Yesterday a minor, passing reference hijacked my entire comment thread. Fortunately this is a REALLY rare occurrence here at ATH, so nothing to worry about. Oh, who am I kidding? You guys have been known to highjack posts about weapons to talk about snickerdoodles. (Who am I kidding, now all my comments will be about snickerdoodle goodness, right?) It’s part of the reason why I love you.
But yesterday’s post bumped up against what I call “the historian’s blindfolds.”
To be exact, I made a passing reference to first night rights of the Seigneur, while at the same time qualifying it with “where it happened” which immediately sparked both protests that it never happened and that it happened every time.
My feeling about it is “Yes.” And also that the people arguing were arguing from the 21st century and from their relative positions of “people don’t do/do this.”
So, of course, because I enjoy having people tell me I’m ignorant/hyperbolic, I’m going to wade in. I’m going to wade in with galoshes. Mostly because this times up with a very exasperating feeling I get particularly while writing historical fiction.
And that’s the feeling that not only in the past another country but the citizens of that country took deliberate steps to prevent us spying on them.
This is not true, of course, it’s more that the “everyone knows” doesn’t get recorded, and the “never happens” or “happens so rarely it’s big and sensational” gets recorded ALL the time.
Take our times, for instance: we know from objective sources like police reports that child kidnap by strangers is exceedingly rare. But between non-custodial parent child-grabs and the few, sensational cases of strangers kidnapping children which get a never-end of reporting, people are afraid to send their children out to play and the crazier jurisdictions will slam you in the pokey for letting your kids walk home from school alone.
Then throw in “is your stranger abduction lower BECAUSE we watch our children like hawks or because there are fewer people who’d even do it?”
A writer in the 25th century, could justifiably (by source) write a pedo-infested-nightmarish life, or one in which there were almost no stranger kidnappings. Both justified. Diametrically opposed.
And then take the stuff that’s written about our time with propaganda intent. A writer in the 25th century could justifiably write about shadowy conspiracies to keep men and women out of gaming/sf writing. I mean, why not? Our time does. One that got hold of the names of professionals in both fields, OTOH would write about mass psychosis of male and female “radical feminists” who every few years reset to a past that never existed and demanded an inclusion they already had.
I’ve – for instance – for the last several years been very suspicious of Dickens, because my other sources for the time (not just primary sources, but those writing often in a family/biography) context paint quite a different picture.
I mean, yes, there were horrible conditions at the time, but they were horrible conditions by our perspective, and we live in an era of superabundance. And the underclass lived very disordered lives. Well, I read student doc. Our underclass just uses different substances and is better fed. Go to Student Doc “Things I learn from my patients” (it’s not coming up for me, hence not linked. Also, prepare to lose hours there.) BUT as “bad” as the industrial revolution might have been, it attracted droves of farmers from the countryside. And having seen it happen in real time in India and China, I’m no longer able to believe the propaganda that they were “forced” off their lands.
Farming looks like a lovely, bucolic occupation to those who have never done any, but the farming they did at the time involved no tractors, no milking machines. It was inadequate tools and inadequate strength beating inadequate livelihood out of inadequate (in most places) soil. Yeah, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the girls wove wreaths for Michaelmass, and everyone danced around the maypole, but in between there was a very harsh reality that made the rather horrible conditions in the early mills seem like heaven and depopulated the countryside and packed the cities – as we see now in China and India.
So, our first problem with finding out if there really was a “first night” right for the seigneur is to figure out the difference between the accounts and the truth. There is no direct evidence, but remember all the recording of the times was done by church men who might very well not know what was going on. Sometimes, granted, it was willful not know. The village priest determinedly didn’t know of certain things that went on around mayday and I’m fairly sure would continue not knowing if he walked in on it and saw it. Because he wasn’t stupid and stuff that’s been going on for two thousand years and yet is of a nature not to be co-opted into the church celebration of this or that saint (St. Anthony and St. John with bonfires and wild herbs and jumping over the fires, and trekking to the city and across the city to see the sunrise on the sea, for instance, for Summer solstice. Yeah. Perfectly normal Catholic tradition) couldn’t be stopped cold, but knowing about it would mar his ability to preach against certain things which he must preach against. (“It was a morning in May—” And for the record this particularly guppie always thought going amaying is about gathering the flowers to put in every entrance to the house to word off evil spirits. But I am an ODD and often unable to see what’s right before my eyes because I was told it was different.)
