Jus primae noctis
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Jus primae noctis (the right of the first night) or droit du seigneur (lord's right) is the alleged right of noblemen to have sex with peasant women, often on their wedding nights, particularly in medieval Europe when Mel Gibson is around. It is often presented as something sexy and naughty, and wouldn't you rather have it off with a suave nobleman instead of a stinking peasant? In other people's hands, it becomes about evil politicians raping our women or evil Muslims doing likewise.
Unfortunately for fans of bodice-rippers, it's not true in the commonly presented form. A lot of powerful men have used their position to have sex with not entirely willing women. They could buy sex, or if they preferred they could use threats directed either against a woman or her husband. But as a codified rule or law, not so much. Obviously it's something you accuse your enemy of doing. But it's worrying how commonly it's something done by fictional heroes rather villains.
Despite claims that it was all made up by Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart, it's not a new idea. The first recorded mention is appropriately enough in the first ever work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, wherein King G reportedly had the right to have sex with every new bride on her happy day. The wild man/noble savage Enkidu protested but had his ass kicked by our handsome rapey protagonist whereupon the two guys teamed up for the rest of the epic and Gilgamesh presumably continued with his charming variant of marital rape.
Herodotus mentions it as being practiced in Africa by the Adyrmachidae, an aboriginal tribe of Libya, with whom "maidens about to be married are shown to the king, who deflowers the one who pleases him", while the neighbouring, more democratic Nasamones let all wedding guests have sex with the bride. For reference, Herodotus also reported that other inhabitants of Africa included the Gindanes, whose "women wear one leather ankle band for each lover they have had", and The Atarantes who "have no individual names", which would make large social gatherings a whole lot easier.
The most common version relates to the west European Middle Ages, where feudal lords as well as kings supposedly had the right. In the 16th century, Hector Boece attributed the practice to King Evenus III of Scotland: "The lord of the ground sal have the maidinhead of all virginis dwelling on the same." He said the practice continued until St Margaret (1045-1093) replaced it with a bridal tax. The main flaw in this account is that Evenus did not exist.
Many people are surprised to learn that Braveheart is not a documentary about medieval Scotland recorded using 13th century cine cameras.[citation NOT needed] The idea of jus primae noctis features in the plot of the movie, as the evil English King Edward I "Longshanks" schemes to impregnate every Scottish woman with treacherous English sperm that will instantly repudiate haggis and plaid and genuflect southwards.
It also features in other films, including The War Lord (1965), in which Charlton Heston is an 11th century nobleman who uses jus primae noctis to steal a woman he loves on her wedding day. In this case, Chuck is the actual, handsome, chivalrous, hero of the film. Possibly this shows an improvement in sexual mores since the 1960s, or maybe it just goes to show how much cooler Chuck is than Mel Gibson.
And it crops up more vaguely in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.
In anti-Islam propaganda
More recently the myth has been transplanted from medieval Scotland to the Middle East. Noted advocate of women's rights Anders Breivik claimed in his manifesto that it was common throughout the Ottoman Empire, but only used against Christian brides. He also linked the practice to the widespread use of rape in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Breivik drew this idea from Bosnian Serb leader and war criminal Biljana Plavšić, although it reflects 19th century Orientalist discourse from Lord Byron, Victor Hugo, and others, many of whom were fond of reflecting at length on Arab lords having their way with nubile and defenceless young women (see e.g. most of 19th century French academic painting).
Did it exist?
Marriage fees paid by serfs appear to have been a genuine thing (going either to their lord or the church), but the suggestion that they were a replacement for jus primae noctis is unproven. Some cultures may have had a more general right allowing tribal leaders to have any woman they liked. And some cultures would have been unable to stop the king or other ruler from doing anything he fancied. Most recent references suggest in Europe in the Middle Ages it was fiction, even those sources which try their hardest to come up with similar practices.
It's possible that the idea was popularised in the late Middle Ages or early modern period by enemies of the nobility, either proto-socialists or by absolute monarchs. Its use by Voltaire supports this idea. Some feminists have advanced the notion that although it's not true, it accurately reflects the status of women in patriarchy and in the TV series Firefly.
The manosphere appears obsessed with cuckoldry, so it's natural that they too should turn to jus primae noctis as a metaphor. It crops up a lot in conjunction with Donald Trump. For a MGTOW example:
It's like 'Right of Prima Noctis' of the modern age. it's rich people and the govts they control thru their money. Donald Trump has been married what, 3-4 times now, had multiple batches of children. The average guy can't even afford 1 family for himself. So it's basically cucking the little guy, taking his wife's productive capacity. Leaving him only with debts and child support payments if he dares to breed.
- Jus Primae Noctis, Rick Rickards, Philosophical Club of Cleveland, 2002.
- Kinship Organisations and Group Marriage in Australia, Northcote Whitridge Thomas, CUP Archive, 1966
- Obama to Reinstitute Jus Primae Noctis
- First Knight, Snopes.com, 27 June 2005
- Herodotus: Volume 2: Herodotus and the World, Rosaria Vignolo Munson, p 228
- Ancient Nile Civilization and Herodotus, James A. Jones, West Chester University Department of History, 1999
- Did medieval lords have "right of the first night" with the local brides?, Cecil Adams, The Straight Dope, December 20, 1996
- See the Wikipedia article on Legendary kings of Scotland.
- True or False: Noblemen had the right to sleep with any woman on her wedding night, Keith Veronese, IO9, 20 September 2012
- See the Wikipedia article on Droit du seigneur.
- Screening the Past: Film and the Representation of History, Tony Barta, Greenwood, 1998, pp. 171-2
- The Marriage of Figaro proves we can love an opera that omits the best bits, Toronto Globe and Mail, 2016
- 1.16 Jus Primae Noctis — Institutionalised rape of Christians under the Ottoman Empire, Breivik Manifesto
- Modern hatred rooted in history persists in present discourse, Andras Riedlmayer and Irvin Cemil Schick, Today's Zaman, July 27, 2011
- History of the Turks.Why they are not caucasoid., Stormfront forum thread
- Content Warning Rape Culture, The Hand Mirror, Blogspot, 2016
- There's a chink in The Matrix…, MGTOW HQ, 2016