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132 Reviews Boureau, Alain, The Lord's First Night: The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1998; pp. 300; R R P US$55 (cloth), US$19 (paper); ISBN 0226067424 (cloth). In 1992 the French National Assembly deliberated a new Penal Code which considered many monstrous crimes against humanity and which also provoked investigation of the infamous droit du seigneur or ius primae noctis, an alleged custom of the Middle Ages and an early form of the most severe sexual harassment. The present study, a sensitive and witty book, is concerned to explore this famed legend of feudal barbarism, a peculiarly horrific ordeal supposed to have been practised in many parts of France, and, perhaps, in Spain, in the Middle Ages. In essence, it is shown that the matter belongs to thefieldof folklore, and that it is both a belief legend of some antiquity and perhaps even one of the earliest recorded 'contemporary legends'. It is an intriguing instance of the invention of collective memory. The method of exploration of this case is the somewhat startling one of linking the vexed question of the feudal lord'srightto sleep thefirstnight with his tenant's new bride with burning issues of contemporary (American) gender debates. The related lore about the (British) squire's/Russian landowner's fathering of a child in every village family does not feature in the argument. Thus the treatment of the theme moves into the French theatre, around various regions and through the many legal matters that appear to be entangled with the surviving print references to this alleged custom. It is also the case that all investigations mustfirstfocus on France in 1789, when the abolition of seigniorialrightsrelated the droit du cuissage to history, even as it expressed in concrete fashion the modern sentiment of the sacredness of the individual. This clearly perceived, Boureau has proposed to attempt to construct 'a genealogy ofthe constitution ofthe diffuse knowledge that gave the mediaeval exemplum its forms and colors' (p. 5). Amongst the assembled 'remnants and persistences' there is shown to be a long-running continuity to the dialectic of the dominant master and the dominated female servant, from medieval times to very recent and necessary trade union prevention ofthe exploitation of women, and the persistent French tradition of a cynical gallantry and libertinage. Another perpetuation ofthe legend is shown to be thefieldof ethnosexology and the assumed sexual functions of the pagan priesthood, which, allegedly, in the Christian world, passed to the man of worldly power to the (feudal) lord. Discussion of like sexual customs in the Celtic lands in the Anglo-Norman period is helpful, even if it doubts that their existence has Reviews 133 been proved, despite the specific assertions ofHector Boece (c. 1465-1536), the famed Scottish historiographer. And Dutch and German scholars ofthe eighteenth and nineteenth centuries posited like early barbarity in Frisia, and others took like customs from Herodotus and posited their existence in Mexico - none proving it to have happened at home. The post-medieval dialectic of the master and the serving maid is peculiarly focussed in Beaumarchais's Marriage ofFigaro (1784), a work whose popularity has vastly increased due to Mozart's opera. The play's plot shows the last throes ofa landed aristocracy stubbornly demanding its privileges and abusive rights. It may also be held to be dramatising scenes where masters make advances to the soubrettes of the household, a situation rendered the more c o m m o n post1799 by reason of the wife's later age at marriage and the high proportion of domestic servants in the population, and the latter group could not marry without first saving up their dowries. A central theme ofthe study is that the iusprimae noctis is a focus for much Western European historiography ofthe (meaning of the) Middle Ages, and this, too, must be held to be a source ofthe persistent legends. For it embraces issues of gender relations, family behaviour, and the ways in which w o m e n had to barter theirbodies to obtain worldly security. Undoubtedly, too, the custom has the greatest significance in its persistence and revival as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 132-134
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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