Richard Utz (Cedar Falls)
"Mes souvenirs sont peut-être reconstruits": Medieval Studies, Medievalism, and the Scholarly and Popular Memories of the 'Right of the Lord's First Night'
"Mes souvenirs sont peut-être reconstruits": Medieval Studies, Medievalism, and the Scholarly and Popular Memories of the Right of the Lord's First Night
Since the establishment of modern academic discourse in the nineteenth century, medieval (and other) scholars have insisted on separating scholarly from affective approaches. A look at the reception history of the Right of the Lord's First Night demonstrates how popular collective/cultural memories have defied and are still defying more than 100 years of published scholarship on the subject. As a result, the essay proposes that medievalism, a meta-perspective that takes into account the affective as well as scholarly reception of the middle ages in postmedieval times, provides a viable conciliatory alternative to the stand-off between the two intimately related but outwardly mutually exclusive discourses negotiating the past in contemporary culture.
In the spring of 2003, Jacques Le Goff, one of the international figureheads of medieval studies in the final third of the twentieth century, published a book entitled A la recherche du Moyen Age, a biographical account of how he grew to be a medievalist and at the same time a manifesto for the histoire des mentalités as practiced by the representatives of the famous Ecole des Annales.1 Based on a series of interviews he gave to Jean-Maurice de Montremy between February 21 and July 24, 2002, Le Goff's 169-page memoir was written for an audience consisting of medieval scholars as well as an educated general reading public as it still exists in contemporary France, that section of "Old Europe," mind you, where intellectuals, even medievalists, unabashedly play an important role in public life.2
While Le Goff cannot for the world remember why, at the age of ten, he decided he would want to study history, he does recall that it was Walter Scott's historical novel, Ivanhoe (1819), that excited him about the middle ages when he read it as a twelve-year old. Scott's narrative used, according to Le Goff, certain material traits of the middle ages, the forest between Sheffield and Doncaster, the siege of Torquilstone castle, the tournament at Ashby with its audience of peasants, merchants, courtly ladies, knights, monks, and priests to create an impression of verisimilitude which captured his imagination and set him on the track toward becoming a medievalist.
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Although Le Goff immediately adds the disclaimer that he did not really decide at this tender age that he would center his later scholarly efforts on the material aspects of medieval culture, the list of realistic attractions he remembers noticing in Ivanhoe contains almost all of the areas to which he would later dedicate numerous articles and books (see Le Goff 2003: 12).
Indeed, if we may place any trust in Le Goff's recollections, his youthful reading experience would well up at ever so many decisive junctures of his biography: Sometimes the connections with his first medievalist novel were little more than vague analogues, as when the audiences at soccer and rugby matches remind him of the audiences at Ashby (see Le Goff 2003: 18). Sometimes, however, such remembrances of things past were quite specific, as when the tribulations and trials of the beautiful Rebecca of York, whom the powerful templar Brian du Bois-Guilbert accuses of witchcraft, sway the adolescent Le Goff to enlist in a political organization, the Front Populaire, which opposed the growing anti-Semitism and racism in pre-occupation France (see Le Goff: 12).
Further analysis of Le Goff's book exhibits a remarkable dichotomy. While he quite diligently attempts to establish an affective basis for his choice of becoming a medievalist by tracing medieval memories back to his very first encounters with Walter Scott, to connect his interest in twentieth-century politics with his reactions to certain episodes in Ivanhoe, and to stress the decisive advent of cinematic representations of the past (including Richard Thorpe's 1952 film version; see Le Goff: 12, 19), he quickly diminishes such memories as nostalgic and draws clear boundaries between scientific and serious research in medieval culture on the one hand and indistinct images or ideas about the middle ages as represented in popular culture or the historical novel on the other. In a section during which he explains how, as an adolescent, he found the same degrees of fascinating alterity in twentieth-century Roman Catholic liturgical ritual and, once again, that omnipresent tournament at Ashby, he cautions his readers by saying that "[m]es souvenirs sont peut-être reconstruits" (Le Goff: 20). He feels he cannot trust his own recollections, assuming perhaps that the truth value of any memoir will necessarily suffer from a personal post-hoc perspective, an attitude that would fabricate a linear teleology for a scholar who moved in one grand recit from reading Ivanhoe to teaching at the Sorbonne.
