"Le Droit du Seigneur" (Vasily Polenov, 1874)
Droit du seigneur
, literally "the lord's right", also known as ius primae noctis
("law of the first night") and other names, is an alleged legal right that the lord of medieval estates or fiefdoms has to take the virginity of his serfs' maiden daughters (or at least gets first refusal). It is a popular trope in fantasy
or medieval European settings, especially of the Crapsack World
flavour. Usually invoked by the Feudal Overlord
as one of his many Kick the Dog
moments. May involve The Dragon
The historical basis for the "right" is murky, as discussed on the Other Wiki.
Though historians have found no evidence that this practice was codified in common law, other historians argue that it was practiced informally and extra-legally as early as in the times of the Roman Empire and as lately as the turn of the century (which century is never really specified) in rural areas of Armenia and Uttar Pradesh, a region in India. In addition, there is historical basis for the seigneur
having the right to a cash payment when the daughter of one of his unfree tenants was married.
The trope was popularized and treated as a reality in works written during the Enlightenment (notably in Beaumarchais's and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro
), as the droit du seigneur was seen as embodying the abuses of the aristocracy
and/or the supposed barbarism of the Middle Ages
. To this day there are more examples of backlash against the supposed law than there are chronicled occurrences of it.
Subtrope of I Have You Now, My Pretty
and a way to establish that Aristocrats Are Evil
. If it's the Dung Ages
, expect the lord to say "Bathe Her and Bring Her to Me
." The Scarpia Ultimatum
is a related concept, done with less legal backing.
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- In the Elseworlds medieval AU one-shot Kal, Lex Luthor (as a local lord) invokes this on - no surprise - Lois Lane. The hero Kal dies avenging her rape and murder (she fought back, BTW). Like almost every usage of this trope that one might see, his underlings warn "That isn't really done anymore" - which he laughs off. Even within the fictional worlds where this holds sway, its a bit confusing, since the Kal story ends with the very elderly James, son of Oll, telling Kal's story to the young Merlin, which means the underlings were telling Lex this ancient right which was no longer invoked was even more ancient than that. Except for stories where it is a current and common practice, no one ever gives a real idea of just when it was common — only that it no longer is.
- One of the Jerk Jock knights in Garulfo apparently engaged in this (though all we get to hear before he's interrupted is that he goes in yelling "Prima noctis!" and backhanding a would-be interferer who was probably the husband).
- In the world of V for Vendetta, certain offences (like prostitution) are designated a "class-H offence". That means the punishment is entirely at the discretion of the arresting officer. This serves as a Kick the Dog for the Fingermen (and by extension, the government they serve) at the start of the story and ensures we don't feel bad when V shows up to kill them as they're about to rape Evey.
- In Braveheart, Edward "Longshanks" grants ius prima noctis to English lords, granting them the sexual right to take any Scottish girl for himself on her wedding night. He figures with this in place, some of his lords will both be more eager to rule in Scotland, and more thoroughly keep the Scots under their thumb. His explicit reasoning, though, was to "breed [the barbarism] out of" the Scots. We witness this happen at one wedding, where Morrison's wife is carried off by Lord Bottoms to be raped. When Morrison comes across Bottoms during William Wallace's attack on the English garrison, Morrison makes his grievance with him felt in no uncertain terms:
Lord Bottoms: I never did her any harm. It was my right!
Morrison: Your right? Well, I am here to claim the right of a husband!
[Morrison kills Lord Bottoms]
- Pretty much the entire plot of the Charlton Heston film The War Lord, where the knight protagonist falls in love with a peasant woman and uses droit de seigneur to claim her on her wedding night. It was based on the Leslie Stevens play The Lovers.
- The title character of Caligula exercises his droit du seigneur by raping both Proculus and his new wife, widely considered his most sickening act of the movie.
- The Gothic horror film And Now The Screaming Starts has a family of British nobles suffering from a curse brought about as punishment for an ancestor's presumptuous invocation of prima noctis.
- Downplayed in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, in which King Richard exercises his right to kiss Maid Marian at her wedding.
