Testing out the Route

Gabrielle Spiegel

  • The Lord’s First Night: The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage by Alain Boureau, translated by Lydia Cochrane
    Chicago, 310 pp, £15.25, September 1998, ISBN 0 226 06743 2

Confusion between myth and historical reality has long plagued medieval scholarship, and nothing illustrates this better than the question of the so-called droit de cuissage, which is the subject of Alain Boureau’s book. Known to the Anglophone world in its 19th-century Latin form as the jus primae noctis (a prudish rewriting of the French), the droit de cuissage stipulated the seigniorial lord’s right to deflower newly married brides on his domain.

The term conjoins juristic privilege and sexual abuse in its combination of ‘right’ (droit) and ‘thigh’ (cuisse). It first appears in the writings of the late medieval jurist Nicolas Boyer (1469-1532), who reported that ‘the Lords of Gascony had the right to place a bare leg across the newly-weds’ bed,’ a privilege more vividly described towards the end of the 16th century by another distinguished lawyer, René Choppin, who vented his outrage at the fact that the canons of the cathedral chapter of Lyon, ‘who were at the same time counts of Lyon had the patronal right to “place the thigh” [jus coxae locandae] on the bed ... of subjects, male and female, contracting marriage on the first day of the conjugal union’, though he goes on to indicate that the ‘obscene obligation’ was changed into the gift of a banquet on the wedding day. We have here all the ingredients for an enduring myth: power, sex and, inevitably, money, which enters the mix as indemnification for the actual exercise of the putative ‘right’.

Small wonder, then, that belief in the droit de cuissage has persisted despite an almost complete lack of evidence. The term retains a certain currency in France as a substitute for our ‘sexual harassment’, which was defined in the Revised French Penal Code in 1991 as harcèlement sexuel, but immediately dubbed droit de cuissage by the press.

Part of the confusion derives from linguistic ambiguities in what are perfectly authentic texts. The Coutumier bourguignon, for example, compiled and glossed in the late 14th century, claimed that it was a Burgundian ‘custom’ pertaining to serfs that ‘whenever a man marries in another jurisdiction and takes a wife in the place, if he takes her to lie the first night under his lord, he loses nothing, for he acquires the woman for the lord and brings her into his condition.’ This is the well-known right of formariage, by which a lord was compensated for the loss of future progeny on his estates when a male or female serf ‘married outside’ them. According to the Burgundian Customal, the dependant can avoid payment of the fine by leading his bride to gésir soubs le seigneur (‘to lie under the lord’), the clear medieval meaning of which is ‘within the confines of the lord’s territory’, thus allowing the lord to claim authority over the couple’s descendants, for which right he forgoes the traditional indemnification offered in formariage. Such potential for misunderstanding opened the way for ideologically motivated readings of the documentary evidence in later centuries. And it is the significance of such (mis)readings that Boureau sets out to trace here.

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