if there was a lot of indiscretion going on with staff and so on. Yet my first thought was of slavery in the American South, where oftentimes slaves were forced to reproduce with certain other slaves chosen by masters, and masters often had children with their slaves.
Wow... quite the research project. I can't imagine that there could ever be a definitive answer to this given the sparse nature of record keeping in the past. The project would also run into problems with the definition of "wedlock" in various societies at various times. I believe that many of our out of wedlock births (not the majority, to be sure) are to people who are in what would once have been called common law marriages. This points to one difficulty of measuring this -- there would have been times when these people would have been considered to be married.
My guess for a segment of society with greater illegitimate birth rates would be the upper classes of society in the Middle Ages in Europe. From what I read, men from that class tended to have multiple mistresses and many illegitimate children who they would or would not acknowledge, depending on their political needs. For example, Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, had at least 8 illegitimate children.