Droit du seigneur

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Vasily Polenov: Le droit du Seigneur (1874); artist's interpretation of an old man bringing his young daughters to their feudal lord

Droit du seigneur[a] ('right of the lord'), also known as jus primae noctis[b] ('right of the first night') or prima nocta, was a supposed legal right in medieval Europe, allowing feudal lords to have sexual relations with any female subject, particularly on their wedding night.

While there are many references to the custom throughout the centuries, scholars since the 1800s have questioned whether such a law ever truly existed or was practiced, with many believing it was simply a trope used to make rulers seem more barbaric. Over the centuries, it became commonly portrayed in European literature as a practice that had occurred in earlier times and/or outside Europe. In practice, it may have been the feudal lords using their power and influence over serfs to sexually exploit the women free of consequences, as opposed to a legitimate legal right.


The French expression droit du seigneur translates as "right of the lord", but modern French usage prefers droit de jambage (French: [dʁwa d(ə) ʒɑ̃baʒ], from jambe, 'leg') or, more commonly, droit de cuissage (French: [dʁwa d(ə) kɥisaʒ], from cuisse, 'thigh').[citation needed]

The term is often used synonymously with jus primae noctis,[1] Latin for "right of the first night".

Ancient times[edit]

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is described as having practiced a similar custom: "He is king, he does whatever he wants... takes the girl from her mother and uses her, the warrior's daughter, the young man's bride."[2] His first meeting with his friend Enkidu is an attempt at one of these acts where Enkidu manages to stop him in a great contest of strength between the two champions.

Herodotus mentions a similar custom among the Adyrmachidae in 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."[3]

When the plebeians of the Etruscan city of Volsinii rebelled against the aristocrats in 280 BC, "They took their wives for themselves and placed the daughters of the nobles under the jus primæ noctis, while all their former masters on whom they could lay hands were tortured to death."[4]

It is also mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 3b תיבעל להגמון (tibael lehegmon).[5]

Middle Ages[edit]


The Mugnaia in Ivrea, Italy, taking part in a festival that supposedly commemorates a revolt against the droit du seigneur

The medieval marriage fine or merchet has sometimes been interpreted as a payment for the droit du seigneur to be waived.[6] Alternatively, it has been interpreted as compensation to the lord for the young women leaving his lands.[7] Encyclopedia Britannica states that the evidence indicates it was a monetary tax related to vassal marriages, since a considerable number of seigneurial rights revolved around marriage.[8]

A similar payment to church authorities has also been interpreted as relating to the droit du seigneur. However, according to British scholar W. D. Howarth, the Roman Catholic Church at some times prohibited consummation of a marriage on the first night. The payment was for an indulgence from the church to waive this prohibition.[9]

In the Wooing of Emer in Irish mythology the King Conchobar has the droit du seigneur over all marriages of his subjects. He is afraid of Cú Chulainn's reaction if he exercises it in this case, but is equally afraid of losing his authority if he does not. The druid Cathbad suggests a solution: Conchobar sleeps with Emer on the night of the wedding, but Cathbad sleeps between them.[10]

The biography of Gerald of Aurillac written by Odo of Cluny (879–942) gives an account of the young nobleman demanding to rape one of his serfs, only to have the act averted by a miracle, sending Gerald on the road to sainthood. American historian Vern Bullough suggested that this illustrates that such behaviour was commonplace in the period, and that the "legend [of droit du seigneur] reflected the reality".[11]

In the 14th-century French epic poem Baudouin de Sebourc, a tyrannical lord claims the jus primae noctis unless he receives part of the bride's dowry.[6]

The supposed right was abolished by Ferdinand II of Aragon in Article 9 of the Sentencia Arbitral de Guadalupe in 1486.[12]



Before the Jurchens overthrew their Khitan rulers, married Jurchen women and Jurchen girls were raped by Liao dynasty Khitan envoys as a custom which caused resentment by the Jurchens against the Khitan.[13] Liao Khitan envoys among the Jurchens were treated to guest prostitutes by their Jurchen hosts. Unmarried Jurchen girls and their families hosted the Liao envoys who had sex with the girls. Song envoys among the Jin were similarly entertained by singing girls in Guide, Henan.[14][15]

Although the Liao Khitan had superior power over the Jurchens when ruling them, there is no evidence that guest prostitution of unmarried Jurchen girls to Khitan men was hated or resented by the Jurchens. It was only when the Liao Khitan forced aristocratic Jurchen families to give up their beautiful wives as guest prostitutes to Liao Khitan messengers that this stirred resentment and anger by the Jurchens.

