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Droit du Seigneur

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56686.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 8:00 am Reply with quote

Here’s my FT Mythconception on Droit du Seigneur:

by Mat Coward

THE MYTH: “The right of the lord” (or _jus primae noctis_, “law of the first night”) refers to a legal perk enjoyed by every feudal guv’nor in mediaeval Europe - that of bedding the brides of his vassals on their wedding nights.

THE "TRUTH": The film _Braveheart_ - laughingly referred to as an “historical” in Hollywood - introduced this myth to a new generation, but some of us remember being taught it at school. For many generations it was a generally accepted historical fact; at least at the lower levels of academia. Today, the idea is entirely discredited; no contemporary reference to such a practice has ever been found by historians (although the _Britannica_ rather snootily suggests that it may have existed in “primitive” - i.e., non-European - societies). If it happened at all it must have been both local and short-lived. The germ of the story is probably an 18th century misunderstanding (or romanticisation) of the various taxes and fees which a vassal had to pay his lord to obtain permission to marry.

SOURCES: Typing “droit du seigneur” into a search engine will reveal a wealth of internet discussion of this topic - some scholarly, and some less so. The online version of the _Encyclopaedia Britannica_ ( files the story under “seigneur, droit du”.

56717.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 9:35 am Reply with quote

I think this ought to make a good topic. Is there some way we can phrase a question other than

Q: "what is droit de seigneur?"
A: "nothing"


56727.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 10:02 am Reply with quote

Straight Dope:
If you believe the popular tales, the droit du seigneur prevailed throughout much of Europe for centuries. Yet detailed examinations of the available records by reputable historians have found "no evidence of its existence in law books, charters, decretals, trials, or glossaries," one scholar notes. No woman ever commented on the practice, unfavorably or otherwise, and no account ever identifies any female victim by name.

It's true that in some feudal jurisdictions there was something known as the culagium, the requirement that a peasant get permission from his lord to marry. Often this required the payment of a fee.

But the Snopes article is more interesting, I think - even if we agree that there is no evidence for a legal basis for the practice in medieval Europe, there do seem to have been numerous cultures in which something of the sort was practised:

56730.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 10:06 am Reply with quote

The wiki article suggests that as defloration involved the breach of a taboo, the practice was a service performed by the lord to his vassals - as he was stronger than they he could bear the burden better. This seems a bit of a stretch to me; not much evidence for it is offered.

56733.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 10:11 am Reply with quote

Do we assume that everyone's heard of "Droit"? If so, the question might simply be a less clumsy wording of "What was the Lord of the Manor allowed to do to women on their wedding night?" which would presumably produce the forfeit. Of course, the answer to that is still "Nothing." Which doesn't take us much further forward.

Or we could ask "what was droit d.s." and answer that it was a form of feudal tax, which seems to be the general idea from most of the sources. Which is, admittedly, a bit dull for such an apparently juicy subject. Hmm.

56734.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 10:11 am Reply with quote

Blackstone (who is regarded as authoritative) says that the "custom never existed in England, though it did in Scotland until abolished by Malcolm III, successor to Macbeth." (Commentaries on the Laws of England, 83) according to the wiki discussion page.

56738.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 10:20 am Reply with quote

Maybe Fred could magically produce some interesting fact about medieval wedding presents, which we could approach by a question on the lines of "what did medieval lords give village girls when they got married?"

Forfeit: "one", "a jolly good seeing-to", etc.

Actual answer: Fred's interesting fact (ie ice cream maker, set of napkin rings, etc).

Last edited by Flash on Fri Mar 03, 2006 10:28 am; edited 1 time in total

56743.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 10:27 am Reply with quote

Or it might even work the other way around - what did a village maiden give the lord of the manor on her wedding night (with all the obvious sexual forfeits); the answer being "three groats" or whatever the relevant payment for permission to marry was.

56744.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 10:30 am Reply with quote

Yes, that works. Let's see what Fred comes up with.

Frederick The Monk
56819.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 6:22 pm Reply with quote

Hmmm. Give me a minute.....

Frederick The Monk
56823.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 6:43 pm Reply with quote

The Channel Island of Sark retains a peculiar vestige of Norman Law with some interesting features. The fedual Lord of the island - the Seigneur - had to grant permission for all marriages on the island up until 1852.

There is no divorce law on Sark.

Frederick The Monk
56825.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 6:49 pm Reply with quote

The Seigneur of Sark does still have Droit de Seigneur but only over property sales.

Even Sark may soon become a democracy anyway - shame.

Frederick The Monk
56826.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 6:51 pm Reply with quote

The mediaeval payment for the right to marry was merchet.

Merchet was paid by peasants to the Lord of the woman getting married as the Lord was, in theory, losing a valuable worker. Usually the bride's father would pay, in effect buying the right to give his daughter away. This word derives from the plural form of daughter, merched, in old Welsh.

Frederick The Monk
56827.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 6:53 pm Reply with quote

Under early Norman law the particular code under which a peasant lived depended on where he lived. King William's laws were very limited and mainly dealt with how the French and English should behave towards each other. Beyond that he just said we should continue with Edward the Confessor's laws. As for the particular rights of individual lords, they were a matter of local custom.

Frederick The Monk
56828.  Fri Mar 03, 2006 6:55 pm Reply with quote

Merchet began long before feudal law.

Pope Gregory the Great attempted to legislate against its abuse in c. 600.

Report has also reached us that in the matter of the marriages of serfs, excessive payments are taken. We therefore command that no payments for marriage in any case exceed the sum of one solidus. If they are poor, even less should be given. If they are rich, they are never to pay more than the said solidus. We also desire that the marriage payment be in no way assigned to our accounts, but that it be devoted to the good of the tenants.

s:J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae Cursus Completus, (Paris, 1849), Vol. LXXVII, p. 498; reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 392-393.


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