«Primae Noctis » and Common Sense
By Sr. Beatriz Liaño, S.H.M.
Primae noctis never existed in medieval Europe. There is no need of presenting manuscripts to declare it. In fact, common sense is enough to confirm this thesis without hesitation.
Is it reasonable to think that St. Benedict, St. Bernard, St. Dominic of Guzmán, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare of Assisi, St. Bonaventure, St. Ferdinand of Spain, St. Louis of France, and so many other saints would have approved of women beginning their matrimonial life with the sin of adultery, that is, a mortal sin? The legend of the supposed primae noctis is just another myth used to defame the Church. Many are intent on discrediting the Church precisely during the time-period when Christ triumphed in Europe so fully that Europe was called Christendom. I do not deny that the Middle Ages had its setbacks and imperfections. But it was an age in which “States were governed by the philosophy of the Gospel. […] The State, constituted The State, constituted in this wise, bore fruits beyond all expectation” (Immortale Dei, 21).
After this impetuous introduction, perhaps I should specify what primae noctis is, in case anyone has doubts. A simple online search will supply you with thousands and thousands of websites that tirelessly proclaim its existence. Primae noctis is the supposed privilege of the feudal lords to have sexual relations with the young women in their territories on their wedding nights. Once the marriage ceremony ended, the groom apparently had to accept the humiliation of accompanying his bride to the castle of the feudal lord to let his depraved patron satisfy his sexual desires with her until the morning. We are supposed to believe this took place legally, without provoking a social crisis, and, of course, with the complicity of the Church.
Some allege that they have historical documents such as references from popular songs or judicial judgments that confirm the existence of the hypothetical primae noctis. No offense, but given the lack of morality in so many scholars, present and past, who take ideology to be above the truth, I do not believe it until I see those documents. It is very easy to cite inexistent manuscripts that present the Middle Ages as an age of darkness and religious superstition. For centuries, enemies of the Church, especially in certain sectors of Protestantism and masonry, have dedicated themselves to this task. The French scholar Alain Boureau demonstrates that this supposedly generalized practice in the Middle Ages is not once expressly mentioned in any medieval text. Can we really suppose that a practice generalized over centuries could have existed without being documented in any literary or juridical text?
But let us suppose that one day, a scholar finds references to primae noctis in a medieval document. Not only do I want to see the document and ascertain its authenticity, I want an expert in history and medieval philology—an honest and scientific scholar, of course—to verify the exact significance of those words written so long ago, and whether their significance could have changed over time through certain misunderstandings. Thank God, many scholars seek to dismantle this “conspiracy” against the Middle Ages by certain historians. I will base the rest of my response on these scholars.
Jus primae noctis, the right of the first night, is a phrase that does appear in codes of medieval law. But what does this really mean? The legend created around this phrase has nothing to do with the right it actually defended. First, we must understand the situation of the peasants in feudal times. The lowest class of peasants were serfs. The historian Régine Pernoud explains that serfs obtained a concession of land from the lord who owned the feud. This piece of land was enough for a serf to maintain himself and his family. In exchange, the serf owed the lord a portion of his harvest and was expected to work on other portions of his lord’s land. Christian thought gave humanity the concept of person, so the lords treated serfs as persons, not as slaves in ancient societies. Once the serf paid the lord what he owed, he had no other obligations towards him, except that he could not abandon the land he cultivated. That was the only restriction on his freedom, but it was a relative restriction. He could not abandon his land, but neither could his land be taken from him. This right gave the serf a great economic stability. The feudal lord was obliged to provide for his serfs’ needs during times of famine and protect him with his army in times of war. The advantages were greater than the disadvantages. Imagine if corporations today took such good care of their employees, providing for them during economic crises and protecting them against any sort of violence!
Why was the serf obliged to remain in the lands his lord gave him? The serf could not abandon his lands because that would suppose a loss for his lord. In those times, the land was abundant but there were few farmers to cultivate the land, given the rudimentary farming techniques and the high mortality rate. Losing serfs was a great loss for the economy of a feud. This also explains why lords prohibited their peasants from contracting matrimony outside of the feud. The Church protested against this “violation of familiar rights.” Régine Pernoud, a world-renowned specialist in the history of the middle ages, explains that from the tenth century forward, a new custom began to liberate peasants from this unjust law. The lords began to “reclaim financial compensation from peasants who abandoned their lands to marry outside of the feud. That is how the jus primae noctis began. Although this phrase has lent itself for ridiculous interpretations, it was simply an authorization for the marriage of peasants outside of a given feud. Since everything in the Middle Ages had to have a ceremony, this right was conceded through symbolic gestures such as putting a hand or a leg upon the marriage bed using specific juridical terminology that has provoked malicious or vengeful interpretations that are totally erroneous.” There probably was aggression or sexual violence from certain feudal lords, but this took place as an abuse and not as an institutionalized right.
Vittorio Messori, prestigious Church historian, reaffirms that in Catholic Europe, primae noctis never existed. This custom unfortunately did exist in some African tribes, in pre- Columbian America, and in priestly castes of some religions such as Buddhism.
In the prologue of “Black Legends of the Church,” an excellent book by Vittorio Messori, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi expresses a concern of his: “The body of Christianity today suffers some type of immune deficiency;” we do not defend ourselves against attacks. Anti-Catholic propaganda works so well that we hang our head in shame and ask forgiveness when anyone says something negative about the Church, without trying to investigate to see if the accusation is true. Those who are ashamed of the Church and her history “are objectively in grave danger of losing the faith.” It is true that there have been—and are—many sinners in the Church. But it is also true that most of the legends against her are false. We must admit that there are shadows in her history, but in the total balance of twenty-one centuries, “the light prevails over the shadows.” That is not just my opinion; it was said by Professor Léo Moulin, an ex-mason defined by Messori as a “rationalist whose agnosticism borders atheism,” a professor of History and Sociology in the University of Brussels and one of the most prestigious intellectuals of Europe.
We must seek the truth, love the truth, and proclaim the truth, including the truth about our mother, the Church.
© HM Magazine; nº205 November-December 2018