Jus primae noctis: Did Medieval Lords Really Sleep With Serf Brides First?
The jus primae noctis , droit du seigneur , or “right of the first night,” is an alleged medieval custom which permitted lords to engage in sexual intercourse with the brides of their male subjects on the first night after marriage. Spanning centuries, this seedy exercise of male domination has been referenced across the eons, yet the reality of its existence remains unclear. It is a topic that has been hotly discussed by anthropologists and historians, who have debated whether the jus primae noctis is a custom, a law, or a simply a sordid myth.
Ancient and Medieval References to jus primae noctis
Jus primae noctis is a phenomenon that has been documented throughout history, stretching back nearly 2,000 years. The earliest textual reference can be found in the Epic of Gilgamesh , written in 1900 BC, where Gilgamesh, who was king of Uruk, enjoyed many privileges over his male subordinates and their newlyweds:
“He cohabits with the betrothed bride–He first, The husband afterwards.” (Epic of Gilgamesh as cited in Wettlaufer, p. 112.)
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In 450 BC, the same practice was reported by the Greek historian Herodotus in his Historiae, who wrote of a similar power dynamic in the society of the Adrymachidae, a Lybian tribe. Before virgins were married, he chronicled how the king had the right to deflower them before their husbands could “have” them.
The Greek scholar Herakleides Pontikos, writing in 400 BC, outlined the same benefits for the ruler of the Greek island of Kepahlonia. Next, during a slave revolt at Volsinii, an ancient Italian city, Valerius Maximus in 20 AD would note how free men were unable to marry a women who had not been deflowered by a slave first.
Several centuries later, in 300 AD, this sexual entitlement privilege was attributed to Emperor Maximin. In the Middle East, the Romans and Greeks, both occupiers at various times, were said to engage in the practice, according to the Talmud, an ancient Jewish text.
The tradition would purportedly continue into the early medieval age. The Annals of Clonmacnosie in Ireland from the 8th century AD, for instance, recorded how the Vikings believed they were entitled to jus primae noctis with Christian brides:
“The cheefe Gouvernour of them should have the bestowinge of any woman in the k’dom the first night after her marriage, so before her own husband should have carnal knowledge of her, to whom he pleased or keep her to himself by night, to satisfy his lust.” (Annals of Clonmacnosie as cited in Wettlauger, p. 112.)
The Annals of Clonmacnosie in Ireland from the 8th century AD, for instance, record how the Vikings believed they were entitled to jus primae noctis with Christian brides. These are the remains of the famous Irish Clonmacnosie monastery built in the 6th century, where the first night rights claimed by the local Vikings were recorded. (Ingo Mehling / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The idea of jus primae noctis would be maintained into the 14th century, when a French tale, called Baudouin de Sebourc mentioned it as a lord’s right if the bride couldn’t provide a sufficient dowry to his male serf. By the 16th century, evidence suggested a widespread belief in the existence of jus primae noctis , with many European lords using the notion to legitimize customs of sexual harassment. In 1543, a charter in a Swiss village outside of Zurich read:
“…and when the wedding starts, the bridegroom shall allow the sergeant to lie with his bride for the first night, or he shall buy her off with 5 pounds and 4 pennies.” (Staatsarchiv des Kantons Zürich as cited in Wettlaufer, p. 115.)
Sometimes, however, the lord would go too far, and peasants would be forced to act. At the end the 15th century, in the only successful peasant revolt of the Middle Ages, the serfs of Catalonia in Spain rose up against their abusive liege lords. The lords had introduced various coercive acts on the wedding nights of their serfs, including climbing into the bed of the bride for their own sexual gratification. In a similarly perverted manner, landed aristocrats in France permitted themselves to place their bare leg on the bride’s bed.
