Droit du seigneur (/ˈdrɑːdəseɪˈnjɜr/; French pronunciation: [dʁwa dy sɛɲœʁ]) refers to a widespread popular belief, centered on a late medieval, European context, concerning (supposed) legal rights allowing the lord to spend a night and have sexual relations with a subordinate woman. The putative rights are known also as jus primae noctis mainly when they include the notion of "first night".
According to the most known variant, it was an alleged legal right allowing the lord of a medieval estate to take the virginity of his serfs' maiden daughters.
There is no evidence, however, that the alleged rights ever actually existed in medieval Europe, much less that they were ever exercised, although there is evidence of the practice in certain other regions and time periods.
The French expression Droit du seigneur roughly translates as "right of the lord", but native French prefer the terms droit de jambage ("right of the leg") or droit de cuissage ("right of the thigh"), in reference to the exercise of this supposed right. The term is often used synonymously with jus primae noctis (English pronunciation /ʒʌsˈpraɪmiːˈnɒktɨs/), which is Latin for "right of the first night".
Herodotus mentions a possibly similar custom among the tribe of the "Adyrmachidae" in distant ancient Libya: "They are also the only tribe with whom the custom obtains of bringing all women about to become brides before the king, that he may choose such as are agreeable to him."
Early mention of the right used as social criticism occurred in 1556 in the Recueil d'arrestz notables des courts souveraines de France of French lawyer and author Jean Papon (1505-1590). It acquired widespread currency after Voltaire accepted the practice as historically authentic in his Dictionnaire philosophique; soon it became used frequently, especially in satire. Paolo Mantegazza in his 1935 book, The Sexual Relations of Mankind, stated his belief that while not a law, it was most likely a binding custom.
In the nineteenth century, many French people held the belief that several immoral rights had existed in France during the Ancien Régime, such as the droit de cuissage (droit du seigneur), the droit de ravage (right of ravage; providing to the lord the right to devastate fields of his own domain) and the droit de prélassement (right of lounging; it was said that a lord had the right to disembowel his serfs to warm his feet in).
Instances of the practice have been observed elsewhere. As late as the nineteenth century, some Kurdish chieftains (khafirs) in Western Armenia benefited from "the right of the first night".
Literary and other references
Cultural references to the custom abound. Examples:
La Sorcière by Michelet (1862) in which the droit du seigneur prerogative is invoked to explain why the wives of serfs succumb to the temptations of home demons who promise protection and succour from the oppression of their feudal overlords.
In The Adolescent (1875), Fyodor Dostoevsky writes from a translation by Andrew MacAndrew: "Yes, although Miss Sapozhkov was passed over, it all began from Versilov's use of his droit du seigneur."
Chapter 7 of the first part of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), in which "the law by which every capitalist had the right to sleep with any woman working in one of his factories" is an element of the Party's propaganda.
Wyrd Sisters (1988), a novel from the Discworld series, satirizes the idea in several places, with several characters appearing to be under the impression that 'Droit de Seigneur' is a type of dog, leading to a recurring double entendre about it having to be 'exercised' often. The late King Verence's 'exercise' of his 'big hairy thing' later proves to be a key plot point.
In George R.R. Martin'sA Song of Ice and Fire series (1996–present), the right of first night is stated to have been legally abolished by the king two centuries ago but Lord Bolton still practices it in secret, and conceived his bastard son Ramsay thereby.
Braveheart (1995); ius primae noctis is invoked by Edward Longshanks in an attempt to breed the Scots out. This was one of the many inaccuracies cited by critics of the film.
The Skull Beneath the Skin (1980) by P. D. James related to the legend of the origin of the skulls beneath the chapel on Courcey Island. Specifically, this concept was used to describe the doings of De Courcey.
In The Pillars of the Earth, the Earl of Shiring, William Hamleigh, while scouting his earldom to see if he can raise more taxes, finds a woman who married without his consent. Despite her obvious lack of virginity as she has a baby, he rapes her, claiming the right to sleep with her.
^Astourian, Stepan. "The Silence of the Land: Agrarian Relations, Ethnicity, and Power," in A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire, eds. R.G. Suny, Fatma Muge Goçek, and Norman Naimark. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 60.
^"1". Tractate Ketubot. p. 3b. "אמר רבה דאמרי בתולה הנשאת ביום הרביעי תיבעל להגמון תחלה"
Boureau, Alain. The Lord's First Night: The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane, University of Chicago Press, 1998. ISBN 0-226-06742-4.
Wettlaufer, Jörg. "The jus primae noctis as a male power display: A review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation", in Evolution and Human Behavior Vol. 21: No. 2: pages 111–123. Elsevier, 2000.
Evans, Hilary. Harlots, whores & hookers : a history of prostitution. Taplinger Pub. Co., 1979.
Schmidt-Bleibtreu, Hermann Friedrich Wilhelm. Jus Primae Noctis im Widerstreit der Meinungen. Bonn: Röhrscheid, 1988.
Utz, Richard. "'Mes souvenirs sont peut-être reconstruits': Medieval Studies, Medievalism, and the Scholarly and Popular Memories of the 'Right of the Lord's First Night,'" Philologie im Netz 31 (2005), 49-59.