Prima Nocta: The Weird Medieval Marriage Law (That Didn't Exist)
Certain things in the recent era can feel akin to the Middle Ages … or at least what we think of the Middle Ages. The truth is a lot of what pop-culture presents of the period doesn't match the actual history. This week at Cracked, we're doing a Middle Ages deep-dive – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
According to tons of pop culture, medieval marriage included a barbaric practice called prima nocta. This law put a damper on weddings, as it gave a lord the right to have sex with any bride on her wedding night. Don’t worry too much about it, though, because it is, by all accounts, almost definitely a myth created centuries later. That hasn’t stopped it from regularly popping up in books, movies, etc., though.
Also known by the full Latin name of jus primae noctis, or “right of the first night,” this horrible law was often attributed to medieval Europe, but it had been mentioned for thousands of years prior. In the earliest surviving story in the world, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the titular character terrorized weddings and abused the power of prima nocta, leading the people to desperately pray for a hero to fight him off.
This mention of prima nocta is important, as the stories of Gilgamesh are mythical and not indicative of what was truly happening. Leaders assaulting women on their wedding night was considered horrible even thousands of years ago, and it was used as a cautionary tale of sorts. Gilgamesh’s actions represented how a ruler should not act. Throughout history, it is much easier to find stories meant to criticize the idea of a “first night” law than it is to find examples of it actually happening.
This takes us back to medieval times, where we see most of the references to prima nocta taking place. Feudal lords would supposedly take women on their wedding nights as a way to show power and keep their vassals subordinate. However, there are no credible accounts of this. Instead, what we find are authors from the Renaissance period or later bringing up prima nocta to show how civilized they were relative to the Middle Ages. Famously, 17th century Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire wrote about the abusive use of power to show what unintelligent people of earlier centuries were like.
Prima nocta was also a convenient shortcut to making a villain. A lord who feels so powerfully unstoppable that he assaults women solely to show off his authority is an obvious bad guy in a story. Audiences who heard Gilgamesh back in Mesopotamia and who watched it in modern depictions like Braveheart would all know that the ruler practicing prima nocta was the bad guy who needed to be stopped.
Plus, aside from the lack of evidence to show that it ever happened in the Middle Ages, it is often noted that it would just be impractical for something like prima nocta to be ingrained in society. This is not to say that sexual assault did not happen in the medieval period, as it was, unfortunately, as common as it is in any period of history. However, the idea of a lord being involved in every wedding night would be bound to create problems.
Seeing as nearly every society throughout history considered a practice like this to be worthy of rebelling against, a lord who tried to enact prima nocta would inevitably face opposition. Plus, even if a lord succeeded at doing this, it would lead to medieval epidemics of disease and illegitimate children. A lord would have to understand that the downsides of prima nocta would far outweigh the benefits of it.
So, there is no reason to believe that prima nocta, particularly in the Middle Ages, was anything other than a myth. As for practices that the myth could have possibly been based on, some odd marital practices could feasibly be misinterpreted for something more sinister.
A serf may have had to get permission from a lord to marry, and this was known as culagium. This often meant needing to pay a fee to be able to marry. When a serf married, they could move from one lord’s land to another, and the fee helped offset the cost of a lost serf. The Catholic Church had a similar fee that could be paid to allow a couple to consummate their marriage on their wedding night. Otherwise, they’d have to wait a few nights while in prayer. Fun traditions!
As for prima nocta, it looks like it was never the widespread or even occasionally practiced phenomenon that stories new and old want people to believe. Life in the Middle Ages still would’ve sucked, though, with or without weird marriage customs.
Top image: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wiki Commons