Adam J. Kosto

title.none: Boureau, The Lord's First Night (Kosto)

identifier.other: baj9928.9905.014 99.05.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Adam J. Kosto, Columbia University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Boureau, Alain. The Lords First Night: The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage. Lydia Chochrane, trans. Originally published as "Le droit de cuissage: La fabrication d'un mythe (XIIIe -XX siècle)", Paris: Albin Michel, 1995. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Pp. ix, 300. $19.00. ISBN: 0-226-06743-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.05.14

Boureau, Alain. The Lords First Night: The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage. Lydia Chochrane, trans. Originally published as "Le droit de cuissage: La fabrication d'un mythe (XIIIe -XX siècle)", Paris: Albin Michel, 1995. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Pp. ix, 300. $19.00. ISBN: 0-226-06743-2.

Reviewed by:

Adam J. Kosto
Columbia University

Al ain Boureau's The Lord's First Night is a study of a legend: the mythical right of a lord to sleep with the bride of his vassal on her wedding night. Thus the work has less in common with the books on feudalism that it sits between in LC-classified library stacks than with his La Papesse Jeanne (1988). But historians of feudalism and peasant societies will in fact find this an enriching read. Then again, so will those interested in twentieth-century gender politics, nineteenth-century religion, eighteenth-century literature, and seventeenth-century scholarship, among other topics, for Boureau offers here a tremendously complex, occasionally frustrating, but always interesting examination of this most enduring of myths about the Middle Ages. Boureau has not set out to reenter the debate over the reality of the right; he acknowledges early on that it did not exist. His actual agenda is more ambitious: to understand the "true daily dimensions of the historiographic monster of feudalism," the "invention of collective memory," and the construction of "the idea of the Middle Ages" (3-4). If he does not quite meet these goals, the blame lies squarely with his phantom subject. His central argument that the myth is essentially a rhetorical element in various discourses of power is bolstered by a convincing contextual approach. These discourses remain, however, too shadowy and too diverse to support a more concrete conclusion.

In examining the development and persistence of the myth and, in a broader sense, the creation of historical memory, Boureau's method is to take the reader backward and then forward in time, stopping at various key moments to examine contexts. He begins with a consideration of modern interpretive uses of the droit de cuissage: as an example of connections between social power and gender, as a version of ancient nuptial and fertility rites, and as a "sociocultural theme" of interaction between male master and female servant. In this last guise, seen most famously in Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro (1784), the custom becomes an indicator of tensions in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century family structures.

Boureau goes on to show how nineteenth-century debates over the reality of the droit de cuissage contributed to the construction of the Middle Ages as "a time of radical strangeness eliciting proclamations of a dreamy political nostalgia or rational and social rejection" (40). A post-revolution consensus viewed the medieval period as a time of establishment of liberties and just revolt against seigneurial abuses; Boureau highlights here an interesting series of urban foundation narratives tied to the myth. 1848 dissolved this harmony. Conservatives looked to the Middle Ages as a time of order. The opposition constructed a counter-image of a Middle Ages of "obscurantism and fanaticism" (72). Boureau sees as central in this cultural conflict the battle pitting the "centralizing, Roman, Parisian, Catholic, and [ chartiste] arrogance of the censors of the droit de cuissage" (89) against Gallican and liberal scholars, who argued for its existence. A mythical right thus became the touchstone for religious, political, and ideological struggles over the meaning of the Middle Ages that, Boureau argues, shaped popular images of the period still held today.

Continuing his progression backward in time, Boureau works systematically through the seventy-two proofs included in Jules Delpit's Re'ponse d'un campagnard a` un Parisien, ou Re'futation du livre de M. Veuillot sur "le droit du seigneur" (Paris, 1857). Seventeen he labels forgeries or more recent (i.e., post-medieval) legends; four represent ecclesiastical marriage dues; forty-one, seigneurial dues owed to lords (considered, without evidence, to be commutations of the droit de cuissage); and three cases are deemed irrelevant. This leaves him with five cases that merit closer examination: claims of the right found in original documents dated 1419 to 1674 from BÈarn, Normandy, and Picardy. These documents are aveux et de'nombrements, legal statements of rights and holdings. As many such records surviving in the archives are unregistered -- not, that is, official documents -- the few texts purporting to document the droit de cuissage can be discounted. Boureau argues convincingly that the de'nombrements were instruments of negotiation, into which lords might attempt to insert the occasional "bizarre right" (such as a bridge toll paid in pubic hairs!). Such claims are thus part of a discourse of power in which real and personal relationships are expressed in sexual terms. The handful of witnesses for such rights that he has uncovered -- among thousands of surviving records -- are simply cases of "bawdy provocations or strong threats rather than rights or traditions" (11). Boureau's analysis of the immediate context for these proofs -- especially his evocative reconstruction of the relations between the Pyrenean villages of Aas and Louvie-Soubiron (110-16) -- is some of the best work in the book.

