Droit du seigneur
Droit du seigneur (/ /; French pronunciation: [dʁwa dy sɛɲœʁ]) refers to a widespread popular belief, centered on a late medieval, European context, concerning (supposed) legal rights allowing the lord to spend a night and have sexual relations with a subordinate woman. The putative rights are known also as jus primae noctis mainly when they include the notion of "first night".
There is no evidence, however, that the alleged rights ever actually existed in medieval Europe, much less that they were ever exercised, although there is evidence of the practice in certain other regions and time periods.
The French expression Droit du seigneur roughly translates as "right of the lord", but native French prefer the terms droit de jambage ("right of the leg") or droit de cuissage ("right of the thigh"), in reference to the exercise of this supposed right. The term is often used synonymously with jus primae noctis (English pronunciation / /), which is Latin for "right of the first night".
Herodotus mentions a possibly similar custom among the tribe of the "Adyrmachidae" in distant ancient Libya: "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."
Early mention of the right used as social criticism occurred in 1556 in the Recueil d'arrestz notables des courts souveraines de France of French lawyer and author Jean Papon (1505-1590). It acquired widespread currency after Voltaire accepted the practice as historically authentic in his Dictionnaire philosophique; soon it became used frequently, especially in satire. Paolo Mantegazza in his 1935 book, The Sexual Relations of Mankind, stated his belief that while not a law, it was most likely a binding custom.
In the nineteenth century, many French people held the belief that several immoral rights had existed in France during the Ancien Régime, such as the droit de cuissage (droit du seigneur), the droit de ravage (right of ravage; providing to the lord the right to devastate fields of his own domain) and the droit de prélassement (right of lounging; it was said that a lord had the right to disembowel his serfs to warm his feet in).
Literary and other references
Cultural references to the custom abound. Examples:
- In the Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2250-2000 BC), hero Enkidu is appalled by King Gilgamesh's use of droit du seigneur at wedding ceremonies.
- In the Ulster Cycle, the king Conchobar is placed in the awkward position of having to bed Cú Chulainn's wife to avoid challenges to his authority.
- Rashi, the 11th century rabbi, in his commentary on Genesis 6, describes the Nephilim as engaging in this practice.
- The Talmud in tractate Ketubot discusses what may be done in a situation where a bride must "Have relations first with the Hegemon".
- 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.
- The Marriage of Figaro (1778) by Beaumarchais (and the 1786 opera of the same name by Mozart) whose plot centres on Count Almaviva's foiled attempt to exercise his right with Figaro's bride
- The Duke in Verdi's Rigoletto and Don Giovanni in Mozart's Don Giovanni act in a way that perpetuates this custom.
- La Sorcière by Michelet (1862) in which the droit du seigneur prerogative is invoked to explain why the wives of serfs succumb to the temptations of home demons who promise protection and succour from the oppression of their feudal overlords.
- In The Adolescent (1875), Fyodor Dostoevsky writes from a translation by Andrew MacAndrew: "Yes, although Miss Sapozhkov was passed over, it all began from Versilov's use of his droit du seigneur."
- Mark Twain cites the practice several times in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), including having King Arthur himself rule in favor of confiscation of a young woman's property because she denied her local lord his "right."
- Chapter 7 of the first part of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), 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.
- 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 du seigneur to claim her on her wedding night. Based on Leslie Stevens' play The Lovers.
- In the 1973 movie And Now the Screaming Starts, the curse afflicting a family of British nobles is punishment for an ancestor's presumptive invocation of prima nocte.
- In Marvel Comics' Super-Villain Team-Up #7 (1976), Doctor Doom attempts to exercise his droit du seigneur with a Latverian peasant girl named Gretchen, but is prevented by a blind superhero called the Shroud.
- Wyrd Sisters (1988), a novel from the Discworld series, 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.
- In George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (1996–present), the right of first night is stated to have been legally abolished by the king two centuries ago but Lord Bolton still practices it in secret, and conceived his bastard son Ramsay thereby.
- Braveheart (1995); ius primae noctis is invoked by Edward Longshanks in an attempt to breed the Scots out. This was one of the many inaccuracies cited by critics of the film.
- The Skull Beneath the Skin (1980) by P. D. James related to the legend of the origin of the skulls beneath the chapel on Courcey Island. Specifically, this concept was used to describe the doings of De Courcey.
- In The Pillars of the Earth, the Earl of Shiring, William Hamleigh, while scouting his earldom to see if he can raise more taxes, finds a woman who married without his consent. Despite her obvious lack of virginity as she has a baby, he rapes her, claiming the right to sleep with her.
- Jon Stewart referenced this practice, along with the Nuremberg Laws and the Spanish Inquistion, in a segment on The Daily Show, satirising Republican Congressman Todd Rokita's claim that Obamacare was "one of the most insidious laws ever created by man".
- The jus primae noctis as a male power display: A review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation by Jörg Wettlaufer - Evolution and Human Behavior, Vol 21, Nr. 2 (2000): 111-123
- Encyclopædia Britannica().
- "jus primæ noctis". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.
- Herodotus, iv.168 (on-line text).
- Boureau 203.
- Boureau 41.
- 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 0-312-10168-6.
- Astourian, Stepan. "The Silence of the Land: Agrarian Relations, Ethnicity, and Power," in A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire, eds. R.G. Suny, Fatma Muge Goçek, and Norman Naimark. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 60.
- "1". Tractate Ketubot. p. 3b. "אמר רבה דאמרי בתולה הנשאת ביום הרביעי תיבעל להגמון תחלה"
- 1984 - Part 1, Chapter 7. George Orwell. Retrieved 2013-09-02.
- Classen, Albrecht (2007). The medieval chastity belt: a myth-making process. Macmillan. p. 151.
- 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.
- Schmidt-Bleibtreu, Hermann Friedrich Wilhelm. Jus Primae Noctis im Widerstreit der Meinungen. Bonn: Röhrscheid, 1988.
- Utz, Richard. "'Mes souvenirs sont peut-être reconstruits': Medieval Studies, Medievalism, and the Scholarly and Popular Memories of the 'Right of the Lord's First Night,'" Philologie im Netz 31 (2005), 49-59.
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