What more efficient method of promulgating one’s supremacy over a people than to exert sexual dominance over their wives and daughters? Known variously as droit du seigneur, droit de cuissage, ius primae noctis on the Continent, and coll cétingen in Early Irish literature, the archetypal right of a lord or king to deflower his female subjects was not an uncommon literary concept throughout the course of history. While scholars as diverse as Gary Beckman and Alain Boureau have advanced the studies of such customs in Anatolia and medieval France respectively, little has been achieved in the field of Celtic Studies. This paper questions whether the custom formally existed within Irish society and, furthermore, whether it was implemented using tribal law or simply societal tradition.
I also discuss pre-marital virginity in medieval Irish society and its impact on economic matters such as bride-price; this brings into focus whether ius primae noctis is a plausible practice in a society preoccupied with women’s chastity and continence. Both the fictional, medieval Irish material and the laws allude to the value (either monetary or otherwise) of the greatest female commodity, virginity, and such is the case that being stripped thereof appears to have inflated the jurisdiction of the king.
Scéla Conchobair meic Nessa (‘The Tidings of Conchobar mac Nessa’), Tochmarc Emire (‘The Wooing of Emer’), Talland Étair (‘The Siege of Howth’) and Echtrae Nerai (‘The Adventure of Nera’) all exhibit literary examples of how a king or lord may intrude upon the intimate relationships of his subjects, and therefore enforce his own authority. Obviously, the dichotomy between royal exemplar as represented in the literature and social reality is complicated. Yet, what is fictional literature but a mirrored embodiment of social norms?
IMBAS 2013 (Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Medieval Conference, National University of Galway)