Right of the Lord

Under a law known as le droit du seigneur, ‘the right of the lord’, medieval noblemen had the right to spend the wedding night, or ‘first night’, with every bride in their fiefdom. 

The custom of someone other than the husband being the first to engage in sexual intercourse with a bride after her wedding, hence relieving her of her virginity, goes back thousands of years. It stems from the ancient idea that God’s human incarnations here on earth were the sources of all life. Initially, priests, later supplanted by divinely ordained kings, believed to have descended from heaven as the primary intermediary between humans and God, took on the role of defloration, thereby presuming to ensure a couple’s fertility. The reproductive power of kings became symbolic of the overall strength and viability of their kingdoms and was seen to guarantee fertility of the land and, consequently, to ensure abundant harvests. 

The first night custom is first recorded in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, considered to be the oldest story ever told, from earlier Sumerian legends of Gilgamesh (circa 2100 BCE). Gilgamesh, the arrogant and powerful ruler of Uruk, regularly exercised the privilege to be the first to sleep with a new bride. He was challenged on this account by the subhuman brute Enkidu, indicating that the custom of first night was an unpopular one even then.

The custom was similarly practised by various Roman chieftains, although by then, all pretence that it was to ensure a bountiful harvest or fertile brides had been stripped away. Roman chieftains took the custom to a new level by charging husbands for their performance of this duty, the imposed fee aimed at creating the illusion that a service was being rendered, rather than carnal desire being satisfied. 

The first night custom survived in parts of Europe into the Middle Ages, solely from a position of power of noblemen over their vassals, as feudal noblemen were not of royal blood, having had their titles bestowed on them and, hence, having no claim to divinity. Of course, they also had every right to waive their performance of le droit de seigneur, especially, when on appraisal, they found the bride to be physically unattractive. However, there seems to be scant historical evidence of the actual occurrence and enforcement of le droit de seigneur in medieval Europe, indicating that it was a concept used to extort money from vassals, rather than a regular practice. In other words, the custom mostly took on the form of payments of redemption dues by vassals to avoid enforcement.

In America, during slavery, this form of rape was euphemistically known as the ‘master’s obligation’. Slavery was abolished in America in 1865, but until then, slaves were owned as property, and slaveholders legally could force themselves on female slaves with impunity at any time, not only on the wedding night.


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