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The term concubinage from the Latin expression concubīna, which derives from con (with) and cubare (to lie), refers to the state of a man and woman cohabiting as married persons without the full sanctions of legal marriage. A woman who enters this kind of relationship is known as a concubine. Concubinage may be of long—even lifelong—duration and sexually exclusive. But because this relationship is usually without legal protection for the woman and her children, it can also be terminated with relative ease. In contrast to a wife, a concubine has limited rights of support. Although her children might obtain acknowledgement as the man's offspring, their entitlement to property was usually restricted, especially if the father had progeny by his legal wife. In general, the practice of concubinage has endured in many different civilizations and until the early twenty-first century, because it was (and is) a means of protecting inheritance without denying men sexual pleasure. In some societies, such as imperial China, concubinage also became a demonstration of conspicuous consumption, awarding prestige to those men able to afford it.

Concubinage has been practiced since ancient times. Anthropologists have argued that most societies have made a distinction between legally sanctioned unions and the cohabitation of unmarried couples (concubinage) or casual sexual relations. Written evidence from ancient Mesopotamia demonstrates there was differentiation between legitimate marriage and concubinage. In ancient Israelite society, men were free to have sexual relations with concubines (and slaves or servants) along with their wives. There are several dramatic stories in the Old Testament involving concubines. Judges 19 narrates the sad fate of a concubine thrust outside of her house, then gang-raped for an entire night, and finally murdered by her own master. In 2 Samuel 5:13 one learns of King David taking concubines, and in 2 Samuel 15:16, his leaving ten concubines behind when he fled Jerusalem in the face of Absalom's coup. By contrast, in the case of ancient Egypt, where women of all social classes had the same legal rights as men, and marriage was monogamous, there is doubt whether concubinage did in fact exist.

In classical Greece the concubine occupied the status between the wife and mistress or courtesan. The well-known passage from Apollodorus's speech Against Neaira differentiates three categories of women in Athens: "For we have courtesans (hetairai) for pleasure, and concubines (pallaki) for daily service of our bodies, (and) wives (gunaikes) for the production of legitimate offspring and to have a reliable guardian of our household property" (Davidson 1997, p. 73). One of the effects of Pericles's (495–429 bce) citizenship law of 451 bce was to limit the ability of concubines' children to inherit. They inherited only when a man had no children by his recognized wife.

In ancient Rome, concubinage had a somewhat different status. There it could be considered a lasting sexual union, the resort of those who could not legally marry such as legionary soldiers, or persons of different social status such as a senator and a freed woman. The second and third centuries ce saw a proliferation of laws on concubines, which made clearer what constituted legal marriage and what legal status concubinage held. Unlike marriage where the giving of a dowry was the norm, long-term concubinage did not involve such property exchange. A dowry (being understood as the property a wife brought to the marriage) was not legally necessary for either Roman or Greek marriage, but there was a strong moral duty for this institution. A marriage without a dowry created the impression of concubinage. Thus, in ancient Rome, concubinage was not a union adjunct to marriage, but, rather, proved an alternative, especially for widower men. Several Roman emperors—Vespasian (9–79 ce), Marcus Aurelius (121–180 ce), and Antoninus Pius (86–161 ce) among them—lived with concubines after the death of their wives. As all these rulers had already designated heirs to their throne, and did not marry the women with whom they lived, they avoided the squabbles between heirs descended from different wives, which had occurred in Hellenistic monarchies.