The problem of the “first night” is compound by several issues: we’re talking a span of about 2000 years. It’s about sex and everyone lies about sex, or shuts up about it, which can be the same. We have fundamental disagreements on the basic nature of men and women. And that’s what I’m going to go with. Because that’s the interesting part.
First, let me establish that I don’t say that human nature has changed that much. Second, let me establish that what most people in the 21st century, with particular emphasis to Americans THINK they know about the immutable traits of humans is laughable even to someone like me who grew up under harsher circumstances.
Third, let me establish that I’ve reached that time in my life that if I found a letter from my great-great-great ancestress saying she’d love me if she knew me, I’d verify it. And if I found a letter from a modern intellectual saying that it took a modern man to love something or other, I’d sneer.
In other words, I’m at the age that I think a lot of what I’ve been taught, and a lot I believed, is the sheerest bull excreta.
We were taught, for instance, that the troubadors invented romantic love.
They might have invented romantic love as expressed in poems – often from kings to their convenients – but I can tell you that there were stories in the village going back before movies and novels polluted the minds of people with the idea of lovers killing themselves for love, or peasant boy and girl running off together, of someone loving someone and never marrying because she married another.
Behind the whole “invention of romantic love” theory, I hear the voice of Marxist theorists who, poor things, think sex is all power and physical satisfaction. And that alone is enough reason for me to quirk an eyebrow and wonder.
On the other paw, it’s hard to tell what romantic love meant. Almost certainly the tales I heard, preserved through the centuries were the exception.
Again I go back not just to my childhood, but to my whole life. When people here argue that women/men would never contract an alliance for anything other than the greatest love, I have to wonder how much this is influenced by the propaganda (movies, books) since at least the 19th century, that that IS the only reason you’re supposed to do it.
It’s sort of like saying “Every mother loves her children above all.” We all reinforce it, because that’s the way to be and it’s what we’d like to believe. But suffice it to say that many mothers demonstrably prioritize finding themselves over loving their children. And I don’t even mean in the divorce sense (though some do, too) but in the sense of having a job that almost doesn’t pay after daycare, etc, just to escape having to be with their kids all the time. (And it’s not that I don’t understand them, and I do love my kids. Perhaps too much, since I’m having trouble kicking the wee birdies out of the nest.)
In the same way, even the people who don’t marry for love, pretend to marry for love, because it’s the one acceptable reason to marry. “Because I was lonely” is not acceptable. “Because I wanted to have a home of my own” is not acceptable and “Because he could give me the life I hope to become accustomed to” is DEFINITELY not acceptable outside certain forums. And yet I had friends – good, honorable, decent women – who married for all three. (I married for the deepest love but I am a derp and a romantic.)
And that’s today. Amid the village couples, relatively (though not majorly. We had movie theaters accessible by street car. And we had radio soaps. We just didn’t have television and most people didn’t read much) unsullied by “romance”, the women seemed to look for the highest grade man they could find, and marry the first one they could snag. The men seemed to look for the prettiest girls, and marry the first one they could snag, though there too relative class and her bringing something “in her stocking foot” was important. I remember my mom was making an entire wardrobe for the daughter of a rich farmer, and objected (very slightly. We needed the money) to the sack-like nature of the garments, a nature enforced by the mother of the poor girl. Mom can be as foot in mouth as I am, and she said something like “If she ever wants to marry, she can’t dress like a nun.” To which the lady answered, “Oh, please. She’s an heiress. What will marry her off is her money, not her looks.” I know that sounds awfully abusive, but her daughter concurred, and it was the attitude of most people around there/then. And yep, I knew men who walked away from ‘the greatest love’ because they attracted the attention of a plain but rich girl.
In books this would mean a fatal flaw in their character, and they’d come to a bad end. In real life? The couples I knew were as happy as any other couples, and sometimes more.
