Droit du seigneur

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Vasily Polenov: Le droit du Seigneur (1874).
A nineteenth-century artist's painting of an old man bringing his young daughters to their feudal lord.
The Mugnaia in Ivrea

Droit du seigneur (/ˈdrɑː də sˈnjɜːr/; French pronunciation: ​[dʁwa dy sɛɲœʁ]), also known as jus primae noctis (/ʒʌs ˈprm ˈnɒkts/; Latin pronunciation: [ju:s ˈpri:mae̯ 'nɔktɪs]), refers to a supposed legal right in medieval Europe, and elsewhere, allowing feudal lords to have sexual relations with subordinate women on their wedding night. There is no direct evidence of the right being exercised in medieval Europe, though there are numerous references to it.[1][2]


The French expression droit du seigneur translates as "right of the lord", but native French prefer the terms droit de jambage (French pronunciation: ​[dʁwa d(ə) ʒɑ̃.baʒ]) ("right of the leg") or droit de cuissage (French pronunciation: ​[dʁwa d(ə) kɥi.saʒ]) ("right of the thigh"). The term is often used synonymously with jus primae noctis,[3] Latin for "right of the first night".

Historical references

Herodotus mentions a similar custom among the Adyrmachidae in 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."[4]

The medieval marriage fine or merchet has been interpreted as a payment for the droit de seigneur to be waived.[5]

The supposed right was abolished by Ferdinand II of Aragon in Article 9 the "Sentencia Arbitral de Guadalupe" of 1486.[6]

In 1527, Scottish historian Hector Boece wrote that the right had existed in Scotland until abolished by Malcolm III.[7] William Blackstone mentioned the custom in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769), echoing Boece's claim.[8]

The right was mentioned in 1556 in the Recueil d'arrêts notables des cours souveraines de France of French lawyer and author Jean Papon (1505–1590).[9] Voltaire mentioned the practice in his Dictionnaire philosophique, published in 1764.[10]

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884, Friedrich Engels argued the "right of first night" had an anthropological origin.[11] 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 believed that several immoral rights had existed in France during the Ancien Régime, such as the droit de cuissage, 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).[citation needed]

As late as the nineteenth century, some Kurdish chieftains (khafirs) in Anatolia reserved the right to bed Armenian brides on their wedding night.[12][13]

In the Hawaiian Islands, marriage in the Western sense did not exist until the arrival of Christian missionaries; indeed, there was not even a word for husband or wife in the language. The privilege for chiefs was often observed, however, according to Sexual Behavior in Pre Contact Hawai‘i: A Sexological Ethnography, by Milton Diamond Ph.D. (Revista Española del Pacifico. 2004. 16: 37-58). A young girl's parents viewed the coupling with favor (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 91; Sahlins, 1985, p. 24). If she were lucky, she might conceive his offspring and be allowed to keep it. When western ships arrived, young girls and wives eagerly coupled with sailors who, given their weapons and large ships, may be gods (Pukui, Haertig, and Lee, 1972, p. 92).

In modern times Zaire's president Mobutu Sese Seko appropriated the droit de cuissage when traveling around the country where local chiefs offered him virgins; this was considered a great honor for the virgin's family.[14]

