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…

Wander through the 11th arrondissement of Paris toward the dead celebrities of Pere Lachaise Cemetery, and there’s a decent chance you’ll stumble across a small gallery called “Le Musée du Fumeur.” Unlike the hallowed halls of the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay, there is no tyranny of expectation in this tiny, smoking-themed museum. No smiling Mona Lisa or reclining Olympia dictates where the random tourist should focus his attention. Thus left to meander, the drop-in visitor may well overlook the more earnest exhibits here — such as Egyptian sheeshas or Chinese opium pipes — and note the small, red-circle-and-slash signs reminding guests that, in no uncertain terms, smoking is strictly forbidden in the Museum of Smoking.

In spite of this startling contradiction, there is a notable lack of irony in Le Musée du Fumeur, which crams an eclectic array of international smoking-culture relics into a 650-square-foot storefront near Rue de… More…