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."