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… More…