Having dispensed neatly with the fact, Boureau must still contend with the myth, which he does by examining broader historical contexts. He identifies two themes -- rural servitude and marriage customs -- that allow him to study in turn lay and ecclesiastical constructions of the myth. Noting that mentions of the right are generally connected to rural servitude, he sets out to "establish in what social context the droit de cuissage was asserted and to define the perception of dependence that constructed that possibility" (121). He offers a brief review of historiography and survey of servile burdens such as taille, mainmorte, and formariage, the last a marriage tax most obviously connected to his subject. Here again Boureau focuses on structures of power, and on the use of archaic vocabulary in discourses of power. Feudal customs are viewed as pawns in games of competition for sovereignty, or in the equally complex games of the village marriage market. A setpiece on relationships of dependence at the Templar commandery at Douzens in the twelfth century (128-33) is useful for medievalists, but Boureau's attempt to generalize here is less than lucid: In a period of strong social turbulence when categories were shifting, a monastery's recall of the abuse of persons (enveloped in a lenifying lexical homogeneity) clearly situates the myth within a triangular structure of dependence . . . . This triangular figure produced three dependencies and three virtual conditions of subjection, whether variations in context produced an equilateral triangle or an irregular triangle where one power or another was stronger. (133) Boureau is certainly correct to point out the complexities, but I am not certain that such language -- made even worse by the translation -- helps us to understand them. In short, readers would do well to come to this section with a strong knowledge of the vocabulary and issues of peasant servitude.

The survey of ecclesiastical droit de cuissage is similarly complex. Boureau notes a late fifteenth-century shift in literary images of the clergy, a shift that he eventually ties to the growing split between the institutional church and its membership. He explores this problem by examining a conflict in Amiens, in which a dispute concerning jurisdiction over adultery generated accusations of episcopal droit de cuissage. The link between this case and the right is quite tenuous, but Boureau uses it as an opportunity to enter into a wide-ranging discussion of the customs and canon law of marriage. The closing chapter, meant to bring the reader back to the eighteenth century, returns to the examination of narrower contexts in a final series of case studies, from the earliest mention of the right in a poem of 1247 to parallel accounts of the Grands Jours of Auvergne in 1665. Here again Boureau views the construction of the myth as a deliberate strategy in precise political contexts.

What does all this add up to? That is difficult to say. The droit de cuissage never existed. The myth did, from as early as the thirteenth century, but it was never particularly widespread. Since the evidence is often thin or non-existent, and Boureau cannot follow the steady development of a tradition, he proceeds by examining in great detail the myriad contexts of a series of key moments, sometimes up close, sometimes from a distance. Case studies lead into tangential discussions that loop back to still other examples. As with his treatment of the dispute at Amiens, many of these digressions depart from cases that Boureau himself writes off in his discussion of the seventy-two "proofs," so he often travels very far from the droit de cuissage itself. Fortunately, this lack of direction is balanced by the inherent interest of the material and the skill and learning of Boureau's analyses.

Boureau has limited himself to the French sphere, a sensible and well-justified decision. Scattered mentions of analogous customs in other regions serve only as adjuncts to his discussion of the French sources, and an Appendix (II) on Iberian evidence is a response to a scholar arguing, once again, for the reality of the right. Still, taken together this additional evidence weakens his argument that the droit de cuissage is "essentially French" (6, 230). It is true that the myth may not have crystallized in other regions in the particular forms he examines, but he himself has a difficult time establishing a coherent tradition out of a series of French moments. Furthermore, his contextual approach seems perfectly adaptable beyond the hexagon, where distinct socio-political conditions might lead to other manifestations of the myth. Additional work on the myth outside France is needed to test his conclusions.

Appendix I offers a translation of a literary episode of seigneurial sexual abuse discussed in the text. Appendix III of the French edition has been expanded into a useful glossary of some 240 Latin and vernacular terms, italicized in the main text. The bibliography is in itself quite interesting; Boureau here lists in chronological order works relevant to the droit de cuissage. The translation by Lydia Cochrane, while occasionally lazy (persiflage, lenifying, heteroclite, polygraph, captalcy, Chartist . . .), is generally faithful.

Boureau observes that the "prolific corporation of American medievalists shows a nearly complete lack of interest in the droit de cuissage, despite a high degree of sensitivity to divisive questions of gender" (14). This book, with its kaleidoscopic approach to the problem, should go a long way toward changing that situation.