One classy evening after a long night of getting paid to repeatedly explain where the restrooms were and pouring the occasional decaf, I felt like unwinding with a game of Animal Crossing (had some big loans owed to that skank Tom Nook) and a viewing of Braveheart because I’m rock n’ roll and really like that scene where Mel Gibson gets hanged, drawn, and quartered.
There must have been a considerable amount of time since I last saw the movie and between that must have had tea and crumpets with a history book because, suddenly, I took offense at the very mention of ‘Primae Noctis’ and the fact that all those Scotties were prancing around in kilts (but that’s a post for another day).
For those unfamiliar, Primae Noctis or the French version Droit du Seigneur, was the idea that a lord was within legal rights to take the virginity of a serf’s daughter, most notably, on her wedding night. We see this concept perpetuated in Braveheart when crotchety ol’ King Edward I of the Britains enacts this law to “breed out the Scots” and we see a few fug lords wedding crash on the friend of William Wallace which escalates quickly into war and the entire point of the film and Mel Gibson’s career.
Braveheart isn’t alone, though. The Office, Game of Thrones, Merlin, and Family Guy reference it. And if you were living in the Enlightenment Era, you had the Marriage of Figaro or some of Voltaire’s sass to help spread the fire. What is even more strange and can possibly be found to prey victim to the widespread misconceptions present through these times is that some notable scholars even believe it, toting around ‘evidence’ where there is none.
So how did this happen?
Obviously, with something like this, you need an account or source that has either witnessed, observed, or found any sort of legal documentation of this act being practiced. Curiously, with a right as supposedly as widespread as we are led to believe, almost nothing exists and yet a few scholars are determined to hold the belief that it was a real thing. Or it happened in the Dark Ages, duh. Or France at least, yes, at least France. (Always France).
These select few will point to Herodotus (who, if you’ve been keeping up with me, know that I am already familiar with) and say, “Herodotus claims daughters of Babylon had to offer their virginity to a stranger!” [citing paragraph 199 Book 1]
The fact that Babylon =/= Medieval Europe and a vastly different political climate and caste system is neither here nor there because a closer look at what Herodotus actually said is more illuminating and vastly more interesting.
After detailing how Babylonian men found wives during marriage auctions (It’s like the dowry, women are either property or a burden) Herodotus goes on to say,
…has now fallen into disuse and they have of late years hit upon another scheme, namely the prostitution of all girls of the lower classes to provide some relief from the poverty which followed upon the conquest with its attendant hardship and general ruin. [Book 1 para. 196]
No sign of putative legal rape here, folks, just the exercise of the oldest profession in the world. Oh, but wait. Here’s the passage being referenced in support of the claim (Book 1, para. 199) check it out:
There is one custom amongst these people which is wholly shameful: every woman who is a native of the country must once in her life go and sit in the temple of Aphrodite and there give herself to a strange man.
Oh, sure. Taken out of context, I suppose you could take out some phrases and compare this to a feudal sex crime, but what this is actually referring to is a form of phallic worship which was common in the area as detailed by Westermarck in the penultimate History of Human Marriage. Herodotus goes on to detail that the woman enters the temple, is offered a silver coin as bargain, and slept with in order to complete the religious rite. This can be seen as a form of ‘sexual sacrifice’ in the form of worship which wouldn’t be all to dissimilar with the antics of Aleister Crowley’s crew.
Herodotus DOES, however, write in Book 4 about the Adyrmachidae tribe in Libya who are guilty because
They are the only Libyan tribe to follow this practice, as also that of taking girls who are about to be married to see the King. Any girl who catches his fancy, leaves him a maid no longer. [para. 168]
But note the “only” and the “Libya” and a few thousand years, and this example is further away from Medieval Europe than indoor plumbing.
So Herodotus had a small mention, but how did this translate into a giant boogie laden finger pointing at Europe?
Well, Dr Karl Schmidt, a German and a doctor so enuff said, believes it “was only a learned superstition” and that it originated from culagium, a requirement that a serf get permission to marry, and such a permission often required the peasant to pay a fee or give some kind of service (not prostitution, okay, calm down). This apparently appeared to come up in the consequence of marrying under the lands of another Lord, as it would be like losing a ‘headcount’ and a laborer by right so compensation was in order. So the “right of the Lord’ was more likely a tax rather than a romp in the Motte-and-bailey.
And the idle belief that the higher clergy practiced Droit du Seigneur in Middle Age France? (Geez, again with this? Let them rebel in peace)
This misconception could have stemmed from the symbolic “possession” of a man’s wife by the church as it was a requirement that for three days and three nights to go by before any copulation happened because of the “spirit of solemn devotion”. But, mostly, because any ecclesiastical authority could be thus payed off with a nice meaty fee if you wanted the privilege of the dirty deed on the first night instead. Certainly, there was a legal rape happening here, but not one of the flesh…
Of course, there is also Boece, an established uncredible source who fabricated many narratives, who wrote of an event that happened more than 700 years before he did. I shudder to think this may have been the basis for Braveheart…
And othir law he maid, that wiffs of the commonis sal be fre to the nobilis; and the lord of the ground sal have the maidenhead of all virgins dwelling on the same. [The Chronicles of Scotland. 1938.]
Perpetrator of myths not history. And if this didn’t help spread it, Voltaire’s cheeky comedy ‘Le Droit du Seigneur: Comedie en vers’ and his parallel criticisms of a pre-revolution/enlightenment satirical view of early France has probably got him giggling around in his grave now that common knowledge totes Primae Noctis around like a slutty party girl.
Either way, somewhere between no evidence to shady business to disrespectful double-takes and biased views of civilized society, we have a gross pock mark on the history of Medieval Europe (well, two, if you’re also counting the pestilence. Gosh, I’m witty.) I’m not saying it didn’t happen, I’m sure a position of power and dominance led to frequent abuse of lower classes and sexual violence against women. But it certainly wasn’t a cultural or legal custom that was practiced without prejudice all across Europe. And in the case of Braveheart, there is no evidence to support an event of this nature occurring on the British Isles unless you want to go sit over there with Boece and the guy who wrote about George Washington cutting down a cherry tree.
So, the next time you’re out making a reference about claiming someone’s wife for a night ala Prima Nocta, that’s me staring you down in the corner and predatorily stalking you with a conversation about violent youth, knighthood, and the Crusades. So just don’t do it, okay?
Fact check it, yo!
Old Babylonian Marriage Ceremonies and Rites. S. Greengus. Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1966)
The History of Human Marriage. Edward Westermarck. 1891. pp. 72-76-80.
Jus Primae Noctis: Eine Geschlichtliche Untersuchung. Schmidt, K. (1881)
Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Brundage, J. (1987)
Jus primae noctis or droit du seigneur. Vern L. Bullough. The journal of Sex Research, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Feb. 1991), pp. 163-166.
The Histories Herodotus
The Chronicles of Scotland. 1938. Boece.