With the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the distinction between marriage and concubinage blurred because of the attitudes of the Christian church. As early Christian ideas on marriage stressed consent above dowry to be the constituent element of legal marriage, it became difficult to distinguish concubinage from clandestine marriage where consent had been given, but no dowry. Although ecclesiastical pressure against concubinage among the clergy and the laity did exist throughout the Middle Ages, canon law in fact adopted an ambivalent attitude toward this practice. Saint Augustine's (354–430) ideals of lifelong monogamy for royalty and celibacy for servants of the church notwithstanding, the records for the Carolignian and Merovingian dynasties demonstrate concubinage persisted among sovereigns and their descendants, as well as the clergy and the laity. Even the medieval canon lawyer's (Franciscus Gratian [d. 1159]) attempts to wrestle with the problems of clerical concubinage did not offer a satisfactory solution, and for the next several hundred years the vagaries associated with concubinage circumscribed the status of sexual relations among the married and unmarried of whatever social class. It would take the church's Tridentine reforms (held from 1545–1563) to abolish the legality of concubinage and clandestine marriage. From then onward, both the Catholic and Protestant churches subjected sexual activity to regulation in official documentation.

Such regulatory attitudes also guided the mindset of the first Europeans who explored and colonized the New World. In pre-Hispanic MesoAmerica and the Andes, where polygamy was common practice, the imposition of Christian models of behavior prompted the Indian native population to substitute concubinage and forms of slavery in response to their overlords. Concubinage with Spaniards also served as a means for natives, and later black slaves, to enter colonial society, which also contributed to the transfer of landed property to the Spanish and half-castes. In Dutch Asia the keeping of concubines was at first widespread among Dutch East India Company officials as well as ordinary crew, but in 1622 the company authorities issued an edict forbidding the practice. Thereafter, marriage between Dutch (Calvinist) men and local (converted Christian) women was encouraged.

In other regions outside Western Europe concubinage was a vehicle for dynastic reproduction. Indian rajas, khans, and sultans kept large harems with concubines, a practice that persisted even under the British Raj in the princely states. Iranian monarchs and noblemen from the sixth century bce until the nineteenth century ce(i.e., first Zoroastrian and subsequently Sunni and Shi'ite elites) maintained large harems with numerous concubines. Among the ruling elite of the Ottomans, it was the custom for nearly 200 years before the reign of Suliman the Magnificent (1520–1566) to take concubines rather than wives to avoid interdynastic strife. Suliman's restructuring of the Ottoman political system used marriage as the vehicle for dynastic reproduction and primogeniture as a principle of succession. Thereafter, women, as members of the royal family, also began to exercise social and political power. The quarters where these royal women and their children lodged was the harem, that part of the imperial enclosure forbidden to male strangers. By the seventeenth century the harem became a site of European fantasy and obsession. As evidenced by their many paintings, Europeans thought the harem to be a location of sexual license, symbolic of Oriental despotism, and the weakness of the Turkish sultanate. But, in fact, the harem was an important government agency for the supervision of Ottoman statecraft. One may compare it to the Keno Palace in Nigeria where for over 500 years its concubines supervised the Hausa state's grain and indigo operations.

Harem is also the usual rendition of the Chinese language term hougong, literally meaning "the palaces behind." These were large-size quarters in the imperial palace for the emperor's consorts and concubines, as well as their servants. Ordinary Chinese people also possessed concubines who commonly came from an impoverished background, but men could have only one wife. A man who still had no heir at the age of forty was encouraged to take a concubine, but often rich men acquired a series of concubines to mark their status. Whereas the sons of concubines were equal to those of the wife in matters of inheritance, the status of their mothers was usually no more than a servant or maid. Moreover, a concubine was expected to obey her master's wife. Until the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), it was illegal for a man to promote his concubine to wife, even if his wife had died. The low-class status of concubines continued well into the twentieth century.

Now in the early twenty-first century, as increasing numbers of men and women in Euro-America choose to live together without marrying, the word concubinage has taken on new legal, social, and cultural meanings. In France concubinage is the official term for the cohabita-tion of heterosexual and (since 1998) homosexual couples. But concubinage in other societies outside Euro-America probably continues to carry a social stigma.

see also Harems.