In this 1874 AD painting by Vasily Polenov, Le droit du Seigneur, a synonym for Jus primae noctis, shows an old man is bringing his young daughters to his feudal lord. (Vasily Polenov / Public domain )
Ritual Defloration and the Anthropologists’ View
In prehistoric times, the ritual defloration of virgins by elites, such as priests or kings, was a common occurrence. In Indian and South American tribes , taking the virginity of young women and girls before marriage was a recurrent practice, and was viewed not as a privilege but as a duty, as primeval peoples remained very superstitious about hymenal blood. In the primordial tribes of Hawaii, it was usually the chief who had to perform what was seen as a sacred duty:
“With many of the families, who were admitted to the royal court because of blood relationship, the virginity of the daughters was strictly guarded and when a girl became of a marriageable age and was spoken for as a wife, she was taken to the chief who would remove her virginity.” (The Polynesian Family System in Ka'u Hawai'i, Tokio, Rutland as cited in Wettlaufer, p. 117.)
In prehistoric times, the ritual defloration of virgins by elites was a common occurrence. Youth by French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau shows how white is associated with purity, innocence and virginity in Western cultures. (William-Adolphe Bouguereau / Public domain )
Any baby that was produced as a result of this action was often celebrated by the husband, who found great honor in knowing that his wife bore the child of his chief.
The holy priests of India, the Brahmins, were said to offer the same service. Hamilton, an early modern traveler, outlined the details and motivations of such a ceremony in the tribes of the Zamorin:
“When the Zamorin marries, he must not cohabit with his bride till the Nambudri, or chief priest, has enjoyed her, and he, if he pleases, may have three nights of her company, because the first fruits of her nuptials must be a holy oblation to the god she worships.” (A New Account of the East Indies as cited in Wettlaufer, p. 117.)
In 1903, German anthropologist German Wilutsky stressed that:
“Every link in the chain of evidence must be followed in order to understand the most recent form of a custom.” (Vorgeschichte des Rechts as cited in Howarth, p. 294.)
Consequently, anthropologists believe that jus primae noctis and its reported episodes in the ancient and medieval eras originated from these early ritual defloration ceremonies. Comparing them to jus primae noctis , they point to the fact that both feature the sexual exploitation of subservient virgins under the dominion of a powerful master. As a result, anthropologists tend to believe in the existence of jus primae noctis because it supports their view that humans gradually shifted from polygamous to monogamous societies. To them, jus primae noctis in ancient and medieval society appears as one of the last vestiges of this ancient tradition.
Historians believe jus primae noctis is a myth and yet even in the Catholic world there are mentions of this right and frequently priests looked the other way. The coronation of the Virgin Mary by Diego Velazquez. ( Shalone / Adobe Stock)
The Historian’s View
In contrast to anthropologists, historians, who have scoured the archival records of the human race, postulate that the jus primae noctis is simply a myth and a gratuitous misinterpretation of two documented medieval systems of obligation in Europe.
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The first, known by various names including culagium, jambage, cuissage, and drench de pernada , stipulated that if a slave wanted to marry a free woman, he was required to pay a fee, called a dowry, which he would often acquire through a loan from his lord. Legal codas state that the lord, after the lending of money, would simply gain the right to have the amount repaid. This customary payment was erroneously connected with a right given to the lord which permitted him to have intercourse first with the new bride in exchange for his help in securing the dowry payment for his serf. In practice, however, this unusual right was simply symbolic, and in reality, copulation never occurred and was not part of the written legal directives.
The second involved the Church and its procedures relating to marriage. At the Council of Carthage in 298, an ecclesiastical ban was issued ordering couples to refrain from consummating the marriage for the first three days. The prohibition stemmed from passage in the Book of Tobit, in which Tobias married his wife Sarah. The holy scripture relates how Sarah had been married 7 times previously, and that all her husbands had been killed by the Devil before their marriage could be consummated. To fend off the advances of the Devil, it was instructed that the newlyweds should engage in prayer and other such holy activities for up to three days after the marriage before confirming the union.
