Jus Primae Noctis: So What’s the Deal?

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Yeah, AND the horse you rode in on. Photo by Hotflick.net

The practice of jus primae noctis, or first night, is the “right” of the local noble to deflower local peasant brides on their wedding night. You may already be familiar with the concept from the movie “Braveheart.” You know, when the snot-nosed English lord and his toadies crash a commoner’s wedding and steal the young bride away as her new husband looks on with impotent rage?

It’s painful to watch the young lady in question accept her fate with quiet dignity right in the middle of her freaking wedding reception. But Bridezillas hadn't been invented yet, so she was left with little choice.

It was a devastatingly effective plot device, but does it have any historical basis?

Some argue that the practice of jus primae noctis, or droit de seigneur as it was also known, would not have been allowed by the Church, as it was flagrantly adulterous in nature. It would, therefore, put your soul in a state of mortal sin and make your aristocratic wife very, very angry at you.

This was supposed be enough to give Lord So-and-So pause but, quite frankly, the threat of divine retribution or domestic discord never prevented noble husbands from keeping mistresses or banging peasant girls under other circumstances, so why would it stop them in this case? It seems a rather unlikely deterrent at best.

It could also be argued that women in these time periods would not be considered noteworthy, especially peasant women. Yet with a practice spanning (supposedly) thousands of years, not to mention occasional bastard offspring and perhaps a boatload of secret weddings to avoid the issue(a la Braveheart), odds are at least a few documented cases would manage to make it down through posterity. Or even just a record of the law in some court case.

Nope.

Any evidence simply doesn’t exist outside of fictional works, or as a means of rallying the peasant class using jus primae noctis to whip the mob up.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, we see the hero Enkidu — who was sent by the gods to stop Gilgamesh after the people cried out for aid — physically blocking a wedding to challenge Gilgamesh over this appalling abuse of power.

In another early account (5th century BC), Heraclides Ponticus describes how the King of the Island of Cephalonia instituted this practice. Once again, the commoners weren’t pleased. One man went ahead and dressed as a bride then subsequently murdered the King when he tried to exercise his lordly right. For his efforts, the cross-dressing man was made the new king by the overjoyed masses.

So it should come as no surprise then that almost all historians think that most accounts of jus primae noctis are fiction or at least exaggerated. For instance, Louis Veuillot writing in France during the 19th century stated:

“Nothing, absolutely nothing, in the archives of Justice authorizes us to say that our forefathers ever made a crime into a law. If we search the evidence and the literature we find the same silence everywhere. The Middle Ages had never heard of the droit du seigneur [aka jus primae noctis].”

Other European scholars shared Veuillot’s opinion. Germany’s Karl Schmidt penned a thorough treatise on jus primae noctis in 1881, and came to the conclusion that is was “a learned superstition.” Over and over again historians from then to now have tried to find hard evidence and have come up empty, despite the numerous accounts throughout written history in nearly every major culture.

OK, back to Europe and the Middle Ages. What is true is that many feudal peasants were required to get permission from their lord to marry. In some areas, the Church also demanded payment before the groom and his new Missus could bump uglies. The fee was to circumvent a three-day waiting period before consummating their union.

This requirement was called the culagium, which may have been a pay-off in earlier times for the lord to keep his grubby mitts off the bride.

Some claim this law replaced jus primae noctis, but while there is hard evidence of culagium, not so much with jus primae noctis, as mentioned.

During those three days, the betrothed couple was supposed to be deep in prayer preparing themselves for their physical (and spiritual) union (not stuffing dollar bills down a strippers g-string, as is customary in modern times.) Once you paid off your local clergy, you could go forth and be fruitful with a clear conscience.

And jeepers. One wonders how they’d determine if the waiting period was honored in the first place. Bloody sheets? Swearing on a Bible? Webcam?

In any case, the purpose of the culagium was safeguarding a noble’s investment by ensuring they didn’t lose their valuable serfs to a neighboring lord. Serfs were considered little more than livestock, and this tax was compensation to the noble for the inconvenience the marriage may cause him. So, droit du seigneur was actually the tax due when a serf’s daughter married a man off the lord’s estate.

Peasant love must’ve been so stressful for the Medieval 1%-ers, the poor dears.

In the end, life was brutal for peasants, and especially peasant women. When they weren’t being wipes out by some pandemic, humiliation and subjugation were just accepted facts of life for those born into the lower social orders. Jus primae noctis or not, female serfs were at the mercy of their lords (and others) who really didn’t need an excuse, a law, or a wedding to rape or assault the serfs inhabiting their land.

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is a political junkie and history buff randomly alternating between bouts of crankiness and amusement while bearing witness to the Apocalypse. Come along!

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