Cultural references

  • In the Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2250–2000 BC), the hero Enkidu is appalled by King Gilgamesh's use of droit du seigneur at wedding ceremonies.
  • In the Ulster Cycle, the king Conchobar is placed in the awkward position of having to bed Cú Chulainn's wife to avoid challenges to his authority.
  • Rashi, the 11th century rabbi, in his commentary on Genesis 6, describes the Nephilim as engaging in this practice.
  • The Talmud in tractate Ketubot discusses what may be done in a situation where a bride must "Have relations first with the Hegemon".[15]
  • In the fourteenth-century French epic, "Baudouin de Sebourc", a tyrannical lord claims the jus primae noctis unless he receives part of the bride's dowry.[16]
  • Jack Cade mentions the custom in Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV, Scene VII.
  • Voltaire wrote the five-act comedy Le droit du seigneur or L'écueil du sage (ISBN 2-911825-04-7) in 1762, although it was not performed until 1779, after his death.
  • The Marriage of Figaro (1778) by Beaumarchais (and the 1786 opera of the same name by Mozart) whose plot centres on Count Almaviva's foiled attempt to exercise his right with Figaro's bride.
  • The Duke in Verdi's Rigoletto and Don Giovanni in Mozart's Don Giovanni act in a way that perpetuates this custom.
  • 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."
  • Mark Twain cites the practice several times in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), including having King Arthur himself rule in favor of confiscation of a young woman's property because she denied her local lord his "right".
  • "Adventure Eight: Mary Ann and The Duke" in Eric Knight's [17]The Flying Yorkshireman (Pocket Books 493, 1948; 273 pages) has the nobleman negotiating for an alternative to his allegedly obligatory "drewit de segner."
  • Chapter 7 of the first part[18] 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.
  • The War Lord (1965), a film by Franklin J. Schaffner, starring Charlton Heston as a knight who falls in love with a peasant woman, using droit du seigneur to claim her on her wedding night. Based on Leslie Stevens' play The Lovers.
  • In the 1973 movie And Now the Screaming Starts, the curse afflicting a family of British nobles is punishment for an ancestor's presumptive invocation of primae noctis.
  • In Marvel Comics' Super-Villain Team-Up #7 (1976), Doctor Doom attempts to exercise his droit du seigneur with a Latverian peasant girl named Gretchen, but is prevented by a blind superhero called the Shroud.
  • 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.
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982), a BBC film starring Anthony Andrews as the title character, Jane Seymour as Marguerite St. Just, and Ian McKellen as Paul Chauvelin, an adaptation of several of The Scarlet Pimpernel series by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, contains a casual reference by the dandified Prince of Wales, undercutting Sir Percy Blakeney's societal status and English masculinity by suggesting that the Prince invoke this with the newly married Lady Blakeney.
  • 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's A Song of Ice and Fire series (1996–present), which takes place on a fictional land, the right of first night is stated to have been legally abolished by the king two centuries ago but some lords still practice it in secret, such as Lord Bolton, who conceived his 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.
  • 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.[19]
  • The practice is mentioned, with reference to Don Giovanni, in series 1 episode 3 of My Family titled "Droit de Seigneur Ben".
  • Jon Stewart referenced this practice, along with the Nuremberg Laws and the Spanish Inquistion, in a segment on The Daily Show, satirising Republican Congressman Todd Rokita's claim that Obamacare was "one of the most insidious laws ever created by man".[20]
  • The practice is referenced and parodied in the Season 9 Family Guy episode "Brothers and Sisters", when Mayor Adam West proposes to Carol Pewderschmidt. West warns his future bride to keep quiet about their engagement lest the local nobleman show up to claim his primae noctis, which he promptly does, leading to him chasing the couple around in a circle on the Griffins' lawn.
  • In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Stark jokes that he will be reintroducing primae noctis when he attempts to lift Thor's hammer. This was a change from the original line of "I will be fair but firmly cruel", and caused outrage among some fans as a "rape joke".[21]


  1. Encyclopædia Britannica([1]).
  2. The jus primae noctis as a male power display: A review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation by Jörg Wettlaufer - Evolution and Human Behavior, Vol 21, Nr. 2 (2000): 111-123
  3. "jus primæ noctis". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. Herodotus, iv.168 (on-line text).
  5. The jus primae noctis as a male power display: A review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation by Jörg Wettlaufer - Evolution and Human Behavior, Vol 21, Nr. 2 (2000): 111-123
  6. Boureau 239.
  7. Boureau 17-18.
  8. Commentaries on the Laws of England, volume 2, chapter 6.
  9. Boureau 203.
  10. Boureau 41.
  11. Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884, pp 28, 72-73.
  12. Barsoumian, Hagop. "The Eastern Question and the Tanzimat Era" in The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, Volume II: Foreign Dominion to Statehood: The Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth Century, ed. Richard G. Hovannisian. New York: St. Martin's Press, p. 200. ISBN 0-312-10168-6.
  13. 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 Müge Göçek, and Norman Naimark. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 60.
  14. David van Reybrouck. Congo: The Epic History of a People. HarperCollins, 2012. p. 384f. ISBN 978-0-06-220011-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "1". Tractate Ketubot. p. 3b. אמר רבה דאמרי בתולה הנשאת ביום הרביעי תיבעל להגמון תחלה<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. The jus primae noctis as a male power display: A review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation by Jörg Wettlaufer - Evolution and Human Behavior, Vol 21, Nr. 2 (2000): 111-123
  17. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks08/0800581h.html
  18. 1984 - Part 1, Chapter 7. George Orwell. Retrieved 2013-09-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Classen, Albrecht (2007). The medieval chastity belt: a myth-making process. Macmillan. p. 151.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. March of Dumbs
  21. [2]


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

External links