Old Wives' Tales
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Legend: Under a law known as the droit du seigneur ("right of the lord"), medieval noblemen had the right to spend the first night with newly-wedded brides in their fiefdoms.
Origins: The use of political power (or any exalted position in society) as a means of gaining entry into women's beds has been with us for thousands of years. The name of this phenomenon has changed over the years (from ius primae noctus to droit de seigneur to "the master's obligation" to sexual harrassment), but the concept has remained the same.
The custom of someone other than the husband being the first to engage in sexual intercourse with a bride after the wedding (and thus being the one to relieve her of her virginity) goes back several thousand years and is tied to the concept of God as the source of all life. If all life springs from the creator, then surely his earthly representatives or human incarnations are guarantors of fertility and abundant harvests. Thus, for a bride to spend the first night of her married life with (and give up her viriginity to) a priest, the creator's supreme authority on Earth, was seen as a way of ensuring the newly-wedded couple's fertility and guaranteeing their union would produce many children. (Priests were also considered to have the duty of protecting grooms from danger of the blood of defloration.)
After the Sumerians developed the concept of a divinely-ordained king "descended from heaven" as the primary intermediary between man and his creator, kings supplanted priests as the vessels of fertility, and the physical well-being and reproductive power of kings became symbolic of the overall strength and viability of their kingdoms. In the Bible, for example,
Now king David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat.In other words, David's impotence demonstrated that his kingdom was weak, and the inability of a young virgin to arouse him was a sign that his throne was ripe for the taking. David's son Adonijah, aware of his father's loss of potency, began plotting a usurpation, but Bathsheba convinced an ailing David that he had already promised the crown to
Wherefore his servants said unto him, Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.
So they sought for a fair damsel throughout all the coasts of Israel, and found Abishag a Shunammite, and brought her to the king.
And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not.
The first recorded instance of the "first night" custom appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a five-cycle tale based on a historical king of Uruk in Babylonia around
The right of first night deflowering (ius primae noctis in Latin) was also practiced by despotic Roman chieftains, who took the custom to a new level by charging husbands for their performance of this duty; prospective husbands who couldn't afford to pay the fee could not marry. (The imposition of a fee was a ruse created to foster the illusion that the purpose of this "service" was to ensure fertility rather than to satisfy the carnal cravings of chieftains.) As population sizes outstripped the abilities of royalty to attend to all new brides, the use of symbolic substitutes (such as the phalluses of fertility statues) began:
Prior to consummating marriage with her husband, a bride ceremoniously straddled a stone statue of the fertility god, lowering herself onto his effigy.First night customs survived in parts of Europe into the Middle Ages (as the droit du seigneur), although by then it had been stripped of any pretense that it was a means of assuring fruitful harvests and fecund brides. Feudal noblemen were not of royal blood and had no claim to divinity; they were "lords" only by virtue of having been granted titles, and they simply used their positions of power over their vassals as a basis for asserting their "right" to substitute for any of them on the wedding night. Though nobleman still referred to the droit de seigneur as a "duty," they also reserved the right to waive their performance of it (presumably when they found a bride to be considerably less than attractive in physical appearance).
This was not a private ritual but part of the public wedding ceremony, so that all the guests could witness the bloodied evidence of virginity, as well as the girl's avowal to be fruitful.2
Slaveholders, of course, held their slaves as property and could therefore force themselves upon female slaves with impunity. Slavery was legal in America until 1865, and there was no tradition or ritual (and certainly no sense of "duty") attached to this form of rape euphemistically known as "the master's obligation." It was more realistically "the master's prerogative," and it was not exercised concurrent with weddings, but at a master's whim.
Of all the historical forms of "first night" practices, the droit du seigneur is the most familiar in popular culture, and it is often cited as not just a widely-practiced custom, but as a codified part of medieval law. Both the prevalance of the practice and its legal status in medieval Europe are highly questionable, however. The Encylopedia Britannica, for example, notes:
[The droit du seigneur] is paralleled in various primitive societies, but the evidence of its existence in Europe is almost all indirect, involving records of the redemption dues paid by the vassal to avoid enforcement, not of actual enforcement. Many intellectual investigations have been devoted to the problem, but, although it seems possible that such a custom may have existed for a short time at a very early date in parts of France and Italy, it certainly never existed elsewhere.1The historical record shows far more resistance to the droit du seigneur than evidence of its occurrence, which might indicate that it was primarily a concept employed as a means of extorting money from vassals rather than an actual practice. Alain Boureau argues that the droit du seigneur was largely a myth perpetuated for political reasons (e.g., monarchists in the late Middle Ages cited the droit du seigneur to rally public opinion against local lords; partisans of the French Revolution used it as proof of the corruption and depravity of the Ancien Régime). Wendy Doniger writes that we might regard the droit du seigneur "in which the king controls the sexuality of his female subjects, as merely the extreme political form of the much more common practice of arranged marriages, in which the father controls the sexuality of his daughter," a myth which dramatizes "the tension between duty, in which women had little choice, and desire, in which they had some choice." In conclusion, she notes that although the specifics of the "first night" myths may be exaggerated or false, the broader concept — the historical use political power used for sexual purposes — still holds true:
[S]urely the use of political power to secure sexual favors is ancient and widespread. The droit du seigneur in the broadest sense — political pressure for sexual favors, what we now call sexual harrassment — must have been invoked informally all the time but was formalized in the myths as if it were a kind of unofficial law or right, one that was, from the start, intolerable. It may never, or seldom, have been technically legal, but it was not "just a myth."3Last updated: 27 June 2005
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