In medieval societies, noblemen and upper class men supposedly had the right to take the virginity of peasant women. This tradition has appeared in many works of fiction, including 1984, the Discworld series, and Gilgamesh.
In the movie Braveheart, for example, the practice of jus primae noctis is used as way to "breed out" the Scottish by Edward Longshanks, making for an emotional and memorable scene. But did this actually happen in real life? Let's find out.
An ancient Concept
The idea of a king or other nobleman having the right to sexually entertain a woman on her wedding night is known as jus primae noctis, a Latin phrase translating to "right of the first night."
The concept often extended to allow noblemen to take the virginity of any lower class woman in their territory. Doctor Doom invoked this practice, droit du seigneur, on at least occasion and it's mentioned in texts from the last several centuries.
The nobleman's right to a woman's virginity appears very early in written storytelling. King Gilgamesh of Uruk makes use of his noble right to bed the female (and the male if he chooses) in the epic poem Gilgamesh.
Jus primae noctis appears again in Herodotus' 5th Century B.C.E. Historia. Herodutus describes a tribal ruler who demanded that all virgins who desired to marry take an audience before him, with the ruler making it his whim to take the virginity of those who wanted to become married.
Fiction informing reality?
Late Middle Age and Renaissance era texts struggle to determine if this practice ever occurred. Voltaire included the concept in 1746's Dictionnaire philosophique, and his writings were a big part of why so many people believe this practice really happened. Voltaire also wrote a play revolving around droit du seigneur, but he condemned the practice.
A text from 15th Century Switzerland references the Lord of Maur demanding the right to take either the virginity of a bride or a fee, to be paid on the behalf of the betrothed. This right appears to be merely symbolic, as the fee required was exceptionally small — I doubt many husbands would skip out on Lord Maur's tax.
While the symbolic right appears to have existed, no firm evidence suggests the physical practice of taking a bride's virginity on her wedding night ever actually occured in antiquity. However, Hawaiian and Kurdish tribal leaders are believed to have exercised the option to take the virginity of women under their protection, but whether this right was tied to the women's marriage is debatable.
A nobleman's logistical nightmare
From a logistical standpoint, the process of a nobleman having sex with a newly married woman poses a number of problems. A number of "secret" weddings would probably happen, as a result. If you chose not to marry in secret, could also try assembling a group of burly friends and family members to assault the coming nobleman.
You can just imagine some fiefdoms where nobles died at an astonishing rate thanks to the date and time of the event, as well as the vulnerability of the nobleman at the time — it would be easy to catch him with his pants down.
Top image from the movie Braveheart. Doctor Doom panels from Super-Villain Team Up #7.