Droit du Seigneur

I don’t usually write about things that didn’t happen on this blog, but this week I listened to an interesting podcast on this subject and thought that it might interest you. The podcast was about the myth that a medieval lord had the legal right to bed any woman on his estate on her wedding night. This is known as the ius primae noctis (the law of the first night) or droit du seigneur (the right of the lord).

It’s a myth perpetrated, apparently, by the film Braveheart, which I’ve never seen. Since the only thing I know about the film (by hearsay) is that William Wallace had an affair with Isabella of France, who was only nine years old when he was executed and didn’t leave France until she was twelve, you’ll probably understand why I’ve never seen it and don’t intend to. You’ll also know that anything portrayed in the film should be taken with a large dose of scepticism. Braveheart isn’t the only recent culprit as far as this myth is concerned, but millions of people have seen it and only slightly fewer have taken it for historical fact.

After I listened to the podcast, I had a look on my bookshelves to see what I could find to contradict or support its argument. I picked out three books as the most likely to have something to say about the droit du seigneur if such a thing had ever existed. They are The English Manor by Mark Bailey, Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages by Conor McCarthy and Unmarriages by Ruth Mazo Karras. This last is the only one to mention it and Karras identifies it as a myth, but without going into any detail.

So how did such a myth come into being? One possibility is that the merchet, a sum of money paid to the lord of the manor when female villeins married, came in later times to be seen as a tax paid in lieu of the droit du seigneur. Hector Boece, a sixteenth-century historian in Scotland included it in his history of that country. Whether or not he believed it is another matter and we’ll see later how people of the Renaissance viewed the Middle Ages.

There are several stories purporting to record what happened when lords took advantage of this right from all over Europe. Most of them can’t be traced back much earlier than the seventeenth century and what they all have in common is that the lords’ actions always resulted in rebellion and, ultimately, their own deaths. If such a legal right had existed, there could have been no rebellion and the stories about rebellion show how unlikely it is that such a right existed.

It’s also difficult to equate such a law with the fact that, in England at least, huge numbers of manors were in the hands of the church. It’s hard to see how such a law could come into being with the consent of the church and it’s impossible to imagine it without the consent of the church. This isn’t to say that some churchmen and secular lords weren’t averse to forcing themselves on women of lower status, as I’m sure there were many occasions on which it occurred. It’s just that there was no legal right for them to do so and it wasn’t the custom anywhere.

In reality it seems that people in the Middle Ages found the idea of droit du seigneur as abhorrent as we do. The stories about it probably originated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries simply as a way of showing how barbaric people had been in the past and how much better life was now. It’s no coincidence that, around the same time, the same stories were told by those who travelled to the New World about the people who lived there. It was a way of emphasising how uncivilised they were and how fortunate it was that Europeans had arrived and could help them to live in a more civilised way. The concept of ius primae noctis seems to serve the same purpose in our times.

Source:

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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26 Comments

Filed under Medieval Life

26 responses to “Droit du Seigneur

  1. My partner is an historian specialising in the 1960s and ’70s. I came up with ‘anachrohumph’ to describe his reaction to the many, many anachronisms in films/TV series set in that period.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. It has made its way deeply into our culture fro example in The Office, the boss Michael Scott waives his ‘droit de seigneur’ regarding receptionist and bride-to-be, Pam who is about to marry Jim. Which is quite funny actually…anyway excellent post!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you. It’s a strange thing isn’t it? If you think about it even for a while you have to come to the conclusion that it’s something that really couldn’t have existed on a large scale in Christian Europe.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, April. Good to clear this up.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Fab post April, good to know it was a load of tosh.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting that the myth of jus primae noctis has such deep roots. No surprise then, that it’s lodged in the popular imagination. I remember hearing about it at high school (many, many years before ‘Braveheart’) probably in a history lesson. I never thought to question it, but – as I’ve never seen a mention of it in any of the “love, sex, & marriage” social histories I’ve read, I’d pretty much forgotten about it until your post. So thanks for the clarification.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder if the people of the Renaissance thought the stories were true. Perhaps they just understood the message without thinking about it too much.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s intriguing! It certainly makes for a great plot device in fiction. I remember now that novelist Norah Lofts used it in the first book of her Town House trilogy, so she must have thought it had a basis in fact.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It is a great plot device, but I suspect the plots all go in a similar way: revolt and death. There are, apparently, a couple of historians who think it really existed, but I don’t see how it could have. I can definitely see that many lords took advantage of their power over girls and women on their estates, but I can’t see that it was something that was accepted as a legal right.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Andrew B

    This trope also appears in Charlton Heston’s 1965 film “The War Lord”, where he claims his right and many bad things happen subsequently.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Exactly. It’s very much the kind of thing that people would revolt against.

      Like

      • Dermot Michael McCabe

        Hi April, just wondering why my comment on Aug 1st about Grazida Rives from Montaill0u is still awaiting moderation. Is there something amiss with it. Just curious.
        Regards
        Dermot McCabe

        Like

        • Hi Dermot, I didn’t approve it because it contained a link to another blog. Firstly it sets off my spam filter and secondly it’s not polite to include a link in a first comment on someone’s blog.

          Like

          • Dermot Michael McCabe

            I am sorry about that. I was not aware of such etiquette.
            My sole purpose was to add something to the topic that might cast some light on how sex was regarded in medieval Europe in some quarters.My point was that if a parish priest could have sex with a child and continue even after she was married and it was known by the family and the village without any great repercussions, that it would be easy to believe that many petty lords would equally take advantage of their position without fear of revolt.
            It was simply easier to point to the full article rather than try to reproduce it fully in a reply.
            I do like your blog and it simply did not cross my mind that I was being impolite. I have made comments before on your blog.
            Best Regards

            Liked by 1 person

            • It’s a good point, but I’m not sure that anything that happened in Montaillou should be taken as an example for what was happening anywhere else. The reason why all those records exist is that the activities of the villagers were considered abnormal at the time.

              Like

  7. Thanks for debunking this myth, April!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post, thank you. I think your reasoning is spot on. It also doesn’t sit well with the strict morality of the ‘childwite’ (if I’ve remembered how to spell it) which was the fine paid for an illigitimate birth. The Church had long influenced English secular laws including ones against adultery.

    Liked by 1 person

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