Rabbi Tuckerman: It's good to the the king.
- Mentioned jokingly by the Prince Of Wales at Percy and Margeurite's wedding in The Scarlet Pimpernel 1982.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, while banned by one of the previous monarchs, some lords still practice it.
- Roose Bolton acknowledges that he raped a maid who had married without letting him, as her liege lord, invoke his right of "first night." In an attempt to to present his fellow Northern Lords as Not So Different from him, Bolton claims that Umber lords (staunch allies of the "good guys") also practice it. Something of a karmic example, although an innocent was slain in the process: This particular sexual crime bore a fruit named Ramsay Snow, who murdered Roose's rightful son and heir (and, by the limited accounts we receive, the only decent human being in the entire House), and saddled Roose with a psychotic and dangerously reckless illegitimate heir.
- The late Mad King Aerys lusted after Joanna Lannister, wife of his Hand Tywin Lannister. He joked that it was a shame that the practice had been outlawed, antagonizing Tywin. Although he is not known to have raped Joanna, Barristan Selmy does confirm that he took liberties in the bedding ritual, apparently going further than the accepted disrobing of the bride.
- Robert Baratheon did a somewhat comedic twist on this at his brother Stannis's wedding. Stannis was well known in the Seven Kingdoms for finding sex repulsive, while Robert was a boisterous, whore-loving drunk. However, instead of taking Stannis's new wife Selyse to bed, he seduced Delena, one of Selyse's cousins, and had sex with her in Stannis's wedding bed before the wedding was even over. That union ultimately produced Edric Storm, who played a significant role in Stannis's efforts to retake the Iron Throne for House Baratheon.
- King Joffrey Baratheon threatens to do this to Sansa Stark on her wedding night in yet another petty torment he inflicts on her, though his uncle Tyrion's threat to geld him if he lays a hand on her appears to frighten him off.
- An In-Universe example of Deliberate Values Dissonance occurs with the maester writing/narrating The Princess and the Queen (which takes place not long after that law's abolition) snarking at the irrationally-jealous smallfolk who frequently failed to recognize the "great honor" of letting the local noblemen get their wives and daughters with child. The practice is more acceptable in the Crownlands under the direct rule of the Targaryen monarchs.
- A rare modern example occurs in 1984, in which one element of The Party's propaganda is the claim that before Ingsoc there had existed a law "by which every capitalist had the right to sleep with any woman working in one of his factories".
- Played for laughs in the novel Wyrd Sisters. Duke Felmet would like to exercise his Droit du Seigneur, but nobody cares to explain him what it is. As a result, he imagines it to be some kind of large hairy dog. It is also a plot point that the previous king, King Verence I (murdered by Felmet) was very fond of practicing it (apparently without complaints), and that while he was out, the Queen took up with the court jester- the product of this match is crowned as Verence II and turns out to be a good ruler.
- It is mentioned by Nanny Ogg in Maskerade. During her youth, she worked as a maid in Lancre Castle. Very briefly, because the King tried to grab her while she was holding a large ham. The encounter "ended her life below stairs, and put a significant crimp in the king's activities above them."
- The famous Italian novel, The Betrothed, starts when the priest refuses to let Renzo and Lucia marry because the local nobleman, Don Rodrigo, has his eye on her.
- Mentioned in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland as one of the things that bad Aristocratic Feudalists like to get up to when oppressing the peasantry.
- This comes up in John Ringo's Paladin of Shadows series. The main character is reluctant to follow through with a tradition that requires the Kildar to deflower a newly married Keldaran woman, with the reasoning that you don't have sex with the brides of men who have guns at your back, but is eventually convinced to accept it by the village elders. A few books later, he figures out the real reason for it and refuses to do it again.
- Mentioned in Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary and attributed as a common practice of Medieval nobility.
- Played straight in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Arthur, while hearing cases, condemns a peasant girl for marrying without giving her lord his customary rights—even though the girl's lord is a bishop. As Arthur reasonably notes, it might be a sin for the bishop to sleep with a girl, but that's a matter between the bishop and the Pope (and God); it doesn't change the fact that under British law, the bishop was entitled to the girl's virginity if he wanted it.
