Archive for March, 2011

Chastity belts and Lord’s right, medieval myths.

March 22, 2011

Two medieval myths that seem to go together in people’s minds are the lord’s “right of the first night” or “droit de seigneur” and the ever popular “chastity belt”.   Even though both these myths have long been disproved, they are fixed in the public imagination as prime examples of  medieval cruelty and subjugation of women.

Would it surprise anyone to learn that these are both nineteenth-century inventions?

Let’s start with the chastity belt.  I found one from a torture museum that had metal teeth placed strategically that are meant to shred a would-be seducer/rapist.  That one is supposed to be from the fourteenth century.  A modern reproduction is simply a metal belt with a solid attachment that goes between the legs.

See any problem here?  Clearly, the first objection is that the belts are incredibly unsanitary and would cause infection fairly quickly.   The  “copy” doesn’t even allow for natural elimination.  The second problem is that these were supposed to be used by women while their husbands or other male relatives were at war.  Well, a lot of these husbands were very active before leaving, hoping that there would be a son born while they were gone.  Want to try delivering a baby through one of those?  And, of course, any woman with a hair pin could get out of the thing in about five minutes.

But the real problem with the chastity belt and the lord’s right, is that they presume women were property.   In the nineteenth century, under law in many countries, women were treated as children, without reasoning capacity.  Medieval women were not.  Of course there were barriers in law.  They couldn’t be priests or war leaders (but don’t tell Matilda of Tuscany) and, while women made most of the beer in Europe, they couldn’t be official beer tasters.  Go figure. But women could inherit, buy and sell, property and speak for themselves.  And a lot of them did at all levels of society.

Now, this First Night nonsense also assumes that peasants were slaves.  Depending on the time and place, their lot wasn’t great but any lord saying that he would get to sleep with a bride from his village on the wedding night would not have lasted long.  “The peasants are revolting” is not an idle phrase.  A wonderful example is from the miracle stories of St. Cuthbert.  It seems that a Scottish lord once decreed that all his female field hands work naked.  In Scotland?  According to the story, the next morning the lord was found dead “pecked to death by crows”.  Sure.  It doesn’t matter if the story is true; it makes clear what the twelfth century thought of high-handed noblemen and implies that peasants didn’t take such things lying down (so to speak).

Of course women were prey to some men in power.  This behavior was called seduction or rape and generally frowned upon by all.  Of course that never happens now.

There are two fine books that cover these two topics. The Medieval Chastity Belt for Albrecht Classen’s explanation of the chastity belt myth.

Alain Boureau’s study of the Droit de Seigneur is at

Boureau has also written on the myth of Pope Joan.  He discovered that the droit de seigneur was first found in Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro. Both books explain the social and political reasons why these two stories became part of history and folk belief.

Sorry this is so long, but I hope I’ve cleared up a few things.  If not, read the books I’ve recommended before you get back to me, please!