First Night Jitters
The Medieval Droit de Seigneur.
As if it wasn’t bad enough being born a feudal peasant. Not only did you have to put up with a lifetime of squalor, toil, and gruel, but your landlord would elbow in on your wedding night. Before any peasant marriage could be consummated — so legend holds — the blushing bride had to be delivered up to the castle, where she would be forced to sacrifice her virginity to the brutish master. Often referred to as the droit de seigneur, or seigneurial right (although more properly called the ius prima noctae — the “right to the first night”), this custom has been denounced for centuries in romance novels, operas, and Hollywood films including Mel Gibson’s Braveheart as a symbol of medieval barbarism. But there has long been doubt as to whether the lurid marriage rite ever existed.
One diligent French scholar named Alain Boureau has gone through the evidence piece by piece and decided that, although there was plenty of random sexual harassment in the Middle Ages, there is no reference to any official lordly “right” over newlyweds. The closest thing is a fanciful poem from 1247, where some monks at Mont St. Michel are bitching about how local seigneurs behaved in the distant past. But the tale was not meant to be taken seriously. All the other descriptions date from later eras, when writers wanted to prove just how degrading the feudal system was. One Renaissance author named Boece described in great detail how a Scottish King Evenus III was in the habit of having his way with local virgins, but on investigation it turns out that there was no King Evenus in medieval Scotland; the tale is a complete fabrication. Most references to the droit date actually from the years before the French Revolution, when popular disgust with feudal privilege was reaching boiling point. The practice was denounced by Voltaire and is used as a plot device in The Marriage of Figaro (which was a hit satirical play by Pierre Beaumarchais before becoming a Mozart opera). It turns out that the droit de seigneur is a lot like our modern urban legends — a fiction that confirms a popular belief, in this case that selfish nobles with hereditary rights were riding roughshod over everybody else. • 2 October 2007
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Boureau, Alain, The Lord’s First Night: the Myth of the Droit du Cuissage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1998).
Tony Perrottet's new book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, July, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.