Ius Primae Noctis

Droit du seigneur (/ˈdrɑː də sˈnjɜr/; French pronunciation: ​[dʁwa dy sɛɲœʁ]) refers to a collection of putative similar rights allowing the lord to spend a night and have sexual relations with a subordinate woman. They also are known as prima nocta, mainly when they include the notion of "first night".

According to the most known variant, it was a legal right allowing the lord of a medieval estate to take the virginity of his serfs' maiden daughters.

There is little evidence, however, that the alleged rights ever actually existed, much less that they were ever exercised.


The French expression Droit du seigneur roughly translates as "right of the lord", but native French prefer the terms droit de jambage ("right of the leg") or droit de cuissage ("right of the thigh"), in reference to the exercise of this supposed right. The term is often used synonymously with ius primae noctis /ʒʌs ˈprm ˈnɒktɨs/,[1] which is Latin for "right of the first night".


The origin of this urban legend or popular belief is difficult to trace, though readers of Herodotus were made to understand that a possibly similar custom had obtained among the tribe of the "Adyrmachidae" in distant ancient Libya, where Herodotus thought it unique: "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."[2]

Early mention of the right used as social criticism occurred in 1556 in the work of French lawyer and author Jean Papon (1505-1590).[3] It acquired widespread currency after Voltaire accepted the practice as historically authentic in his Dictionnaire philosophique; soon it became used frequently, especially in satire.[4] 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 existed in France during the Ancien Régime, such as the droit de cuissage (droit du seigneur), 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).

Instances of the practice have been observed elsewhere. As late as the nineteenth century, some Kurdish chieftains (khafirs) in Western Armenia benefited from "the right of the first night".[5][6]

Literary and other references

Cultural references to the custom abound. Examples:

  • In the Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2250-2000 BC), 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.
  • The Talmud in tractate Ketubot discusses what may be done in a situation where a bride must "Have relations first with the Hegemon".[7]
  • 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
  • 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."
  • Chapter 7 of the first part[8] 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 prima nocte.
  • 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.
  • 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 (1991–present), the right of first night is seen as an extinct tradition once observed by the North, but some characters suspect that some Northern lords still exercise this right (Ramsay Bolton is conceived this way)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.[9]
  • Jon Stewart invoked this practice in a satirical effort to rebuff the Republicans' claims that Obamacare was the worst law ever created by man. [10]




  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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,'" 31 (2005), 49-59.

External links

  • The Straight Dope: Did medieval lords have "right of the first night" with the local brides?
  • Urban Legends website investigates the issue
  • Jus primae noctis. Scientific resources (in German)
  • The above resource in English translation
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