Monday, May 9, 2011

The Peasants are Revolting

I like reading books and articles that debunk historical myths--especially historical myths that paint the Middle Ages as dark and dumb as a fence post at night. Sharan Newman specializes in debunking popular but spurious versions of history. She has written books such as The Real History behind the Da Vinci Code and The Real History behind the Templars.

In a recent post on Ms. Newman's blog, she debunks the oft mentioned medieval horrors of chastity belts and "the lord's right." In case you're unsure what those are, the chastity belt is basically a metal belt (with lock and key) and a solid attachment between the legs that was supposed to prohibit a woman from having sexual intercourse. "The lord's right" is the infamous prima nocta of the movie Braveheart where the ruling noble gets to sleep with any peasant woman he desires on her wedding night.

Ms. Newman notes that both of these monstrosities are nineteenth century inventions regarding the Middle Ages that are rejected as fabrications by all serious historians. Nevertheless, they are still "fixed in the public imagination as prime examples of medieval cruelty and subjugation of women."

There is no manuscript or archaeological evidence for chastity belts or "the lord's right," but Ms. Newman builds an even more interesting case against them by showing that such things would be contrary to the very societal structure of Middle Ages.
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).
Prima nocta in the Middle Ages is clearly an invention of men like Mel Gibson--although to cut him some slack, it also features over and over again in the works of historical novelists. (Ken Follett comes to mind.) It not only didn't happen in the Middle Ages, it probably couldn't have happened in the Middle Ages. The sort of world where "the lord's right" could be exercised with impunity is the ancient Babylonian world of Gilgamesh--and even then men like Enkidu would stand up to say "This is wrong!"

Reading this blog post by Ms. Newman has made me curious to read more of her work. Her latest book is  titled The Real History of the End of the World where she "digs into end of the world theories and shows us that whether it's aliens, natural disaster, or the Rapture, our civilization has been there and done that." Sounds like a fun read!


  1. Another reason chastity belts could never have existed: the ladies forced to wear them would presumably have died because they were unable to, er, powder their noses. Chastity belts tell us nothing about medieval attitudes about women's sexuality, but a lot about Victorian attitudes about female sexuality. They may have told scandalous tales about medieval men putting chastity belts on their wives and daughters, but I bet a number of Victorian papas and husbands would have happily done the same if they could have.

    I've been surprised to learn, through some casual reading about medieval women, that they were a lot more powerful than pop culture says they were. Could Joan of Arc succeeded in the 19th Century? I doubt it.

  2. Personally I think that Prima Nocti is one of those 'rights' like Royal Assent that exists in theory but not in practice.

    The website and post look great. I am a Medievalist and certain myths about this period really get on my nerves- like the one that says Medieval people believed the earth was flat.

    1. Yes, it's amazing how irritating it can be when people hold erroneous views about your favorite time period. My brother likes to tease me by bringing up those pesky myths whenever he can in conversation. ("It's just like how all those Medieval people believed the earth was flat....")


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