- In an interesting twist, there is no mention of the farmer-priests in Frostflower and Thorn, who are the equivalent of feudal lords and priests rolled into one, having this kind of right. (Though as Frostflower discovered, they can be very coercive if they see someone they'd like to screw.) However, the warriors of this world—who are all female—have "warrior's privilege" in the form of sexual access to other women's husbands.
Live Action TV
- In the Merlin episode "Queen Of Hearts", Prince Arthur and Guinevere (the maid of Arthur's stepsister Morgana) tried to keep their romance secret as Uther would not allow such a match to happen. However, he caught them kissing at a secret picnic, but at first assumed Arthur was simply having his way with a serving maid (which he alludes to having done himself), though he still says it can't go on.
- In the US Office episode "Ben Franklin," Michael decides to put "prima nocta" into effect, having watched Brave Heart. Jim has to explain to him what that means.
Mythology and Tales
- Even the criticism of this practice is Older Than Dirt: it's one of the things Gilgamesh is guilty of before he befriends Enkidu.
- Droit du seigneur is brought up in The Wooing of Emer when Bricriu of the Venomous Tongue declares that Conchobar doesn't have the right to sleep with Emer before Cu Chulainn (the guy who killed hundreds of men for the privilege of marrying her) so much as he has a legal obligation to. Being rightfully scared shitless of what Cu Chulainn would do to him if he did, but also reluctant to lose his authority if he didn't, Conchobar gets around it by "sleeping with" Emer in only the most literal sense.
- It is said of Axumitenote general/official Abraham the Split-Faced, Governor of Yemen,note that his appellation derived from a time when he was engaged in a fight with a man who wanted his job. After Abraham received a chop to the center of his face, his servant jumped in and killed his challenger. In gratitude, the guv said the servant could have anything he wanted; the servant asked for the right to sleep with every bride on her wedding night, which Abraham disliked but felt honor-bound to allow. So the servant went on sleeping with newlywed women for a while until an aggrieved groom killed him. When the case went before him, Abraham apologized and let the man go free.
- This is one of the major plot points in The Marriage of Figaro, with Count Almaviva wanting to seduce Susanna and threatening to reinstate this feudal custom.
- In Warhammer Fantasy, the ius primae noctis is in effect in some Bretonnian duchies, although it is considered a rather dated practice even there, with few lords choosing to exercise it even if it were still law in their demesne. It's rather touchingly subverted, however, in the case of Lord Laurent of the Duchy of Artois, who requires any newlyweds in his dutchy to both spend their wedding night in his bedchamber. Lord Laurent sleeps outside the door to ensure they aren't disturbed, much to his subjects' surprise.
- Likely (ab)used by one of the Elector Counts of the Empire: a line in the fluff mentions that on the Count's defeat by a Champion of Chaos, all the womenfolk burst into cheers. Feeling strangely pleased, the Champion left the town unscathed.
- In Dragon Age, it's mentioned that this practice is popular in Orlais amongst the Nobles and Chevaliers. Liselle, an Orlesian merchant encountered in Denerim, explains that the reason she came to Ferelden was to flee retribution after her brother knocked out a Chevalier who attempted to invoke this. It's implied that it is far less common in Ferelden as (more the most part) the nobility tends to hold themselves to the same laws and standards as they impose on the common folk ("The nobles are not so high, and the commoners are not so low"). It's a sign of how monstrous Bann Vaughan is, that he's the only noble to be shown to routinely practice this.
- Debunked on www.straightdope.com, citing the dubiousness of historical accounts, the absence of proof, and the grim but all-too-plausible argument that no medieval upper-class thug with a sword would need such a legal entitlement to get away with raping peasant women.
- Cracked says that this custom was "always practiced by the other lord down the street"; usually as an excuse to go kill them and take all their stuff by painting them as a monster. Since the winners write the history books...
- The Family Guy episode "Brothers & Sisters," has an English "local nobleman" attempting to invoke his right of "prima noctus" on Lois' sister after she agrees to a date with Mayor West.