Droit de seigneur French for the lord's right, is a term now popularly used to describe an alleged legal right allowing the lord of an estate to take the virginity of the estate's virgins. It is also spelled droit du seigneur but native French prefer the term droit de cuissage or droit de jambage. A related term is ius primæ noctis (also jus primae noctis) Latin for law (or right) of the first night.
Droit de seigneur is often interpreted today as a synonym for ius primae noctis, although it originally referred to a number of other rights as well, including hunting, taxation, and farming.
In the late Middle Ages in Europe, the ius primae noctis was a widespread popular belief in an ancient privilege of the lord of a manor to share the bed with his peasants' newlywed brides on their wedding nights. This belief was reflected in symbolic gestures which lords developed and used as humiliating signs of superiority over the dependent peasants in a time of disappearing status differences.
The origin of this popular belief is difficult to trace. In the 16th century, Hector Boece referred to the decree of the Scottish king Evenus III that "the lord of the ground shall have the maidenhead of all virgins dwelling on the same". Legend has it that Saint Margaret of Scotland procured the replacement of jus primae noctis with a bridal tax called merchet. But King Evenus III did not exist, and Boece's account included much clearly fictional material. In literature from the 13th and 14th centuries and in customary law texts of the 15th and 16th centuries, jus primae noctis is also closely related to specific marriage payments of (formerly) unfree people. There is good reason to assume that this relation goes back to the early medieval period and has its roots in the legal condition of unfree people and Gaelic marriage customs.
Some scholars have speculated that the jus primae noctis of the Medieval European tradition did exist, and that it might have been similar to defloration rituals in Ancient Mesopotamia or 13th century Tibet (Evans 1979:30). In Mesopotamian literature, the right of the first night, in the sense of the privilege of a powerful man to deflower another man's woman, is a very old topos, present at least as early as Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2000 B.C.). Although the literary descriptions from ancient Mesopotamia and the legends of ius primae noctis in Medieval Europe stem from very different cultural traditions, they meet in the fact that, in both cases, persons of high social rank were involved.
Herodotus writes that virgins in 5th century BC Babylon were obliged to prostitute themselves in the temple of Ishtar, allowing a stranger to deflower them before they were allowed to marry (Herodotus I.199).
Marco Polo, in his Il Milione, observed that in 13th century Tibet, "The people of these parts are disinclined to marry young women as long as they are left in their virgin state, but on the contrary require that they should have had commerce with many of the opposite sex." (Evans 1979:30) Scholars have argued by analogy to the Tibetan custom recorded by Marco Polo and similar customs from other cultures that the ius primae noctis of Medieval Europe and the Mesopotamian custom alluded to in the Epic of Gilgamesh were not instances of the tyrant imposing his will on his female subjects, but a kind of "ritual defloration," in which "the community rallied around to support the individual," i.e., the deflowerer (Evans 1979:30).