Droit du seigneur[a] ('lord's right'), also known as jus primae noctis[b] ('right of the first night'), and prima nocta, was a supposed legal right in medieval Europe, allowing feudal lords to have sexual relations with subordinate women, in particular, on their wedding nights.
Historians David M. Walker and Hector McKechnie wrote that the "right" might have existed in medieval Europe, but other historians have concluded that it is a myth, and that all references to it are from later periods. Over centuries, it became commonly portrayed in European literature as a practice that had occurred in earlier times or other places.
The French expression droit du seigneur translates as "right of the lord", but native French prefer the terms droit de jambage (French: [dʁwa d(ə) ʒɑ̃baʒ], from jambe, 'leg') or droit de cuissage (French: [dʁwa d(ə) kɥisaʒ], from cuisse, 'thigh').
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is described as having practiced a similar custom: "He is king, he does whatever he wants... takes the girl from her mother and uses her, the warrior's daughter, the young man's bride." His first meeting with his friend Enkidu is an attempt at one of these acts where Enkidu manages to stop him in a great contest of strength between the two champions.
Herodotus mentions a similar custom among the Adyrmachidae in ancient Libya: "They are also the only tribe with whom the custom obtains of bringing all women about to become brides before the king, that he may choose such as are agreeable to him."
When the plebeians of the Etruscan city of Volsinii rebelled against the aristocrats in 280 BC, "They took their wives for themselves and placed the daughters of the nobles under the jus primae noctis, while all their former masters on whom they could lay hands were tortured to death."
The medieval marriage fine or merchet has sometimes been interpreted as a payment for the droit du seigneur to be waived. Alternatively, it has been interpreted as compensation to the lord for the young women leaving his lands. Encyclopedia Britannica states that the evidence indicates it was a monetary tax related to vassal marriages, since a considerable number of seigneurial rights revolved around marriage.
A similar payment to church authorities has also been interpreted as relating to the droit du seigneur. However, according to British scholar W. D. Howarth, the church at some times prohibited consummation of a marriage on the first night. The payment was for an indulgence from the church to waive this prohibition.
The life of Gerald of Aurillac written by Odo of Cluny (879-942) gives an account of the young nobleman demanding to rape one of his serfs, only to have the act averted by a miracle, sending Gerald on the road to sainthood. American historian Vern Bullough suggested that this illustrates that such behaviour was commonplace in the period, and that the "legend [of droit du seigneur] reflected the reality".
Later European references
In 1527, Scottish historian Hector Boece wrote that the "right" had existed in Scotland until abolished by Malcolm III (r. 1058–93) under the influence of his wife, Margaret (later St Margaret of Scotland). The payment of merchet was instituted in its place. Boece attributed the law to a legendary king, Ewen or Evenus III. Modern French scholar Alain Boureau says that Boece probably invented King Ewen, but he views this as mythology, not as a polemic against medieval barbarism. In Shakespeare's play, Henry VI, Part 2 (c. 1591), the rebel Jack Cade proclaims: "there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they have it". According to French scholar Alain Boureau, Cade was demanding the payment of merchet, not the right of first night, but others disagree.
Other Scottish scholars of his era quoted Boece with approval, including John Lesley (1578), George Buchanan (1582), and Habbakuk Bisset (1626). The historical existence of the custom in Scotland was also accepted in Scottish legal works such as James Balfour's Practicks (c. 1579), John Skene's De Verborum (1597), and Thomas Craig's Jus Feudale (1603). English scholar Henry Spelman stated in his Glossary (1664) that the custom had existed in Scotland, but not in England. English jurist William Blackstone cited Boece's statement in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769), while similarly noting that the custom had never existed in England. In 1776, Scottish jurist David Dalrymple disputed the existence of the custom, arguing Boece's account was purely legendary, but his position was often seen as based on Scottish patriotism. However, according to Scottish legal scholar David Maxwell Walker, instances have been recorded of the jus being claimed up to the 18th century. Walker concluded that it is possible that the jus existed as a custom in Scotland, dependent on the attitude of the king, and survived longer in remote regions.
After their travels in Scotland in 1773, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell documented the custom of the payment of merchet, linking it with the "right of first night". They paralleled it with that custom of Borough English, suggesting that the English custom favored the youngest son because the paternity of the eldest son was doubtful. Sir Walter Scott mentioned the custom in his historical Scottish novel, The Fair Maid of Perth (1828).
The right was mentioned in 1556 in the Recueil d'arrêts notables des cours souveraines de France of French lawyer and author Jean Papon. French writer Antoine du Verdier also commented on it in 1577.
The Spanish novel Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (1617) by Miguel de Cervantes contains an episode where a bride and groom escape a barbaric marriage custom in Ireland. According to British scholar WD Howarth, Cervantes was inspired by Peruvian marriage ceremonies and what is described is different from the classic version of the droit du seigneur as it involves multiple virgins. However, Cervantes' story was a source for the English play The Custom of the Country, written by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger and published in 1647. The play has the classic version of the "right of first night" with money payment as an alternative. According to Howarth, this suggests that droit du seigneur was a familiar notion to people at that time, which he traces back to Boece.
Voltaire mentioned the practice in his Dictionnaire philosophique, published in 1764. He wrote the five-act comedy Le droit du seigneur or L'écueil du sage in 1762, although it was not performed until 1779, after his death. This play was the first time the term droit du seigneur was used. In 18th-century France, a number of writers made other claims about the supposed power of the overlords during the Ancien Régime, such as the droit de ravage (right of ravage; providing to the lord the right to devastate fields of his own domain), and the droit de prélassement (right of lounging; it was said that a lord had the right to disembowel his serfs to warm his feet in).
In Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which premiered in 1786 with a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the comic plot revolves around the successful efforts of the young bride and groom, Figaro and Susanna, to block the efforts of the unfaithful Count Almaviva to seduce Susanna. To achieve his aim, the frustrated Count threatens to reinstitute droit du seigneur. It was based on a the play of the same title by Pierre Beaumarchais.
Debate in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
Scholars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave the historical basis of the "right of first night" a good deal of attention. Over time, the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Larousse encyclopedias dramatically changed their opinion on the topic, moving from acceptance to rejection of the historical veracity of custom. French writer Louis Veuillot, a champion of Catholicism, wrote a book in 1854 disputing its existence. After an exhaustive historical study, German jurist Karl Schmidt concluded in 1881 that it was a scholarly misconception. After Schmidt, many of those who believed in the existence of the custom based their opinions on anthropological studies of tribal societies, though according to W. D. Howarth, this was a misguided argument because of the disparity between the tribal societies and medieval European society.
In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884, socialist Friedrich Engels argued it was real and had an anthropological origin.
In 1930, Scottish legal scholar Hector McKechnie concluded, based on historical evidence, that the practice had existed in Scotland in early times.
In the Hawaiian Islands, marriage in the Western sense did not exist until the arrival of Christian missionaries; there was no word for husband or wife in the Hawaiian language. The privilege for chiefs was often observed, according to "Sexual Behavior in Pre Contact Hawai‘i" by Milton Diamond. A young girl's parents viewed the coupling with favor. If she were lucky, she might conceive his offspring and be allowed to keep it.
In modern times, Zaire's president Mobutu Sese Seko appropriated the droit de cuissage when traveling around the country, where local chiefs offered him virgins; this act was considered a great honor for the virgin's family.
- Virgin cleansing myth, a belief that having sex with a virgin girl can cure certain diseases (notably AIDS) or otherwise conveys power to the man
- Children of the plantation
- Non-paternity event
- Royal bastard
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