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What is Ius Primae Noctis?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Ius primae noctis or the “right of the first night,” sometimes known as droit de seigneur, is a legendary right that was supposedly held by feudal lords. According to the terms of this right, the lord of the manor had the right to the marriage bed on the first night of a serf or peasant's marriage. Although numerous stories about it can be found, and the concept has been used as a plot device in many films and novels, some historical evidence strongly suggests that this right never existed.

Feudal lords certainly did have a great deal of power over the serfs and peasants who lived on their land, and they had a number of far-reaching rights, ranging from priority at harvest time to the right to hunt and fish freely. In the feudal era, residents of a manor were also tightly controlled by the lord, and they were expected to do his bidding, even if the legality of a particular order was not specifically spelled out in the law.

Legends about ius primae noctis are probably rooted in the tradition that peasants, serfs, and other residents of a manor needed to ask permission from the lord to marry. The idea was that the lord could potentially lose workers through a marriage, so he had a vested interest in controlling when and whom people married. Additionally, newlyweds were often required to pay a marriage tax to the Church, a form of tithing, and in some parts of Europe, the father of the bride was expected to make a payment to the lord of the manor to compensate him for the inconvenience of the marriage.

The traditions of asking for permission and paying bridal taxes are clearly documented in materials from the feudal area, suggesting that they occurred and they were widely accepted. Many descriptions of feudal weddings also include discussions of ribald joking and humiliating rituals that often played on the power of the lord. These actual events appear to have been conflated over time into stories about ius primae noctis.

Feudal life was rather unpleasant for people in the lower ranks of society, and in strict point of fact, most lords of the manor could and did force women to engage in sexual activity, whether or not they were married. Given that the lord's power over his serfs and peasants was widely accepted, he would hardly have needed a justification to sleep with peasant women.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon359094 — On Dec 15, 2013

Jus primis noctis is not confabulated history. Incredibly, most cite literary evidence and have read or talked little elsewhere.

In his book "Ten Pains of Death," an account of the miserable life of Sicilians as told by Sicilians in the 1950s, Gavin Maxwell states that jus prima noctis " was a regular practice in Western Sicilian life and came to an end only under the legislation of Mussolini." (P. 65). This corresponds roughly with an account I heard from an elderly contadino in Tuscany many years ago; jus primis noctis was rare but it did occur in Tuscany before World War II. We need to evaluate jus primis noctis both historically and anthropologically. Any more on the latter?

By anon325328 — On Mar 15, 2013

Given women were supposed to be virgins before marriage. The point of sex with the bride on her first night was not for pleasure, but to prevent the father from knowing for certain the child was his, thereby promoting dissension in the ranks.

It was supposed to be an insult to the peasants, leaving them with an "impure" heir. Lords continued to force subjects into sex. Look at slavery in the United States and the Caribbean. Slave holders produced many mixed offspring by virtue of just taking women and ejaculating sperm into them. Even Thomas Jefferson took slaves for sex. Why would we not assume feudal lords were different?

By anon314622 — On Jan 19, 2013

Gen 16:2 "And Sarah said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai."

This was a medieval practice approved by the Roman Catholic church to confirm the right of the priest to sleep with nuns - prostitution (see secret passages between convents and monasteries found in Spain and Rome in 1936). The governments of Pres. Aznar and Manuel Azana demanded national investigations.

This confirmed that the church saw women only as slaves - sex slaves. And it was the main reason to blame Protestant farmers of the Cape for not releasing their slaves, as the Cape farmers were married with slaves, Cape Farmers could not sell their families. They would release their families for money and then the families would willingly stay with inside the family circle. That is why the compensation was made in London, so the farmers were forced to make the trek.

In 1948, when Afrikaans Nationalism exposed this, with finding the burial sites of babies between monasteries and convents, the buck was passed to the then National Party and the start of the Fight of Apartheid, while the Afrikaner never was against mixed marriages. They acknowledge that before God they are not homogeneous but before His judgment we are equal - that is why they have a commandment - Love yourself as your neighbor. (Not his wife)

Remember the Republic was only founded on 31 May 1961, while Mandela was had already been tried and found not guilty in 1957 and which forced him to turn to terrorist actions in June 1961, while the Afrikaner and the Blacks suffered together with the concentration camps under British rule and during the Mine Riots in the 1920s. Mandela acted in the same way as Saddam Hussein. Why condemn him and lift up Mandela? It's simple: once you've lied, you cannot remember what is the truth.

In order to hide their involvement the British government used a pass the buck policy and created the fallacy of "Apartheid" linked to the Afrikaner.

The world became "holy fools" when they started to believe the "willing idiot" strategy.

I am glad that there is electronic media where facts can be shared. Compare the facts and find out for yourselves - don't believe me. Primae Noctis if not acknowledged by the church led to various sex crimes as adultery became the norm: I may rape because I just take what belongs to me.

By anon100693 — On Jul 31, 2010

"most lords of the manor could and did force women to engage in sexual activity."

This claim would be impossible to support even were it made about modern individuals who could be interviewed. For medieval people, about whom we have staggeringly limited records, it enters the realm of the absurd.

By anon48299 — On Oct 11, 2009

Are you trying to say that Gilgamesh is not in any way fictionalized? Because it almost certainly was - like most legends/early "history". Doesn't mean there aren't true bits in it, but have you read Gilgamesh? And you're seriously trying to imply it's all 100 percent true? Hm. I always wanted to be 2/3 god, myself.

By anon26709 — On Feb 17, 2009

About there being historical evidence that suggests this right never existed.... Prima Noctis was present in Gilgamesh, the oldest known story on earth. Does this mean that Gilgamesh is 100% fiction and was not influenced in any way by actual events?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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