In making his distinction between subjective memoir and scholarly investigation, Le Goff resembles the majority of members of the medievalist community whose dominant discursive standards demand that we separate the affective side of the investigating subject from coloring their subjects of investigation.
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While I would agree that such a distinction can and should perhaps be made, its categorical vehemence, usually meant to cordon off one's own work against the intentional interweaving of scholarly and personal writing championed by postmodernist critics, has encouraged medievalists to privilege a continuist view of history, i.e., the perception of people, societies, and civilizations as governed by the law of chronological and logical succession, over other, anachronistic and affective relations with time. I am thinking specifically of the powers of cultural memory, a network of objectivations that stores meanings in a concentrated manner, meanings shared by groups of people who decide to take them for granted. Such objectivations, as Maurice Halbwachs, Pierre Nora, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, and Jan Assmann have demonstrated, can be created and maintained through texts, monuments, signs, signals, symbols, and allegories, festivals, ceremonies, and rites, anything that assists members of such groups to memorialize and recall shared meanings and identity.3
By grouping, for example, Le Goff's memories with those of hundreds of scholars for whom certain aspects of Ivanhoe became the admission ticket to the middle ages, we might begin to understand our various scholarly desires for medieval origins, medievalizing modernist tempers, or quests for the 'real' middle ages.4 After all, it is not simply by chance that Leslie Workman, the founder of academic medievalism in the English-speaking world, admitted to the powerful influence of Ivanhoe (and Scott in general) on his biography, or that Jerome McGann and Johanna Drucker chose to apply digital tools and space to reflect interactively/critically on the transformational character of received literary works in what they call The Ivanhoe Game.5
By researching such nodes of affective/scholarly reactions to and memories of certain texts, we might arrive at a more complex and comprehensive understanding of the medievalisms we scholars live by. Could it be that our manifold scholarly resituations and alterations within the medieval past are more intimately linked to the pleasures and passions we feel when we playfully navigate the borderline between contemporary selves and historical others?6 And could it perhaps also be that our sublimated kinds of pleasure in investigating the "real" middle ages and exposing the "mistakes" in historical novels, memoires, and popular movies are not so fundamentally different from the enjoyment the general audiences of such texts tend to experience when they agree to being transported back into a fictional past? I actually believe that these two pursuits of pleasure sustain one another, live in a scintillating synthesis while at the same time claiming distance from and expressing disdain for the respective other.
Consider, if you will, the following scene from Braveheart, the movie which stands a very good chance at becoming the major source for contemporary memories of the medieval past for at least one generation of moviegoers. About one third into the movie, Edward Longshanks, in a devious plan to quell Scottish national insurrection, shares the following thoughts with his advisors: "The trouble with Scotland is that it's full of Scots. Perhaps the time has come to re-institute an old custom. Grant them prima nocte! When any common girl inhabiting their lands is married, our nobles shall have sexual rights to her on the night of her wedding" (Gibson 1995).
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When Edward's lords gleefully follow his edict to deflower the Scottish maidens, the film's audience wholeheartedly takes sides with the freedom-loving Scots and against the barbarous English. In doing so, they join their own disgust for the once again proven monstrosity of medieval feudalism with that of hundreds of early modern and modern narratives which have established, through the centuries, the ius primae noctis (also referred to as: droit de cuissage, droit du seigneur, or Herrenrecht) as the ultimate symbol of a barbarism whose final traces are being eliminated in contemporary legislation against sexual harassment in the workplace.