Bernand, Carmen, and Serge Gruzinki. 1996. "Children of the Apocalyse: The Family in MesoAmerica and the Andes." In A History of the Family. Vol. 1, Distant Worlds, Ancient Worlds. Vol. 2, The Impact of Modernity, ed. André Burguière, Christine Klapisch-Zuber, Martine Segalen, and Françoise Zonabend. Oxford, UK: Polity Press.

Bohmbach, Karla. G. 1999. "Conventions/Contraventions: The Meanings of Public and Private for the Judges 19 Concubine." Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 83:83-98.

Bray, Francesca. 1997. Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brundage, James A. 1975. "Concubinage and Marriage in Medieval Canon Law." Journal of Medieval History 1(1): 1-17.

Burguière, André, and François Lebrun. 1996. "Priest, Prince, and Family." In A History of the Family. Vol. 1, Distant Worlds, Ancient Worlds. Vol. 2, The Impact of Modernity, ed. André Burguière, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Martine Segalen, and Françoise Zonabend. Oxford, UK: Polity Press.

Davidson, James. 1997. Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. London: Harper Collins.

Demosthenes. 1964. Demothenes VI: Private Orations L-LVIII, trans. A. T. Murray. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library.

Ebrey, Patricia. 1986. "Concubines in Sung China." Journal of Family History 11(1):1-24.

Eisenbach, Emlyn. 2004. Husbands, Wives, and Concubines: Marriage, Family, and Social Order in Sixteenth Century Verona. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press.

Goody, Jack. 1990. The Oriental, the Ancient, and the Primitive: Systems of Marriage and the Family in the Pre-Industrial Societies of Eurasia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Isom-Verhaaren, Christine. 2006. "Royal French Women in the Ottoman Sultans' Harem: The Political Uses of Fabricated Accounts from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-first Century." Journal of World History 17 (2):159-196.

Nast, Heidi. 2005. Concubines and Power: Five Hundred Years in a Northern Nigerian Palace. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Peirce, Leslie. 1993. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. 1975. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schoken Books.

Robins, Gay. 1993. Women in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.

Rousselle, Aline. 1996. "The Family under the Roman Empire: Signs and Gestures." In A History of the Family. Vol. 1, Distant Worlds, Ancient Worlds, Vol. 2, The Impact of Modernity, ed. André Burguière, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Martine Segalen, and Françoise Zonabend. Oxford, UK: Polity Press.

Stafford, Pauline. 1998. Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King's Wife in the Early Middle Ages. London: Leicester University Press.

Watson, Alan. 1967. The Law of Persons in the Later Roman Republic. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Zonabend, Françoise. 1996. "An Anthropological Perspective on Kinship and the Family." In A History of the Family. Vol. 1, Distant Worlds, Ancient Worlds. Vol. 2, The Impact of Modernity, ed. André Burguière, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Martine Segalen, and Françoise Zonabend. Oxford, UK: Polity Press.

                                      Harriet T. Zurndorfer

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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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The enduring state or practice of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman not bound to each other by legitimate marriage. This article is not concerned with the historical or sociological dimensions of the practice of concubinage, but confines its attention to the subject as it is viewed in Canon Law.

Concubinage occurs in different forms, the common and essential element of which is an agreement, at least virtual, between a man and a woman to engage regularly or habitually in sexual intercourse outside of the bond of marriage. The illicit relationship may or may not involve cohabitation; it may or may not be covered by some sort of legality, as in the case of a purely civil marriage between persons bound by the canonical form. It is referred to as "qualified" concubinage if the relationship exists between persons who could not be legitimately married to each other because of an existing marriage bond, or a relationship of consanguinity or affinity, or an impediment arising from Holy Orders or religious profession. When the relationship is unknown to others, or is known only to a few and is unlikely to become more generally known, it is said to be private or occult; if it is actually known to many, or if there is a good probability that it will become so, it is said to be public.

Canon Law. The Church has always held that sexual relations are lawful only within the state of marriage. Nevertheless, at all times in the history of the Church, there have been some who, in spite of their profession of Christianity, have engaged in the practice of it. So far as the clergy was concerned, this was particularly so during the Middle Ages in consequence of local resistance to the introduction of the law of clerical celibacy.

