Right of First Knight: Or, Family Feudalism

Having watched the movie The War Lord, which is reviewed elsewhere in this site, I got me to thinking about the so-called “right of first night”.  This is a major plot element in the movie, as it also is in the movie Braveheart.  Also, as is less well known, it is one of the most controversial topics of Medieval history. I thought therefore that it would be of interest to discuss this issue in the context of its times and with reference to whether it is actually factual.

To begin with, I would first like to sketch the basic outlines of how feudal society works, in order to have the proper context for understanding the “right of first night”.   Most movies are abysmal in correctly portraying Medieval politics (an area in which The War Lord succeeds very well, incidentally) and show little or no understanding of feudalism.   Sadly, even most schools and history classes and many books and novels don’t do much better.  Thus, a little Feudalism 101 will not be a complete digression.

The principle relationship in feudal society is that between lord and vassal.  The lord (dominus in Latin, seigneur in Middle French) owned the land, natural resources, game, manor house or castle, and weapons of a particular district. He also supported retainers both military (knights and soldiers) and domestic (various servants and skilled workers), who were members of his household. The vassal inhabited the land and farmed or otherwise improved it for the lord. At the lowest level, the lord would be a baron or knight, and the vassal a serf. Serfs, though landless and bound to the lord, were not slaves.  They were attached to the land and came as “part of the package”, so to speak, if the land traded hands through conquest, sale, or any other means, and were not usually free to leave it without the lord’s permission.  Still, serfs could not be bought or sold, and though landless, could buy and sell property (tools, some animals, &c.), enter into contracts, marry (although at some times this required the lord’s permission, the Church gradually put its foot down, insisting that free consent was necessary and that even parents and lords could not enforce marriages of unwilling partners), and serve on juries.

Essentially, the vassals farmed the land.  They owed a certain percent to the lord, from which he provisioned himself and his retainers.  They required the lord’s permission to move from the land and sometimes to marry and were liable to be pressed into service as foot soldiers if needed in time of war.  In return, the lord was responsible for protecting the vassals and for presiding over their civil cases, in which he was supposed to dispense justice.  Moving upward, each lord in turn was a vassal to the next highest regional lord, to whom he owed military support and taxes in the form of grain, livestock (obtained from his vassals), and materiel for war.  This proceeded on up the line to the king, who was in theory the ultimate owner of all the land in the country and the lord of everyone inhabiting it.  Thus, for example, Bob the serf might be the vassal of the Baron of Wooster, who was the vassal of the Earl of Shire, who was the vassal of the Duke of Ellington, and all were vassals of the king.

In practice, this was somewhat more complicated. Vassals were not always complacent about their roles. Minor lords were a constant source of trouble for monarchs (this is how the Magna Carta came to be passed, in fact—the lower nobility of England rebelled against King John and forced reforms on him), and even peasants revolted more frequently than we tend to think. Also, when two men held multiple fiefs (that is, feudal properties) and titles, each might be the other’s lord and vassal simultaneously.  E.g., as Duke of Ellington, Lord George might be lord over Lord John, Earl of Shire. However, George might also hold the county of Clark because he also has the title of Count of Clark (yes, the term for our subdivision of a state was originally the designation of a feudal fiefdom. Which means it hasn’t changed much in some states).  And perhaps the County of Clark is traditionally under the Duchy of Ham. Thus, if John is Duke of Ham, this means that in this capacity he is the lord of George. This was sometimes as confusing to the people of the time as it seems to us, and was often responsible for wars and insurrections.

The way in which this system is most different from the political systems we are used to is that it is much less abstract, and it has no concept of a nation-state. Now, true enough, France and England and Spain and so on did exist.  However, rather than being a citizen of, say, the nation of France by virtue of birth and sharing in French language, culture, and so on, one was a subject of the French king.  Thus, one’s status depended only on the one to whom one was vassal, not on language, culture, or even geography, since France was merely the fief of the King of France, and thus subject to changes in area and size as a result of conquest or loss.

Oddly, this system has two major advantages over modern systems.  First, it is very concrete.  We rant about “the system” or “the politicians” or “the government” or “faceless bureaucrats”.  Feudalism was anything but faceless. The lord might be a saint or a swine, you might love him or hate him, but the buck stopped with him.  At each stage in the hierarchy, you knew exactly who was in charge and over whom you had authority (if anyone).  Rather than working for or fighting for a somewhat abstract concept such as “England” or a very abstract concept such as “truth, justice, and the English Way”, you worked or fought for the King of England. More prosaic, perhaps, but certainly very clear!  Secondly, since allegiance was to an individual, not a nation-state, ethnic and cultural tensions (though they did exist) were substantially less problematic than today.  Even in a movie such as Braveheart, it is clear that the issue is not so much Scottishness vs. Englishness, or Gaelic culture vs. Anglo-Norman culture, but the oppressiveness of the English king.  If Edward had made a strategic alliance with the Scots, married off his son to a Scots princess, and unified the throne, he could probably have integrated the two kingdoms then (this, in fact, is what happened, more or less, in the 16th century when James VI of Scotland became James I of the United Kingdom).