Depending on their age and viewing experience, the first night episode in Braveheart may resemble just another vague recall of something most members of today's audience already had heard or read about the middle ages before viewing the movie. Like the vast majority of earlier recipients of the literary fable (see, for example, the entry on droits abusifs in Diderots Encyclopédie of 1755), contemporary audiences consider the feudal structure apparently engendering the droit as one of the defining features of medieval culture, even if most of the sources claiming the existence of the droit date back only to the sixteenth century. Thus, today's opera buffs will remember seeing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Il nozze di Figaro (1786), in which Figaro, the triumphant representative of an enlightened bourgeoisie succeeds in thwarting lusty Count Almaviva's plans to deflower Susanna, Figaro's bride.7 Lovers of French literature may remember the immediate source for Mozart's opera, Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais's anti-feudalist comedy, Le mariage de Figaro (1785), in which Beaumarchais' alter ego, Figaro, attacks the ius primae noctis in words that Braveheart could have spoken to his English oppressors and that audiences in revolutionary France as well as their contemporary counterparts would enthusiastically support:
Similarly, readers of English renaissance literature might perhaps recall Beaumont and Fletcher's The Custom of Country (1619) which, influenced by Miguel de Cervantes' romance, Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (1617), depicts "The barbarous, most inhumane, damned Custom" as committed by count Clodio, a "Cannibal," "Maiden-monger," "town-bull," and "baboon," who "breaks wenches to the Saddle" (Beaumont and Fletcher 1969: 303, 30708, and 310). Or they may share Shakespeare's disgust for rebel/rabble leader Jack Cade who, in Henry VI, Part Two has nothing better to do than imitate the worst (alleged) customs of the very members of the nobility against whom he is waging war.8
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Then, of course, readers of Walter Scott's later works may recall the droit de cuissage from The Fair Maid of Perth (1828), in which the Duke of Rothsay, son of King Robert III of Scotland, attempts to force himself on "the proud, the timid, the shy, the rigidly decorous" Catharine, daughter of an honest burgher of Perth, one Simon Glover (Scott 1912-13: 328). Others again may be reminded of Winston's thoughts in Orwell'sNineteen Eighty-Four when he ponders the
Then, there are similarly "misty" references in other English novels such as George P. R. James's The Jacquerie, or the Lady and the Page (1841: 10, 5660), and Aldous Huxley's Antic Hay (1923: 250, 264, 265).9 However, perhaps more than any of these literary texts, it is another movie, director Franklin J. Schaffner's The War Lord from 1965, which provides the continued support for the ongoing belief in the existence of the droit de cuissage among English-speaking audiences and even beyond. Based on Leslie Stephens' 1955 play, The Lovers, the movie features a valiant eleventh-century Norman knight who, in the service of his duke goes to an isolated coastal village where an earlier attempt to build a defensive castle has failed. He begins to rebuild the duke's authority in the face of Frisian barbarians at the border and is making progress until he falls for the daughter of the village elder. After the knight decides to enforce his droit de cuissage with the woman and, a unique twist in this version, she falls for him and decides to leave her husband for him, the Frisians, the woman's jealous husband, and the knight's traitorous brother band together to lay siege to the village, leading to a dramatic final battle.
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Paul Halsall, in his "Medieval History in the Movies" internet pages, informs interested colleagues that if anyone wanted to use the movie for teaching purposes, a "fairly extensive discussion of inaccuracies would be required."10 How does this statement relate to the comment by the anonymous reviewer for Channel 4 Films, who not only praised the film's "impressive scope of the battle scenes," "intimate drama," and "Strawinski-like score," but also called it a "[p]ainstakingly accurate historical epic"? (Anon. 2004)
The answer to this question is, I think, that the reviewer was swayed by the verisimilitude of The War Lord. To create the impression of verisimilitude, the art directors (Alexander Golitzen and Henry Bumstead) built a medieval village with a tower, a moat and a drawbridge on four acres of Universal's Upper Lake backlot. A river was re-directed in order to create an island and a bank ninety feet in width, and some of the location sequences were filmed at a waterfoul game refuge in Calouse, California. And with Charlton Heston in the role of the knight, Chrysagon, the film gained additional authority, just as Mel Gibson's performance as William Wallace added authenticity to Braveheart.