When investigating the history of concubinage in the early canonical texts of bishops and councils, one should keep in mind that it was possible for a Christian to be considered by Roman law to be in concubinage, while according to canon law he was not. This was because Roman law did not recognize as full marriage (iustae nuptiae ) certain unions (e.g., between a man and a woman of lower social state). Thus the Council of Toledo (400) allowed a man living in concubinage to be admitted to the Eucharist as long as the union did not fail to meet some condition essentially required for Christian marriage (Codex iuris canonici, D.34 c.4).

Laity. For a long time the only type of concubinage among the laity that received specific condemnation was adulterous and incestuous. Not until the Council of Trent was there a general condemnation of concubinage in all its forms (sess. 24, c.8). This decree states that anyone who would not dismiss his concubine, after having received three warnings from the ordinary, was to be excommunicated, and the concubine was to be expelled from the city with the aid of the secular authorities. This rule and procedure was not adopted into the Code of Canon Law. Instead the Codex iuris canonici (c.2357.2) simply states that those who are living in public concubinage are to be prohibited from legitimate ecclesiastical acts (e.g., sponsors at baptism). However, by reason of the fact that those living publicly in concubinage are also considered public sinners, they are also to be prevented from the reception of the Eucharist (c.851.1), from receiving ecclesiastical burial (c.1240. 1n6), and from joining associations officially approved by the Church (c.693.1). Moreover, public or notorious concubinage gives rise to the matrimonial impediment of public pro priety.

Clergy. There is considerably more material to be found in canonical sources concerning concubinage on the part of the clergy. Condemnations of this practice began in the 4th century and culminated in the decrees of the Council of Trent. The council formulated a series of measures designed to combat clerical concubinage: admonitions, suspensions, and privation of office and benefice (sess. 25, c.14. De reform ). According to the present legislation, clerics in minor orders who are guilty of concubinage are to be reduced to the lay state and are subject to the same penalties as the laity (1917, Codex iuris canonici c.2358). Clerics in major orders are also to be reduced to the lay state (c.2359) with the consequent loss of the benefices the offender may theretofore have enjoyed. The procedure to be followed by the ordinary against clerics living in concubinage is stated in canons 217681. Finally, whenever a cleric, despite the admonitions of his ordinary, continues to frequent the residence of a woman whose reputation is suspect, he is to be presumed guilty of concubinage (c.133.4); as such, he is subject to the same penalties as those actually convicted of concubinage.

Morality. Concubinage has been a grave moral and social problem at different times and in different areas and cultures. The subjective guilt of some who have practiced it may be modified to a degree by the complexities of the human and cultural situations in which they lived. But the objective morality of the practice is clear. It is gravely sinful, for it involves all the moral disorder involved in habitual indulgence in the sin of fornication, and in some cases this malice is aggravated by that of adultery, incest, or sacrilege. Theologians have debated as to whether simple concubinage (uncomplicated by the malice of adultery, etc.) is objectively a greater or a lesser sin than promiscuous fornication. Some have argued that it is a greater sin, because it includes per se a greater pertinacity and obstinacy in the intention of the sinner. Others have argued that it is less sinful because by reason of the enduring relationship of one person with another it retains a greater likeness to marriage than does promiscuous fornication and is thus a lesser violation of the natural law.

Bibliography: g. jacquemet, Catholicisme 2:147377. r. brouillard, ibid. 147778. É. jombart, Dictionnaire de droit conanique, ed. r. naz (Paris 193565) 3:151324, with bibliog. j.a. macculloch et al., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings (Edinburgh 190827) 3:809820. Enciclopedia del diritto 8:695697. a. vermeersch, Theologiae moralis principia, responsa, consilia (Rome 194448). h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie (Paris 190753) 3.2:24942500.

[j. m. buckley]

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