However, many husbands, impatient at waiting for three days, would often bribe ecclesiastical authorities for the privilege of copulating with their wife on the first night, which was subsequently misconstrued as the fabled jus primae noctis of the lord. It is unclear how widespread this practice was in medieval times, although in the 14th century it is reported that this became such a problem for the King Phillip IV and Charles VI in France that they demanded the Bishop of Amiens revoke such illicit payments.
In fact, in their search for the existence of the jus primae noctis , historians have found no strong evidence to suggest the practice was legally codified. The only example that even touches on the subject, and which is obviously fabricated, come from the Chronicle of Boece , a fictional history of the early kings of Scotland published in 1526 by Hector Boece. It reports how a King Ewen III of Scotland, in 875, legally sanctioned the right of the first night:
“And othir law he maid, that wiffs of the commonis sal be fre to nobilis; and the lord of the ground sal have the maidinheid of all v dwelling on the same.” (Chronicle of Boece as cited in Bullough, p. 164.)
The author goes on to state that the practice remained in existence until 1061, when it was repealed by King Malcom Canmore. Despite being an obvious invention, the Chronicle of Boece remains the most traceable source for later references to the custom in early modern works, where it is repeated multiple times. In 1666, Sir John Skene would reiterate this piece of fake history in his Exposition:
“King Evenus did wicked lie ordaine, that the Lord or maister of the ground, or land, suld have the first nicht of ilk maried woman within the samin. The quhilk ordinance was after abrogate be King Malcolme the Thrid; quha ordained, that the Bride-groome sulde have the use of his awin wife.” (Exposition of the termes and difficill mordes, conteined in the foure Buikes of Regiam Majestatem as cited in Howarth p. 298.)
In a later story from 1773 tome The Journey to the Western Islands , Johnson and Boswell would conveniently re-discover traces of this ancient tradition on their travels around Scotland, this time referenced as the “ mercheta mulierum ”:
“M’Quarrie insisted that the Mercheta Mulierum, mentioned in our old charters, did really mean the privilege which the lord of a manor, or a baron, had, to have the first night of all his vassals’ wives.” (Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides as cited in Howarth p. 299.)
In the classic film Braveheart, jus primae noctis was used as a primary early plot device that pushed the Scots to rebellion and war against the English lords who allegedly claimed these privileges. (YouTube screenshot / Nolan and The Nation )
The Myth of jus primae noctis
The propagation of the jus primae noctis myth was aided by its mention in many famous literary works, where it became a staple by authors searching for a sensationalist plot-line or a literary device as a convenient obstruction to marriage. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, Jack Cade uses the right to try and discourage rebellion:
“The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute; there shall not maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they shall have it.” (Henry IV, Part II as cited in Howarth p. 300.)
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Although being a regular literary device, the historical basis for the jus primae noctis , a term that only started appearing in the 18th century, remains very weak, and implies that it was likely a myth stemming from a depraved misinterpretation of the obligations of peasants to their lords and the fake history of Scotland written by Hector Boece in 1526.
In reality, the unsavory implication of the “right of the first night” was probably a medieval joke that went too far and was grounded in the traditional superiority that lords exercised over their subjects, especially if they were female.
The very few references to customs or laws that involved the sexual exploitation of women vassals were not legally enforceable mandates, but simply sleazy exercises in male power displays over the less powerful classes.
Thus, anthropologists are correct to identify jus primae noctis as more of a custom, rather than a law, which has sadly occurred repeatedly in human history.
Top image: A knight taking a serf bride off to fulfill his right of jus primae noctis, or first night intercourse. Source: diter/Adobe Stock
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
Bullough, V. L. 1991. Jus primae noctis or droit du seigneur . The Journal of Sex Research.
Howarth, . D. 1971. ‘Droit de Seigneur’: Fact or Fantasy . Journal of European Studies.
Wettlaufer, J. 2000. The jus primae noctis as a male power display: A review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation . Evolution and Human Behavior.