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.