Droit de seigneur literally means the right of the lord. This custom from the European Middle Ages (5th-15th century) and beyond allowed a feudal lord to deflower the bride of his serf on her wedding night. In plain fact, it amounted to rape. So it’s appropriate that on St Valentine’s Day, last Friday, we observed One Billion Rising, a global call to protest violence against women by dancing publicly. “One in three women on the planet (adding up to a billion women) will be raped or beaten in her lifetime,” said Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues that humorously vents attitudes towards women. She rightly says this is as critical a goal as ending poverty, AIDS or global warming.
This social practice of sexually overpowering the physically weaker sex, and exerting economic power over her chosen husband is also known as droit de cuissage, literally meaning the right over her thigh. Another such French expression jui primae noctis also amounts to rape rights over women subservient to the ruler. This ultimate symbol of feudal barbarism has been recorded in umpteen stories and paintings such as Vasily Polenov’s 1874 painting of an old man bringing his daughters to their feudal lord and Paja Jovanovic’s 1998 painting Adornment of the Bride, which became a Yugoslavian postage stamp. The plot of the opera The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is mainly based on jus primae noctis too.
Greek “Father of History” Herodotus (484-425 BC) wrote about a Libyan custom of “bringing all women about to become brides before the king, that he may choose...” In the 12th century, “Kurdish chieftains in Western Armenia reserved the right to bed Armenian brides on their wedding night”. Belgian writer David Van Reybrouck wrote in his 2010 book Congo, a story about the former Zairian President Mobutu and a Congolese custom: “If he was on tour across the country, local leaders still offered him a virgin. It was a great honour for the family if the girl was deflowered by the supreme leader.”
French lawyer-author Jean Papon (1505-1590) first opposed this tradition. French writer-philosopher Voltaire denounced it saying, “This excess of tyranny was never approved by any public law”, but acknowledged its historic authenticity in his Dictionnaire Philosophique. In 1935, Paolo Mantegazza’s book, The Sexual Relations of Mankind, stated that droit de seigneur appeared to be “a binding custom”.
It’s interesting, even shameful, that because there is no