Paul Halsall's, i.e., the medieval historian's reaction, creates the impression that scholars are in possession of the 'real' middle ages and must therefore enlighten students and audiences about the varying levels of historicity such texts provide. The result of such criticism has been that, in the case of the droit de cuissage, numerous book-length studies and essays have been written on the topic since the nineteenth century, many of them meant as historical and scientific correctives of those vague memories of the myth engendered and kept alive by non-scientific texts. These studies and, most recently and notably Alain Boureau's monograph, The Lord's First Night, an investigation whose subject matter was suggested to the author by Jacques Le Goff, afford evidence for the symbiotic relationship between modernist scholarship and modern myth-making about the middle ages.11Indeed, the popular craving for the enjoyment of the 'real' middle ages in the verisimilar images of a movie is what stimulates medievalists' enjoyment of critiquing those elements they can prove unhistorical based on years of complex and costly education and meticulous study. Conversely, the desire for historical and philological scientism since the nineteenth century has created and still sustains popular horizons of expectation for "realistic" or at least verisimilar depictions of medieval culture, horizons of expectations which incite filmmakers and producers to do their technologically best in recreating the middle ages.12
In the end, however, collective/cultural memory almost always proves stronger than the historical scholarship which, working from the premises of enlightenment rationality and the distancing security of tenured appointments, simply cannot eradicate the powerful narratives rooted and continuously remembered and recalled through the affective nodes which sustain the construction of a modern identity in the western world.
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Thus, the sexual content as well as the institutional, even juridical, consent to violence which characterize the "right of the Lord's first night" will offer general audiences and medievalists sufficient fascination to keep on negotiating the narrative in the future.13
It will be up to scholars of medievalism, engaged as they are in a meta-discourse of researching the 'academic' as well as the 'popular' reception of medieval culture in postmedieval times, to find their particular kind of sublimated pleasure by investigating both: On the one hand, the Braveheart-rending pictures and their viewers' emotional reactions; and on the other hand, medievalists' serious joy at demonstrating how the historical William Wallace never really sacked the city of York, how turning horses and men into shishkepabs was not really part of late medieval warfare between Scottish and English armies, and how the fiercer Highland bagpipes should have been used during battle scenes instead of the somewhat sweeter-sounding Irish ones.14 And we should not loose any sleep about what kind of medievalist the memories of Braveheart might engender. If Scott's Ivanhoe, a mnemotope clad in the form of an historical romance, could give us a Jacques Le Goff and a Leslie Workman, I am not at all worried about the post-Braveheartian study and enjoyment of the middle ages in the future.15
Anon.: "Review of Braveheart", Channel 4 Films [http://www.rottentomatoes.com/click/source-1396/reviews.php?
Assmann, Jan (1992): Das kulturelle Gedächtnis: Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen. Munich: Beck.
Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin Caron de (1785): La folle journée, ou Le marriage de Figaro. Paris: Ruault.
Beaumont, Francis, and John Fletcher (1969): The Custom of the Country. Ed. Arnold Glover, New York: Octagon Books.
Blake, Richard A. (1995): "Review of Braveheart", in: America. 172:21 (June 17), 29–30.
Bloch, R. Howard, and Stephen G. Nichols, eds. (1996): Medievalism and the Modernist Temper. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Boureau, Alain (1998): The Lord's First Night. The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage. Trans. Lydia Cochrane, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
D'Arcens, Louise, and Juanita Ruys (eds.) (2004): 'Maistresse of My Wit': Medieval Women, Modern Scholarship. Turnhout: Brepols.
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Fradenburg, Louise (1997): "'So That We May Speak of Them': Enjoying the Middle Ages", in: New Literary History 28.2, 205–230.
Frantzen, Allen J. (1990): Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Gibson, Mel (dir.) (1995): Braveheart, Paramount Studios.
Gravdahl, Kathryn (1990): Ravishing Maidens. Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Halbwachs, Maurice (1941): La topographie légendaire des évangliles en terre saint: Etude de mémoire collective. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Halbwachs, Maurice (1952): Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire.Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Halsall, Paul: "Medieval History in the Movies", available at:
Huxley, Aldous (1923): Antic Hay. New York: Modern Library.
Kelly, Keith (2003): "Beyond Historical Accuracy: A Postmodern View of Movies and Medievalism", Perspicuitas [http://www.perspicuitas.uni-essen.de/medievalism/articles.htm, last visited June 20, 2004].
James, George P.R. (1841): The Jacquerie. London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans. Vol. I.
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Louis, Marie-Victoire (1994): Le Droit de Cuissage. France 1860–1930.Paris: Editions de l'Atelier/Editions ouvrières.
McGann, Jerome, and Johanna Drucker: "The Ivanhoe Game", available at: [http://eotpaci.clas.virginia.edu/speclab/ivanhoe/framework/history.htm, last visited June 20, 2004].
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Orwell, George (1981): Nineteen Eighty-Four.New York and Scarborough, ON: Signet Classics.