A historian has speculated that this could mean that in Jurchen upper classes, only a husband had the right to his married wife while among lower class Jurchens, unmarried girls virginity and sleeping with Liao Khitan men did not matter and did not impede their ability to marry later.[16][17]

The Jurchens' sexual habits and mores seemed lax to Han Chinese, such as marrying with an in law which was one of China's "Ten Heinous Crimes". Jurchens very commonly practiced guest prostitution giving female companions, food and shelter to guests. Unmarried daughters of Jurchen families of lower and middle classes in native Jurchen villages were provided to Liao Kitan messengers for sexual intercourse as recorded by Hong Hao (Hung Hao).[18][19]

Marco Polo also reported that in Hami (Camul) guest prostitution was practiced with hosts giving their female relatives, sisters, daughters and wives to guests in their house. Tanguts practiced this guest prostitution.[20][21]

Later references[edit]



In Shakespeare's play, Henry VI, Part 2 (c. 1591), the rebel Jack Cade proclaims: "there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they have it".[22] According to the French scholar Alain Boureau, Cade was demanding the payment of merchet, not the right of first night,[23] but others disagree.[24]

The English lexicographer Thomas Blount recorded the "right" as a medieval custom of some English manors in Fragmenta Antiquitatis in 1679.[25]

The Curiosities of Literature (1823) by the British writer Isaac D'Israeli stated the practice had been widespread across Europe.[26]


Voltaire, who in 1762 was the first person to use the term droit du seigneur

The right was mentioned in 1556 in the Recueil d'arrêts notables des cours souveraines de France of the French lawyer and author Jean Papon.[27] The French writer Antoine du Verdier also commented on it in 1577.[28]

The French philosopher Montesquieu referred to the practice in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), saying that it had been enforced in France over three nights.[29]

Voltaire mentioned the practice in his Dictionnaire philosophique, published in 1764.[30] He wrote the five-act comedy Le droit du seigneur or L'écueil du sage[31] in 1762, although it was not performed until 1779, after his death. This play was the first time the term droit du seigneur was used.[32] In 18th-century France, a number of writers made other claims about the supposed power of the overlords during the Ancien Régime, such as 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).[33]

The Holy Roman Empire[edit]

In Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which premiered in 1786 with a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the comic plot revolves around the successful efforts of the young bride and groom, Figaro and Susanna, to block the efforts of the unfaithful Count Almaviva to seduce Susanna. To achieve his aim, the frustrated Count threatens to reinstitute droit du seigneur. It was based on a play of the same title by Pierre Beaumarchais.[34]


The Acta Sanctorum ("Acts of the Saints"), published from 1643 onwards, mentions the jus primæ noctis in the hagiographies of St Margaret and St Forannan.[35]


Hector Boece, the first historian to record the droit du seigneur, in 1527

In 1527, the Scottish historian Hector Boece wrote that the "right" had existed in Scotland until abolished by Malcolm III (r. 1058–93) under the influence of his wife, Margaret (later St Margaret of Scotland). The payment of merchet was instituted in its place.[36][7] Boece attributed the law to a legendary king, Ewen or Evenus III.[37] The modern French scholar Alain Boureau says that Boece probably invented King Ewen, but he views this as mythology, not as a polemic against medieval barbarism.[36]

Other Scottish scholars of his era quoted Boece with approval, including John Lesley (1578), George Buchanan (1582), and Habbakuk Bisset (1626).[7][38] The historical existence of the custom in Scotland was also accepted in Scottish legal works such as James Balfour's Practicks (c. 1579), John Skene's De Verborum (1597), and Thomas Craig's Jus Feudale (1603).[7] The English scholar Henry Spelman stated in his Glossary (1664) that the custom had existed in Scotland, but not in England.[7] The English jurist William Blackstone cited Boece's statement in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769), while similarly noting that the custom had never existed in England.[39] In 1776, the Scottish jurist David Dalrymple disputed the existence of the custom, arguing Boece's account was purely legendary, but his position was often seen as based on Scottish patriotism.[40] However, according to the Scottish legal scholar David Maxwell Walker, instances have been recorded of the jus primæ noctis being claimed up to the 18th century.[7][41] Walker concluded that it is possible that the jus existed as a custom in Scotland, dependent on the attitude of the king, and survived longer in remote regions.[7]

After their travels in Scotland in 1773, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell documented the custom of the payment of merchet, linking it with the "right of first night". They paralleled it with that custom of Borough English, suggesting that the English custom favored the youngest son because the paternity of the eldest son was doubtful.[42] Sir Walter Scott mentioned the custom in his historical Scottish novel, The Fair Maid of Perth (1828).[34]


