Friday, July 31, 2009

Jus Prima Noctis

One of my favorite films is Braveheart, which I am able to enjoy in spite of the many historical distortions, one of the worst being the presence of Isabelle of France in Britain in 1305, when she was only ten years old and had not yet left France to marry the Prince of Wales. In spite of such absurd incongruities, the scene which is one of the most disturbing to me is when the English soldiers crash the Scottish wedding feast to claim the bride for the bed of the lord of the manor, allegedly due to a law passed by Edward I "Longshanks." Many scholars claim that there was no such law, called droit de seigneur or jus primae noctis, passed at any time in the Middle Ages. According to a review on Suite
Prima Nocte (First Night) is a myth that during the Middle Ages, local lords could force a new bride to have sex with them on her wedding night. Quite aside from the potential for justifiable revolt every time a lord did this, it was flagrantly adulterous in the eyes of the Church and a good way to die in a state of mortal sin with your angry wife's knife in your back. In other words, it never happened. While rape, murder and all sorts of pillaging certainly occurred during the English invasion of Scotland, Prima Nocte did not. That Braveheart prettifies the chaotic brutality of medieval warfare with a 19th century power fantasy is a little disturbing.
The legend of the jus prima noctis began to flower when eighteenth century writers such as Voltaire and Beaumarchais used it to show the imagined tyranny of the old regime. Many of the romantics of the nineteenth century took up the theme as a great backdrop for novels, plays and operas. However, it seems to be nothing nore than a bizarre and overindulged male fantasy. Although the practice may have once existed in early pagan times and in some pagan cultures, there is scant evidence that feudal people of the medieval era made jus prima noctis a part of their lives.

Cecil Adams traces the origins of the myth, as follows:

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....

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....

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?



Anonymous said...

This is quite interesting. Braveheart is one of my favorite movies and I was wondering to myself if that really was a law...very disturbing if so.

thetimman said...

Thanks, Elena, very informative.

May said...

Good to hear there isn't solid evidence of this.

MadMonarchist said...

The first time I saw the movie someone asked, 'how or why could anyone endure such a thing' to which my reply was -they couldn't! I liked the movie but stuff like that did not happen. I thought "The Patriot" looked really good but British troops didn't burn down churches full of people either.

Patricius said...

Legends like this should be recognised for what they are and as belonging to the Dan Brown school of history.

xavier said...

Maria Elena:
I wonder. One of the compliants of the Catalan peaseantry under the males usatges (the evil uses) was something that sounds an aweful like the jus prima nocte

Then again, given that Europe was deeply Christian, it's very counterintuitive.


elena maria vidal said...

Xavier, I have no doubt that nobles during the course of history took advantage of peasant girls many many times. What I am saying here is that they did not need a universal law in order to do so.