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 before their newlywed husbands. It supposedly goes back for many thousands of years, reaching its crescendo during the Middle Ages in Europe.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of jus primae noctis thanks to the movie “Braveheart.” There’s that heart-wrenching scene where a peasant bride is taken from her wedding celebration by the local lord, who exhibits typical 1%-er arrogance and entitlement when he blithely shows up to take what’s “rightfully” his.
The young bride behaves with a quiet dignity that leaves us, the audience, quaking with impotent anger and hatred on her behalf. It’s a visceral cinematic experience, and one can only imagine the emotion evoked in reality.
But did this really happen?
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.
If you just scratch the surface, you’d think it was a common practice for hundreds of years. Yet, when historians took the time to closely examine the available records on the subject it became obvious that there was no evidence of its existence at all. Not a single incident recorded, not a single victim’s name passed down.
It could be argued that women during that time were not considered noteworthy, especially peasant women, but with a global practice spanning thousands of years, odds are at least a few incidences would manage to make it down through posterity.
This view was supported by people like Louis Veuillot writing in France during the 19th century: “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.” He called the concept of jus primae noctis “pure invention.”
Other European scholars shared Veuillot’s opinion. Germany’s Karl Schmidt penned an exhaustive treatise on jus primae noctis in 1881, and came to the conclusion that it was “a learned superstition.”
What IS true is that in many feudal societies peasants were required to get permission from their lord to marry. This requirement was called the culagium, and it often involved payment of a fee, which may have been a pay-off in earlier times for the lord to keep his grubby mitts off the bride.
In addition, in some areas the Church also demanded payment before a groom was allowed to sleep with his new Missus. The fee was supposed to get the couple out of a three day waiting period before consummating their union.
Jeepers. One wonders how they’d know 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 the nobles safeguarding their investment by ensuring they didn’t lose their valuable serfs to a neighboring lord when they married.
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.
Let’s face it; life was brutal for peasants, and especially peasant women, back in the day. 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, who really didn’t need an excuse, or a law, to rape or assault those inhabiting their land. Peasant women were always at risk of being attacked or raped by their “betters,” and not just on their wedding nights.