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CONCUBINAGE. While most early modern people married, a small number established semipermanent, nonmarital unions. Called concubinage in religious and legal terminology, these alliances were usually identified in everyday speech by the term for the woman, for example, "mistress" in England, and "femina" in northern Italy. Although not married to each other, the participants might be married to others. Long-established legal acceptance was on the wane by the late fifteenth century as church and state invested legitimate marriage with increased responsibilities for social and moral order. Concubinage nonetheless persisted for it met many needs, offering participants flexibility in their family lives and opportunities for social improvement, although it could also disrupt legitimate marriages. Some priests also kept concubines in defiance of the laws of celibacy, a practice known as clerical concubinage, which lies outside the scope of this entry.


In the Middle Ages concubinage between two unmarried lay people enjoyed legal tolerance, in part based on traditions of second-class marriage, such as morganatic marriage, in which children were unable to inherit from their father, and ancient Roman and Germanic concubinage. A concubine differed from a prostitute in the exclusivity and long duration of her relationship with one man. In theory alliances involving a married person were considered not concubinage but adultery and were punishable as such. In practice, however, these relationships sometimes met tolerance almost equal to a relationship between two unmarried people.

The church had always favored marriage over concubinage and urged couples to marry, but the conviction that marriage was based on the consent of the parties had helped give concubinage between unmarried people legitimacy. Following impulses for moral reform, however, the Fifth Lateran Council in 1514 and the Council of Trent in 1563 declared all concubinage illegal, the latter singling out married men who kept concubines. Protestant territories similarly pursued and prosecuted unmarried couples.

Secular law took into account concubinage of both married and unmarried men, for example, listing concubines among the peopleincluding their wiveswhom men could punish physically and detailing what kinds of gifts concubines could receive. In fourteenth-century Italy some patrons and concubines spelled out their obligations in written contracts. In the late fourteenth century, however, a few cities, including Cremona and Würzburg, made concubinage a crime. In the fifteenth century many more, such as Avignon, Basel, and Bergamo, followed, with adulterous relationships receiving harsher punishments. At the same time there was a substantial increase in the legal disabilities of concubines and their children, who were considered illegitimate and had limited inheritance and other rights, especially in France.


Although it became less common, people from all social classes continued to practice concubinage throughout the period because it met many needs. In a common pattern an elite man kept a low-status womanoften a servant or tenantas his concubine, although a few higher-status women became the concubines of dukes, princes, or kings. Concubinage enabled male aristocrats in arranged marriages to find emotionally satisfying relationships outside of them. For aristocratic men who were not yet married, who were widowed, or whose families decided they should not marry, concubinage offered a semblance of family life without the threats to family alliance and inheritance strategies that legitimate children would have posed.

People also used concubinage in strategies of social advancement. Elite men demonstrated their wealth and power by dressing their concubines well, keeping them in separate households, and openly defying conventional morality. Lower-status women (and their families) were attracted by alliances with wealthy and powerful menwho, tradition dictated, would raise any childrenand to the frequent final benefit of a dowry and a marriage to a man of her social class. Arranging marriages of former concubines and illegitimate children was a way to maintain clientage networks and to demonstrate control over society. Increasingly, however, people found aristocratic men's open flouting of convention troubling, particularly when the men kept married women as their concubines, shaming their husbands, or when the men's relationships took resources from their legitimate families.

Low-status people might also live together in concubinage, although often for different reasons and in a manner that more closely resembled legitimate marriage. Some men sought to avoid producing legitimate children; others lived with one woman until they could find a better one to marry. Usually, however, commoner couples lived in nonmarital unions because they could not legally marry each other. One or both might already be married, or they might be too closely related to marry. Others, lacking the financial resources necessary to marriage, lived together unmarried until they could accumulate them.

See also Family ; Marriage ; Sexuality and Sexual Behavior ; Women .


Brucker, Gene. Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1986.

Brundage, James A. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago, 1987.

Eisenach, Emlyn. Husbands, Wives, and Concubines: Marriage, Family, and Social Order in Sixteenth-Century Verona. Kirksville, Mo., forthcoming. Especially chapter 4.

Hufton, Olwen. The Prospect before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe. Vol. 1: 15001800. New York, 1996. Especially chapter 8.

Emlyn Eisenach

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