Right of First Night

What are the Rights of First Night? What is Droit du seigneur? What did the Writers have to say about this? What were its Consequences? Was it a Myth?
Right of First Night

Throughout history, people have obeyed various rules and followed practices set by their superiors, feudal lords, etc. The rich and powerful used their status to coerce people into following their commands and it has been going on for ages. One such practice was Droit du seigneur, also known as the right of first night in ancient times. In this article, let us explore this old practice further. 

1. What was the Right of First Night?

The girl sitting on the bed with her knees under her chin.

As per this practice, feudal lords of medieval Europe had the legal right to sexually exploit female subordinates or peasants before their wedding nights. Before going to her husband, she had to spend the night with the feudal lord of her area. It means in history, this right of first night belonged to the feudal lord and not the bride. Earlier the term the right of the lord was used and later it also became synonymous with jus primae noctis, a Latin term for the right of the first night. (Also read Origin of an Ogre)

2. What were its Consequences?

As everyone was aware of this practice, the firstborn child was always questioned about his biological father. People consider the second or last-born child of the bride to be the real heir of her husband. Knowing about the consequences of going against their feudal lords, the husbands behaved as if everything is normal. They accepted this misconduct as their fate. (See Top 5 Urban Slangs for Police)

3. How was the Right of First Night Explained by Writers?

A sad bride.

  • Numerous examples have such practice have emerged in which women were brought in front of the king and the king had the freedom to treat the women as he wishes. Herodotus, an ancient Greek writer, geographer, and historian has mentioned a custom in the areas of Adyrmachidae in ancient Libya in which soon-to-be-married girls had to face this bad practice. (See Go to the John Meaning)
  • Thomas Blount, an English antiquarian and lexicographer, mentioned in his work Fragmenta Antiquitatis in 1679 about the right of first night as a medieval tradition followed in some English manors.
  • Isaac D’Israeli, a British scholar and writer, mentioned that this practice was quite popular across Europe, in his text The Curiosity of Literature in 1823.
  • In 1786, a libretto (text of an opera) by Lorenzo Da Ponte along with the play, The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, mentioned a similar idea to the right of first night. Though the play was a comedy, it included threatening a couple to indulge in the practice of droit du seigneur. (See What Is The Purpose Of A Totem Pole?)

4. What History Droit du seigneur had in France?

Here are some references to this practice in French history too.

  • Jean Papon, a French lawyer and author mentioned this practice in 1556, followed by Antoine de Verdier remarked about it in 1577.
  • In 1748, the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote about this as a practice being imposed in France that this right was imposed sometimes for more than three nights. He wrote about this in his work, The Spirit of the Laws.
  • In 1764, French enlightenment writer, philosopher, and historian Voltaire published a five-act play satirical play under the name Le droit du seigneur. He was the first person to use this term. 

In the 18th century, various writers mentioned the power enjoyed by landlords with reference to this practice and various other humiliating and uncivilized practices like Droit de prélassement. (Also read The History of Medieval Jesters)

5. When this Practice was Abolished?

A girl waling in the water wearing her bridal dress.

According to historians and researchers, this right of the first night was first repealed by Ferdinand II of Aragon. It was Article 9 that mentioned this order by him in the decree the Sentencia Arbitral de Guadalupe in 1486.

In 1527, Hector Boece, a historian, wrote about this tradition being practiced in Scotland until Malcolm III abolished it after being influenced by his wife, Margaret. (See Why was Napoleon called The Little Corporal?)

6. How was the Life of Peasants in the Medieval Period?

Droit du seigneur was not the only way in which women were violated in the past. Their existence, especially as peasants, has always been harsh.

  • They were always at the bottom of the Feudal System. They had to take the oath of obedience in the Bible for their lords.
  • Paying taxes and interest on the pending loans were the only reasons they worked for. They had no savings for survival.
  • Plowing became their main occupation due to a lack of opportunities to educate themselves or their children. To fulfill the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter was a struggle for them.
  • In some cases, suicide was the only option to escape the misery of poverty and the eternal loan cycle. (See Degradation Ceremony and its History

7. Do all Historians Believe in its Existence?

An old journal.

Over time, there were no solid conclusions regarding the evidence in favor of this practice being followed. As a result, Encyclopedia Britannica and the Larousse encyclopedias changed the meaning of what early historians mentioned. The 19th and 20th-century scholars were not in agreement over this concept. Historians like David M. Walker and Hector McKechnie argue that the right could possibly have been real and was practiced by feudal lords during medieval Europe. Although other historians have concluded that it was simply a myth. (See 4 Interesting Black Friday History Myths and Facts)

  • Various historians have been skeptical in their writings about the existence of this right. Louis Veuillot, a French writer, even wrote a book against this tradition and its dubious authentication in 1854.
  • After thorough historical research in 1881, Karl Schmidt, a German jurist, came to the conclusion that the right of first night was a mere academic myth. Also, check out the article Ninja vs Samurai

8. Are there any Movies that Mention the Pratice?

These are some of the movies that describe the right of first night tradition. (Also read First Full Length Movie Ever Made

  • Belladonna of Sadness,
  • Braveheart,
  • Droit de cuissage,
  • Klinkaart,
  • Men at arms,
  • The Dark Valley.
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