The Spanish novel Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (1617) by Miguel de Cervantes contains an episode where a bride and groom escape a barbaric marriage custom in Ireland. According to the British scholar W.D. Howarth, Cervantes was inspired by Peruvian marriage ceremonies and what is described is different from the classic version of the droit du seigneur as it involves multiple virgins. However, Cervantes' story was a source for the English play The Custom of the Country, written by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger and published in 1647. The play has the classic version of the "right of first night" with money payment as an alternative. According to Howarth, this suggests that droit du seigneur was a familiar notion to people at that time, which he traces back to Boece.[43]


In modern times, Zaire's president Mobutu Sese Seko appropriated the droit de seigneur when traveling around the country, where local chiefs offered him virgins.[44]

North America[edit]

The term has also been used to describe the sexual exploitation of slaves in the United States.[45]


As late as the 19th century, some Kurdish chieftains in Anatolia raped Armenian brides on their wedding night (part of what was then known as the khafir or hafir system).[46][47]


In the Hawaiian Islands, the privilege for chiefs was often observed, according to "Sexual Behavior in Pre Contact Hawai'i" by Milton Diamond.[48] A young girl's parents viewed the coupling with favor.[49] This is because the girl might conceive the chief's child and be allowed to keep it.

Debate in the 19th and 20th centuries[edit]

Scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries gave the historical basis of the "right of first night" a good deal of attention.[clarification needed][34] Historians David M. Walker and Hector McKechnie wrote that the right might have existed in medieval Europe,[7][50] but other historians[who?] have concluded that it is a myth, and that all references to it are from later periods.[51][8] Over time, the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Larousse encyclopedias dramatically changed their opinion on the topic, moving from acceptance to rejection of the historical veracity of the idea.[52] French writer Louis Veuillot wrote a book in 1854 disputing its existence.[53] After an exhaustive historical study, German jurist Karl Schmidt concluded in 1881 that it was a scholarly misconception.[34] After Schmidt, many of those who believed in the existence of the custom based their opinions on anthropological studies of tribal societies, though according to W. D. Howarth, this was a misguided argument because of the disparity between the tribal societies and medieval European society.[54]

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884, socialist Friedrich Engels argued it was real and had an anthropological origin.[55] In 1910, the Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes said that the existence of the practice was "evidenced though not proved" to have existed in Ireland.[56] In 1930, Scottish legal scholar Hector McKechnie concluded, based on historical evidence, that the practice had existed in Scotland in early times.[50] Italian scholar Paolo Mantegazza, in his 1935 book The Sexual Relations of Mankind, said that while not a law, it was most likely a binding custom.[34]

See also[edit]




