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Droit de seigneur ( , "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 the estate's virgins. Little or no historical evidence has been unearthed from the Middle Ages to support the idea that it ever actually existed.

It is also sometimes spelled droit du seigneur ( ), but native French prefer the term droit de cuissage or droit de jambage. A related term is ius primæ (primae) noctis ( ), Latin for law (or right) of the first night.

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.

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.

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." In the 16th century, Hector Boece referred to the decree of the Scottishmarker king Evenus III that "the lord of the ground shall have the maidenhead of all virgins dwelling on the same." Legend has it that Saint Margaret of Scotland procured the replacement of jus primae noctis with a bridal tax called merchet. But King Evenus III did not exist, and Boece's account included much clearly fictional material.

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.

Similarities to other traditions

Some scholars have speculated that the jus primae noctis of the Medieval European tradition did exist, and that it might have been similar to defloration rituals in Ancient Mesopotamia or 13th century Tibet (Evans 1979:30). 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 Urukmarker protest Gilgamesh's violent nature, create Enkidu to change the king's behavior. Marco Polo, in his Il Milione, observed that in 13th century Tibet, "The people of these parts are disinclined to marry young women as long as they are left in their virgin state, but on the contrary require that they should have had commerce with many of the opposite sex." (Evans 1979:30) Although the literary descriptions from ancient Mesopotamia and medieval Tibet and the legends of ius primae noctis in medieval Europe stem from very different cultural traditions, they meet in the fact that, in both cases, persons of high social rank were involved.

Scholars have argued by analogy to the Tibetan custom recorded by Marco Polo and similar customs from other cultures that the ius primae noctis of Medieval Europe and the Mesopotamian custom alluded to in the Epic of Gilgamesh were not instances of the tyrant imposing his will on his female subjects, but a kind of "ritual defloration," in which "the community rallied around to support the individual," i.e., the deflowerer (Evans 1979:30).

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

In Keralamarker, upper caste men belonging to Namboothiri, Nair and Mappila communities used to exert the same privilege to sexually abuse Ezhava women.

Literary and other references

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

  • Part of the peculiar traditional carnival in the city of Ivrea, Italymarker, involves a character known as "Mugnaia" ("miller's daughter"). This supposedly commemorates a spirited miller's daughter who refused to accept the exercise of this "right" by the local duke, chopped the duke's head off and sparked a revolution.
  • Voyages historiques de l'Europe (Volume IV: pages 140–141), by Claude Jordan, first published in 1694; the description is similar to Boece's, but attributes the change to Malcolm I of Scotland, in the 10th century.
  • Voltaire wrote the five-act comedy Le droit du seigneur or L'écueil du sage (ISBN 2-911825-04-7) in 1762, although it was not performed until 1779, after his death.
  • Oroonoko (1688), a short novel by Aphra Behn; the young prince, Oroonoko, sees his bride kidnapped by his grandfather, who attempts to rape her claiming he has the right to do so.
  • Lorenzaccio (1834), by Alfred de Musset
  • The Marriage of Figaro (1778) by Beaumarchais and the 1786 opera of the same name by Mozart, whose plot centers on Count Almaviva's foiled attempt to exercise his right with Figaro's bride, Suzanne in the play, Susanna in the opera.
  • Woman, Church and State (1893) by Matilda Joslyn GageChapter IV: Marquette
  • The War Lord (1965), a film by Franklin J. Schaffner, starring Charlton Heston as a knight who falls in love with a peasant woman, using droit de seigneur to claim her on her wedding night. Based on Leslie Stevens' play The Lovers.
  • Braveheart; jus primae noctis is invoked by Edward Longshanks (Edward I of England) in an attempt to breed the Scots out.
  • Chapter 7 of the first part of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which "the law by which every capitalist had the right to sleep with any woman working in one of his factories" is an element of the Party's propaganda
  • Tochmarc Emire ("The Wooing of Emer"), a tale of the ancient Irishmarker hero Cúchulainn
  • Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court makes frequent reference to the 'right.' For example, in Chapter 25, King Arthur, acting as Chief Judge of the King's Bench judges a case where a bishop attempts to claim the estate of a recently married young orphan girl whose property the Church held in seignory on the grounds that because she had married privately, she had cheated the Church out of the right.
  • Kanashimi no Belladonna (1973), a film directed by Eiichi Yamamoto
  • On the television series The Office, the character Michael Scott references "prima nocta" (which is incorrect Latin) in the episode titled "Ben Franklin."
  • The Discworld novel, Wyrd Sisters, satirizes the idea in several places, with several characters appearing to be under the impression that 'Droit de Seigneur' is a type of dog, leading to a recurring double entendre about it having to be 'exercised' often. The late King Verence's 'exercise' of his 'big hairy thing' later proves to be a key plot point.


Notes and references

  1. The Straight Dope: Did medieval lords have "right of the first night" with the local brides?
  2. 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. Jus primae noctis - Das Herrenrecht der ersten Nacht
  5. snopes.com: First Knight
  6. Citation from Tablet I, line 73, in
  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. http://books.google.co.in/books?id=Be3PCvzf-BYC&dq=ezhava+concubines&source=gbs_navlinks_s
  9. Thomas Kinsella, The Táin, Oxford University Press, 1969, ISBN 0192810901, pp. 25-39


Literature

  • 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


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