We are now in a better position to assess the concept of the right of first night, which is intimately bound up with notions of the place of lords and vassals.  The Latin term is ius (less accurately spelled jus) primae noctis, “right of first night”; the Middle French equivalent, which is often seen, is droit du seigneur, “right of the lord”.  This is commonly understood to be a Medieval custom whereby the lord had the right to have sex with the bride of any vassal of his on the wedding night, after which she was free to sleep with her husband.  The question is, did this custom, as here described, actually exist?

A couple of quick clarifications.  No one denies that lords often had relations with whatever vassal women, married or otherwise, they desired, with or without their consent.  In The Wife of Bath’s Tale, Chaucer mentions a knight raping a young woman almost off-handedly.  No one denies, either, that to a large extent this was tacitly accepted, or at least tolerated.  The question is whether the droit du seigneur as defined above, existed as a regular and systematic custom that was widely accepted and practiced in the Middle Ages. One of the difficulties in researching things of this nature is that Medieval records are generally concerned with battles and noble lineages and taxes, showing almost total disregard for the daily lives of peasants and serfs. We don’t really know a lot about love and marriage in the typical village of the day, and there are no explicit explanations of the “right of first night” or “right of the lord”.  Over the last several years, though, a consensus has developed on the interpretation of these terms.  Not to keep you in suspense any longer, the majority scholarly consensus today is that it did not.

At the end of this essay, I will give some directions for further research on this issue, so I will not go into detail to make the argument (it would make this essay far too long, anyway!).  Suffice it to say that it is now believed that the understanding of right of first night as a license to deflower derives from some gross misinterpretations, both accidental and deliberate, by 19th century historians.  One obvious point, though, is that the vassal is somehow always a serf.  You never read of the ius primae noctis being exercised by an earl on a baron’s wife, or a king on a duke’s wife (and you don’t have to read much history to figure out that most kings would have exercised it for all they were worth with all the lord’s wives they could get!  Which they did, anyway, but this is never referred to as ius primae noctis or droit du seigneur). This in itself should make us suspicious; after all, as we saw above, the vassal/liege relationship was symmetrical at all levels of society, not just between the local lords and peasants.

Not only that, but for all its faults and all that it was willing to tolerate, the Medieval Church never countenanced such a practice.  Perhaps in practice lords were cut much more slack than peasants, but adultery was adultery and rape was rape, period, in the teaching of the Church, then as now.  In this respect, the priest in The War Lord is accurately portrayed.  What, then, are we dealing with here? There is no doubt that the terms ius primae noctis and droit du seigneur were in use in Medieval days; what do they refer to?

To summarize the current opinions on the matter, it seems that the right of first night was a right of the lord, not to his vassal’s wife, but to his money.  In many countries in the Middle Ages, there was a pious custom that the first night of a marriage was spent in prayer, with no intercourse (much as a knight kept vigil the night before the bestowal of knighthood).  The following day, a donation of goods or money was made to the local parish as a sign of thanksgiving and a prayer for fertility.  After this, the marriage would be consummated with great joy (needless to say!).  Since there was no separation of church and state, it was the duty or droit of the lord to collect the “right of the first night”, that is, the donation made by the couple on the occasion of their wedding.

Lest this seem an even less likely concept than the first, let me note two things. First, the practice of this first night of celibacy followed by a donation or tax was sporadic and far from universal.  Customs varied with country, region, culture, and historical period and there was probably never a universal practice of “right of first night” as we have described it here.  Second, as recently as the last century, pious couples in the rural areas of some Catholic countries still practiced abstinence after marriage for a day or even longer. According to the priest who baptized me, his own grandparents, who must have been married in the early 1900’s, followed an old German Catholic custom of abstaining for the first six months of their marriage.  Whether there was a donation to the Church afterward, I don’t know, but it shows that however odd the custom to us, it is not improbable, even in modern times, let alone the Middle Ages.

In conclusion, I would like to note that I do not hold this historical inaccuracy against either The War Lord or Braveheart.  Until fairly recently this interpretation was considered correct, and in most other respects both of these movies are superlative.  However, there are many mistaken notions held about the Middle Ages, that time so remote from us, and I think it useful and interesting to see the ways in which we are coming to know more about those times.  Certainly, given what the right of first night actually meant, it seems once again that truth is stranger than fiction!

 Recommended Reading and References

The Wikipedia article “Droit du Seigneur” is a good starting place.

The Discarded Image, by C. S. Lewis—Gives a good overview of the Medieval worldview and society.

From Sacrament to Contract and What is Marriage For?,–Both of these trace the customs and concepts of marriage though Western history. Although the portions on the Middle Ages are brief, and the ius primae noctis is not directly considered, the books are useful for considering the life, customs, and attitudes of the ordinary men and women of the time, something few books on the Middle Ages do.

The Dictionary of Misinformation and More Misinformation, by Tom Burnham—It was in one of these, I don’t remember which, that I first read that the right of first night as usually understood was a myth. Additionally, each of these is a wonderful treasure house of information, worth long browsing.

The Great Cat Massacre—Discusses the worldview and peculiarities of the commoner of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.

Posted on 26/09/2012, in history, Medieval and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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