  1. ^ "jus primæ noctis". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. ^ Mitchell, Stephen (2006). Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York City: Free Press. pp. 72. ISBN 978-0-7432-6164-7.
  3. ^ Herodotus, iv.168 (Wikisource text)
  4. ^ Von Vacano, Otto-Wilhelm, The Etruscans in the Ancient World, at 164 (Indiana University Press)(ISBN 0253200814).
  5. ^ "Ketubot 3b:1". www.sefaria.org. Retrieved 2022-07-09.
  6. ^ a b The jus primae noctis as a male power display: A review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation Archived 2018-09-18 at the Wayback Machine by Jörg Wettlaufer - Evolution and Human Behavior, Vol 21, Nr. 2 (2000): 111-123. See also: Jörg Wettlaufer. Das Herrenrecht der Ersten Nacht, Hochzeit, Herrschaft und Heiratszins im Mittelalter und in der Frühen Neuzeit. Campus Hist. Studien, Bd. 27, 1999, pp. 150-161.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Walker 1988, p. 328.
  8. ^ a b "Droit du seigneur". Retrieved 11 July 2019.
  9. ^ Howarth 1971, pp. 301–302.
  10. ^ Thomas Kinsella, The Táin, Oxford University Press, 1969, ISBN 0-19-281090-1, pp. 25–39
  11. ^ Bullough 1991, pp. 164–165.
  12. ^ Boureau 1998, p. 239.
  13. ^ Tillman, Hoyt Cleveland (1995). Tillman, Hoyt Cleveland; West, Stephen H. (eds.). China Under Jurchen Rule: Essays on Chin Intellectual and Cultural History (illustrated ed.). SUNY Press. p. 27. ISBN 0791422739.
  14. ^ Franke, Herbert (1983). "FIVE Sung Embassies: Some General Observations". In Rossabi, Moris (ed.). China Among Equals: The Middle Kingdom and Its Neighbors, 10th-14th Centuries (illustrated ed.). University of California Press. ISBN 0520043839.
  15. ^ Franke, Herbert (1981). Diplomatic Missions of the Sung State 960-1276. Faculty of Asian Studies, Australian National University. p. 13. ISBN 0909879141.
  16. ^ Lanciotti, Lionello, ed. (1980). La donna nella Cina imperiale e nella Cina repubblicana. Vol. 36 of Civiltà veneziana: Studi. Fondazione "Giorgio Cini". L. S. Olschki. p. 33. ISBN 8822229398. ISSN 0069-438X.
  17. ^ Lanciotti, Lionello, ed. (1980). La donna nella Cina imperiale e nella Cina repubblicana. Vol. 36 of Civiltà veneziana: Studi. Fondazione "Giorgio Cini". L. S. Olschki. p. 33. ISBN 8822229398. ISSN 0069-438X.
  18. ^ Lanciotti, Lionello, ed. (1980). La donna nella Cina imperiale e nella Cina repubblicana. Vol. 36 of Civiltà veneziana: Studi. Fondazione "Giorgio Cini". L. S. Olschki. p. 32. ISBN 8822229398. ISSN 0069-438X.
  19. ^ Lanciotti, Lionello, ed. (1980). La donna nella Cina imperiale e nella Cina repubblicana. Vol. 36 of Civiltà veneziana: Studi. Fondazione "Giorgio Cini". L. S. Olschki. p. 32. ISBN 8822229398. ISSN 0069-438X.
  20. ^ Lanciotti, Lionello, ed. (1980). La donna nella Cina imperiale e nella Cina repubblicana. Vol. 36 of Civiltà veneziana: Studi. Fondazione "Giorgio Cini". L. S. Olschki. p. 42. ISBN 8822229398. ISSN 0069-438X.
  21. ^ Lanciotti, Lionello, ed. (1980). La donna nella Cina imperiale e nella Cina repubblicana. Vol. 36 of Civiltà veneziana: Studi. Fondazione "Giorgio Cini". L. S. Olschki. p. 42. ISBN 8822229398. ISSN 0069-438X.
  22. ^ Shakespeare, William. Henry VI, Part 2. p. Act IV, Scene VII.
  23. ^ Boureau 1998, p. 266.
  24. ^ Howarth 1971, pp. 299–300.
  25. ^ Howarth 1971, p. 300.
  26. ^ Howarth 1971, pp. 302, 310.
  27. ^ Boureau 1998, p. 203.
  28. ^ Howarth 1971, p. 301.
  29. ^ Howarth 1971, p. 302.
  30. ^ Boureau 1998, p. 41.
  31. ^ Voltaire (2002). Le droit du seigneur, ou, l'Écueil du sage: Comédie, 1762-1779. ISBN 2-911825-04-7.
  32. ^ Howarth 1971, p. 304.
  33. ^ Péricard-Méa, Denise (2005). Le Moyen âge. Editions Jean-Paul Gisserot. p. 90. ISBN 9782877478236.
  34. ^ a b c d e Bullough 1991, p. 163.
  35. ^ Boureau 1998, pp. 19–20.
  36. ^ a b Boureau 1998, pp. 17–18.
  37. ^ Howarth 1971, p. 298.
  38. ^ Boureau 1998, p. 17.
  39. ^ Commentaries on the Laws of England, volume 1, book 1, chapter 6, p. 83.
  40. ^ Howarth 1971, pp. 305–306, 310.
  41. ^ McKechnie 1930, pp. 309–310.
  42. ^ Howarth 1971, p. 299.
  43. ^ Howarth 1971, pp. 296–298.
  44. ^ David van Reybrouck (2012). Congo: The Epic History of a People. HarperCollins. p. 384f. ISBN 978-0-06-220011-2.
  45. ^ Morrison, Toni (2017). The Origin of Others. Harvard University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-674-97645-0.
  46. ^ 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, ed. Richard G. Hovannisian. New York: St. Martin's Press, p. 200. ISBN 0-312-10168-6.
  47. ^ 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 Müge Göçek, and Norman Naimark. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 60.
  48. ^ (Revista Española del Pacifico. 2004. 16: 37-58)
  49. ^ (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 91; Sahlins, 1985, p. 24)
  50. ^ a b McKechnie 1930, pp. 310–311.
  51. ^ Howarth 1971, pp. 311–312.
  52. ^ Howarth 1971, pp. 292–293.
  53. ^ Howarth 1971, pp. 308–309.
  54. ^ Howarth 1971, pp. 293–295.
  55. ^ Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884, pp 28, 72-73.
  56. ^ Stokes, Whitley. "Tidings of Conchobar Mac Nessa". Ériu, vol. 4, 1910, pp. 18–38

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]