Merili Metsvahi is a Senior Researcher of Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu.
The right of the first night, or the right of the local noble to deflower local peasant brides on their wedding night before their newlywed husbands, has never been a historic fact in Estonia. However, it holds a certain place in the nation’s cultural memory – and have done so for the last hundred years.
While in Germany last summer, I discussed this topic with the German historian Jörg Wettlaufer, whose interdisciplinary doctoral thesis “Das Herrenrecht der ersten Nacht” (‘The Right of the First Night’) was published as a book in 1999. He was surprised that the first night’s stereotype reached Estonia as late as in the beginning of the 20th century.
However, considering Estonia’s historic circumstances, it is not surprising that the myth spread so late. When the French had to do some groundwork to overthrow the feudal rule in the 18th century, droit du seigneur (‘the right of the first night’ in French) was a perfect tool to discredit the nobility. The same was true for Estonia at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries – spreading the first night’s stereotype was a great tool to agitate people against the Germans.
French philosopher and historian Voltaire wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary in 1764 that in the Middle Ages the right of the first night was used around Europe. Historical records don’t confirm that. Despite the lack of original sources and the scarceness of other resources, a lot of historians and law historians, political and cultural figures dealt with the topic during the 19th century. At the end of the 19th century, when German historian Karl Schmidt strongly doubted the former existence of the right of the first night in Europe, the scientific discussion around this topic started to die out. Continue reading