droit de seigneur

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Vasily Polenov: Le droit du Seigneur (1874).
A poor old man bringing his young daughters to the despotic feudal lord.


Droit de seigneur (IPA pronunciation: [dʀwa d(ə) sɛɲœʀ]), French for the lord's right, is a term now popularly used to describe the purported legal right of the lord of an estate to deflower its virgins. It is also 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 primae noctis (also jus primae noctis) ([juːs ˈpriːmaɪ ˈnɔktɪs]), 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 a disputed topic in the nineteenth century. Although most historians today would agree that there is no authentic proof of the actual exercise of the 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.

In fact the ius primae noctis was, in the European late medieval context, a widespread popular belief in an ancient privilege of the lord of a manor to share the bed with his peasants' newlywed brides on their wedding nights. Symbolic gestures, reflecting this belief, were developed by the lords and used as humiliating signs of superiority over the dependent peasants in a time of disappearing status differences.

The origin of this popular belief is difficult to trace. In the 16th century, 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". Legend has it that Saint Margaret procured the replacement of jus primae noctis with a bridal tax called merchet. King Evenus III did not exist, and Boece included much clearly fictional material in his account. 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 and Gaelic marriage customs.

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 right of the first night, in the sense of the privilege of a powerful man to deflower another man's woman, is a very old topos, present at least as early as Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2000 B.C.). 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 fact that, in both cases, persons of high social rank were involved.

Herodotus writes that virgins in 5th century B.C. Babylon were obliged to prostitute themselves in the temple of Ishtar, allowing a stranger to deflower them before they were allowed to marry (Herodotus I.199).

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) 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).

Cultural references

Notes and references

  • 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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