What I mean to say by this is that if you extend backwards to a time of great penury and strife, when your survival was on the line, letting the stupid Lord have your girl for one night (when you’d have her for the rest of her life) might not be a bad idea. Since Lords tended to be promiscuous and (other than better fed/clothed) look like their peasants, you might never be able to tell who was the father of the first child (and yep, if every couple only had one child that would require immense altruism on the husband’s part. But they usually had a number of children) and yeah, you’d be jealous and hate it like poison. And she’d at least pretend to be dragged from your side by cruel tradition. BUT fighting it and murdering the Lord? Oh, please. Villeins were little more than slaves. And having your wife spend a night with the Lord (before or after your marriage – marriage, as has been pointed out was nebulous too. I’ve heard it argued that Will and Nan were perfectly within their rights in going aMaying before the formal wedding because they were betrothed. And certainly Mad King Henry treated his wives betrothals as proof they came to him sullied. – yes, he was mad, but it stuck with reasonable people) was the same as having her bring “a little something” in the stocking foot.
Did it ever happen? I’d almost put my hands in the fire. I’d even put my hands in the fire it was PERVASIVE some places. Yes, it was only talked about as happening elsewhere, because, sex, and who wants to talk about it, after all?
But when that type of thing has benefits for both sides, yeah, it will happen. You just won’t find direct sources for it. And it won’t happen everywhere. (I had this humorous glimpse while writing this of a Lord claiming first night rights, because it’s expected, then telling the trembling bride she can have the bed, he’ll sleep over in yonder couch, and just don’t tell people anything. And the Lord is in his 90s or so, so it saves face on both sides ;).) Not every Lord will take a lively interest in his subordinates wives.
Also let me establish that Christianity would be a great moderating influence on it (and I think the Judeo Christian idea that women had souls/were in a way equals would over time change this, and enshrine the idea of romantic love as an ideal) but in the time we’re discussing there were invasions of pagans, who became Lords over the place before they converted. There were, for that matter, Moorish invasions and we know how the cultures descended from that one treat women now. So, let’s not say “no, never.”
Human nature is worked on by culture, by expectations, by how easy/difficult life was. It, in itself might be inflexible, and male jealousy and wanting to know the kid is yours is one of the great inflexible parts… or perhaps “less bendy parts” since we do have proof in many times and places it did bend, in some ways, and in answer to overwhelming need. Then again, we have no proof that “the greatest love” operates in most male-female linkage, though surely it operates in some, and it’s enshrined as ideal.
It’s very hard – make that, very, very hard – for us to understand the past, even harder than understanding foreign culture. In the last hundred years we’ve doubled the average man/woman’s life expectancy and we live the life of kings compared to them. No, we live a life kings couldn’t aspire to, even in the nineteenth century.
Does this make us different beings? Well, no. We still lust, still dream, still marry and are given in marriage (okay, not so much of the later these days) and still have children (some of us) and raise them (fewer of us.) BUT we do all these things in different ways that shape our choices/interests/feelings in ways they couldn’t have imagined. And in the same way we can only peer at them through a glass darkly.
Remember those two books about the 21st century, one in which women dominate the creative professions, and another in which a shadowy conspiracy of masked men conspires to keep them out?
That’s what we see every time we look at the past.
We’ve slapped the SJW’s for wanting to project today’s requirements onto the past. “Heinlein was racist/sexist/badthink because where are the transsexual lesbians of color?” (Actually this just proves they didn’t read them, because there ARE transsexuals and lesbians/bi women of color. Never mind.)
Lets not do the opposite and think that in the past everyone behaved according to our ideals.
They were people. And their environment acted on them in ways we can’t fully figure out. Even the historians argue about it, and certainly popular history is wrong.
When we look to the past and to the future, let’s squint, so our reflection doesn’t hide truth from us.
First night? Could have happened. Only accounts I ever read were during invasions and might be the equivalent of the raped Belgian nuns, but some variation of pimping your wife to the Lord to get his protection, almost certainly did happen, some places, some times.
The rule? I doubt it. Because there was a noblesse oblige from the very powerful to the powerless. And where that failed, society failed.
And that’s the main point, always. When looking to the past, if something seems like it wouldn’t work long term, it probably didn’t. Like the Dickensanian hell-mills, a lot of it was nostalgie de la boue and propaganda for one’s favored system.
Motives like that are why the past is so hard to scry, and the present is often not that much easier.