Did medieval lords have “right of the first night” with the local brides?

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Dear Cecil: Did medieval lords really have the “right of the first night” — that is, the right to be the first to bed the local brides? This figured in the movie Braveheart, and I know I have seen other references to it. I’m not saying the big shots didn’t take advantage, but I have a hard time believing this was a generally accepted custom, much less a law. Paul S. Piper, Honolulu, Hawaii


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

My feeling exactly. It’s one thing to have your way with the local maidens. It’s something else to persuade society as a whole that this is a cool idea. “Sure, honey, we can get married, but first you have to do the rumba with some old guy with bad teeth.” Also, once the element of surprise was lost, don’t you think this policy would present some risks? Granted women were supposed to be the weaker sex and all, but they knew how to fillet fish.

The right of the first night — also known as jus primae noctis (law of the first night), droit du seigneur (the lord’s right), etc. — has been the subject of locker-room humor and a fair amount of scholarly debate for centuries. Voltaire condemned it in 1762, it’s a plot device in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, and various old histories refer to it.

The 16th-century chronicler Boece, for example, says that in ancient times the Scottish king Evenus III decreed that “the lord of the ground sal have the maidinhead of all virginis dwelling on the same.” Supposedly this went on for hundreds of years until Saint Margaret persuaded the lords to replace the jus primae noctis with a bridal tax.

Not likely. Skeptics point out that (1) there never was any King Evenus, (2) Boece included a lot of other stuff in his account that was clearly mythical, and (3) he was writing long after the alleged events.

The story is pretty much the same all over. If you believe the popular tales, the droit du seigneur prevailed throughout much of Europe for centuries. Yet detailed examinations of the available records by reputable historians have found “no evidence of its existence in law books, charters, decretals, trials, or glossaries,” one scholar notes. No woman ever commented on the practice, unfavorably or otherwise, and no account ever identifies any female victim by name.

It’s true that in some feudal jurisdictions there was something known as the culagium, the requirement that a peasant get permission from his lord to marry. Often this required the payment of a fee. Some say the fee was a vestige of an earlier custom of buying off the lord so he wouldn’t get physical with the bride.

Similarly, ecclesiastical authorities in some regions demanded a fee before a new husband was allowed to sleep with his wife. Some think this means the clergy once upon a time exercised the right of the first night too. But come on, how many first nights can one woman have? What did these guys do, take a number?

The more likely interpretation is that the culagium was an attempt by the nobles to make sure they didn’t lose their serfs by marriage to some neighboring lord. The clerical marriage fee, meanwhile, was apparently paid by newlyweds to get out of a church requirement for a three-day precoital waiting period. (You were supposed to pray during this time and get yourself in the proper frame of mind. Guess they figured a leather teddy wouldn’t do it.)

Did the droit du seigneur exist elsewhere in the world? Possibly in some primitive societies. But most of the evidence for this is pathetically lame — unreliable travelers’ accounts and so on.

A few holdouts claim we don’t have any definite evidence that the right of the first night didn’t exist. But I’d say most reputable historians today would agree that the jus primae noctis, in Europe anyway, was strictly a male fantasy.

None of this is to suggest that men in power didn’t or don’t use their positions to extort sex from women. But since when did some creep with a sword (gun, fancy office, drill sergeant’s stripes) figure he needed a law to justify rape?

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.