Mesa D

Joerg Wettlaufer

Akademie der Wissenschaften in Goettingen

'The "right of the first night" in the middle ages - A continuing debate.'

>"For a very long time the right of the first night (jus primae noctis) has

been under debate by historians and other scientists. No consensus has been

reached so far. In this paper, several issues about the jus primae noctis

will be addressed.

>The first topic concerns the debate about the existence of the "right of

the first night" (droit de cuissage in French, derecho de pernada in

Spanish and Herrenrecht der ersten Nacht in German) as a feudal institution

in the middle ages in the nineteenth century. I will outline the major

issues of the debate in France. Furthermore the question will be answered

why the debate took place exactly after the revolution of 1848 and why it

became more than an academic dispute about a question of history of law.

The debate about the existence of a medieval jus primae noctis in

nineteenth century France was strongly influenced by political and

religious attitudes of the participants of the discussion. Although today

these attitudes have lost most of their relevance for scientific

investigation, this debate can be seen as a warning example that no science

can be done or is done in a truly objective manner.

>The second topic deals with the medieval evidence of the jus primae notis:

Today the debate about this so called right continues in several

publications by English, French and German scholars. The discussion is

about the relevance of a dozen texts from the late medieval period,

originating from all over Western Europe. These texts seem to mention

exactly what is understood as a lord's right to lie in bed with his

peasants' brides in their wedding nights. What do these texts, which stem

from customals and "d�nombrements" in France, Switzerland and from official

documents in Catalonia, really show and why do they mention the right of

the first night at all? What is the origin of the right of the first night

in European culture and how could this idea enter customal law text in the

fifteenth century? When we analyse the medieval sources the right of the

first night seems to be, in the European late medieval context, a

widespread popular belief in an ancient privilege of the lord of a manor to

share the bed with their peasants newly wed bride on her wedding night.

Symbolic gestures, reflecting this belief, were developed by the lords and

used as humiliating signs of superiority against the dependent peasants in

a time of disappearing status differences. Actual intercourse on behalf of

the alleged right is difficult to proof. It probably never occurred.

>Finally, the origin of the very idea of the jus primae noctis discussed.

Where can this idea be found in human cultures? How does evidence from

other cultures relate to the medieval European tradition and how can we

understand today, from a methodological point of view, ideas like the jus

primae noctis in an anthropological dimension? Several other non-European

cultures have accounts of a similar custom that was related to the first

sexual intercourse: ritual defloration of a girl by chiefs, priests or

strangers. This non-European custom was not seen as a privilege but rather

as a dangerous duty for men. The development and the relation of both

customs is treated and a biological explanation of their foundation in

human cultures is suggested."

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