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Simmons, Clare A., ed. (2000): Medievalism and the Quest for the 'real' Middle Ages. London: Cass. Scott, Walter (1912–13): The Fair Maid of Perth. The Works of Walter Scott, Including the Waverley Novels and the Poems, Caledonian edition, vol. 39.
Simon, John (2002): "Review of Braveheart", in: The National Review 47 (10 July): 68.
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1 An earlier version of this essay was first presented at the Nineteenth International Conference on Medievalism, at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, on October I, 2004, as part of a plenary workshop entitled "The Making of Medievalism". I would like to thank the panel chair, Christa Canitz (University of New Brunswick), the panel organizer, Kathleen Verduin (Hope College), and the other participants and discussants, William Calin (University of Florida), Clare A. Simmons (Ohio State University), Gwendolyn Morgan (Montana State University), and Nils Holger Petersen (University of Copenhagen), for their reactions and suggestions. I would further like to mention that my research on the postmedieval cultural memory of the middle ages was originally made possible by a Professional Development Leave from the University of Northern Iowa in the fall semester of 2001.
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2 An excellent example of this public role is medievalist George Duby's leading role in the operations of the French cultural channel, La sept, which would later become the French-German channel, ARTE.
4 The expressions used here refer to three important publications investigating the critical reception of medieval culture in postmedieval times in the last 15 years: Frantzen (1990); Bloch and Nichols (1996); and Simmons (2000).
My knowledge about the importance of Walter Scott on Leslie J. Workman's thought is based on many a personal conversation. See further my "Speaking of Medievalism: An Interview with Leslie J. Workman" (1998); McGann and Drucker's Ivanhoe Game, a fascinating exercise in interactive reader response, can be accessed at:
8 "The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute; there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead, ere they have it: men shall hold of me in capite; and we charge and command that their wives be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell" (Shakespeare 1980: 128).
9 James's "historical romance" (subtitle) aims at reproducing in a story the known historical facts about medieval times with as much "identity and verisimilitude" as possible ("Preface," ix) as possible. Additional English language titles mentioning the droit are discussed by Litvack (1984).
10 "Medieval History in the Movies" is part of Halsall's highly informative "Medieval Sourcebook" (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/medfilms.html#feudalism, [June 20, 2004]).
11 Among the other major recent studies are: Schmidt-Bleibtreu (1988); Gravdal (1990); Louis (1994); and Wettlaufer (1999); Jörg Wettlaufer has also established the most comprehensive (partially annotated) bibliography on the subject matter; it is available at: http//:www.fibri.de/jus/erwlit.htm [June 20, 2004].
12 It is noteworthy that Braveheart not only earned Academy Awards in 1995 for best picture and best director, but also for best cinematography, best makeup, and best sound effects, areas essential for the technological creation of verisimilitude.
13 This very aspect of the "formality" of the "right" is what "enchants by its radical inversion" of what (male) audiences hold dear (Boureau 1998: 4). Reviewers tend to overlook this feature, criticizing the insertion of the droit de cuissage as an unnecessary complication within the film or even an attempt to please – horribile dictu – the medieval specialists. See, e.g., Blake's review (1995: 29-30): "Edward […] hopes to win over the Scottish nobles by granting them jus primae noctis, the right of a nobleman – to use the term loosely – to bed the bride of any of his peasants on her wedding day. Not only does this bribe seem paltry, but it strikes me as silly. This crowd of murderous thugs would take whatever or whomever they wanted whenever, jus or no jus. The decree does, however, offer a handy script device for getting Wallace into a bit of a lather. […] Gott, and revenge weigh more than footnotes and primary sources."
14 For these "problems," see Simon's review of Braveheart (2002). For recent discussions of the demands for historicity and movies, see Kelly (2004) and Paden (2004). In 2001, the question of historical accuracy in Braveheart spawned a British TV program, Fact or Fiction: Braveheart, written by Tony Robinson and directed by David Wilcox.
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15 Most recently, Louise d'Arcens and Juanita Ruys's essay collection, Maistresse of My Wit (2004), displays a variety of ways in which such an inclusive kind of medievalism might be practiced. See my forthcoming review of this volume in The Medieval Review (2005).