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Droit de seigneur

Vasily Polenov: Le droit du Seigneur (1874).
A Victorian artist's fantasy of an old man bringing his young daughters to the medieval feudal lord.

Droit de seigneur (French pronunciation: [dʁwa də sɛɲœʁ], "the lord's right", often conflated with the Latin phrase "Jus primae noctis"), is a term now popularly used to describe an alleged legal right allowing the lord of an estate to take the virginity of his serf's maiden daughters. Little or no historical evidence has been unearthed from the Middle Ages to support the idea that it ever actually existed.[1]

It is also sometimes spelled droit du seigneur ([dʀwa dy sɛɲœʀ]), but native French prefer the term droit de cuissage or droit de jambage. A related term is ius primæ (primae) noctis (English: /ˈjuːs ˈprɪmiː ˈnɒktɪs/), Latin for law (or right) of the first night.[1][2]

Droit de seigneur is often interpreted today as a synonym for ius primae noctis, although it originally referred to a number of other rights as well, including hunting, taxation, and farming.


[edit] History

The existence of a "right of the first night" in the Middle Ages was first disputed in the 19th century. Although most historians today would agree that there was no authentic custom in the Middle Ages, disagreement continues about the origin, the meaning, and the development of the widespread popular belief in this alleged right and the actual prevalence of symbolic gestures referring to this right.[2]

The origin of this popular belief is difficult to trace, though readers of Herodotus were made to understand that such a custom had obtained among the tribe of the "Adyrmachidae" in distant ancient Libya, where Herodotus thought it unique: "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."[3] In the 16th century, Hector Boece referred to the decree of the Scottish king Evenus III that "the lord of the ground shall have the maidenhead of all virgins dwelling on the same." But King Evenus III did not exist, and Boece's account included much clearly fictional material.[4] Legend has it that Saint Margaret of Scotland procured the replacement of jus primae noctis with a bridal tax called merchet.

In literature from the 13th and 14th centuries and in customary law texts of the 15th and 16th centuries, jus primae noctis is also closely related to specific marriage payments of (formerly) unfree people. There is good reason to assume that this relation goes back to the early medieval period and has its roots in the legal condition of unfree people.[4][5]

[edit] Similarities to other traditions

Some have speculated that the jus primae noctis tradition did exist in the ancient (not Medieval) world. There are examples of defloration practices in Ancient Mesopotamia. In Mesopotamian literature, the privilege of a powerful man to deflower another man's woman is a very old topos, present as early as in the Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2000 B.C.)—though in Gilgamesh there appears to be no justification for the king's "leav[ing] no girl to her mother;" the gods, hearing the people of Uruk protest Gilgamesh's violent nature, create Enkidu to change the king's behavior.[6] Although the literary descriptions from ancient Mesopotamia and the legends of ius primae noctis in medieval Europe stem from very different cultural traditions, they meet in the suggestion that, in both cases, persons of high social rank were involved, an admittedly tenuous (and probably spurious) link.

As late as the early 20th century, Kurdish chieftains (khafirs) in Western Armenia reserved the right to bed Armenian brides on their wedding night.[7]

[edit] Literary and other references

Despite the lack of historical evidence for the existence of such a right, cultural references to the custom abound. Examples:

[edit] References

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ a b The Straight Dope: Did medieval lords have "right of the first night" with the local brides?
  2. ^ a b The jus primae noctis as a male power display: A review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation
  3. ^ Herodotus, iv.168 (on-line text).
  4. ^ a b Jus primae noctis - Das Herrenrecht der ersten Nacht
  5. ^ snopes.com: First Knight
  6. ^ Citation from Tablet I, line 73, in Foster, Benjamin R. (2001). The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Norton. pp. 5. ISBN 9780393975161. 
  7. ^ Barsoumian, Hagop. "The Eastern Question and the Tanzimat Era" in The Armenian People From Ancient to Modern Times, Volume II: Foreign Dominion to Statehood: The Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth Century. Richard G. Hovannisian (ed.) New York: St. Martin's Press, p. 200. ISBN 0-3121-0168-6.
  8. ^ Thomas Kinsella, The Táin, Oxford University Press, 1969, ISBN 0192810901, pp. 25-39

[edit] Bibliography

  • Boureau, Alain. The Lord's First Night: The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane, University of Chicago Press, 1998. ISBN 0-226-06742-4.
  • Wettlaufer, Jörg. "The jus primae noctis as a male power display: A review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation", in Evolution and Human Behavior Vol. 21: No. 2: pages 111–123. Elsevier, 2000.
  • Evans, Hilary. Harlots, whores & hookers : a history of prostitution. Taplinger Pub. Co., 1979

[edit] External links

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