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Concubinage is an interpersonal relationship in which a person engages in an ongoing sexual relationship with another person to whom they are not or cannot be married to the full extent of the local meaning of marriage. The inability to marry may be due to multiple factors, such as differences in social rank status, an existent marriage, religious prohibitions, professional ones (for example Roman soldiers) or a lack of recognition by appropriate authorities. The woman in such a relationship is referred to as a concubine.

The prevalence of concubinage and the status, rights and expectations of a concubine have varied between cultures, as have the rights of children of a concubine. Whatever the status and rights of the concubine, they were always inferior to those of the wife, and typically neither she nor her children had rights of inheritance. Historically, concubinage was frequently entered into voluntarily (by the woman or her family) as it provided a measure of economic security for the woman involved. Involuntary or servile concubinage sometimes involved sexual slavery of one member of the relationship, usually the woman. Unlike ancient cultures, Christian Europe opposed concubinage, regarding any sexual relations outside of a monogamous marriage as sinful. Nevertheless, sexual relations outside marriage was not uncommon, especially among royalty and nobility, and the woman in such relationships was commonly described as a mistress. However, the children of such relationships were counted as illegitimate and were barred from inheriting the father's title or estates, even when there was an absence of any legitimate heirs.

While various forms of long-term sexual relationships and co-habitation short of marriage have become increasingly common in the Western world, these are generally not described as concubinage. The terms concubinage and concubine are used today primarily when referring to non-marital partnerships of earlier eras. In modern usage, a non-marital domestic relationship is commonly referred to as co-habitation (or similar terms), and the woman in such a relationship is generally referred to as a girlfriend, lover or (life) partner.

Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, the practice of keeping a slave concubine (Greek: παλλακίς pallakís) was little recorded but appears throughout Athenian history. The law prescribed that a man could kill another man caught attempting a relationship with his concubine for the production of free children, which suggests that a concubine's children were not granted citizenship.[1] While references to the sexual exploitation of maidservants appear in literature, it was considered disgraceful for a man to keep such women under the same roof as his wife.[2] Some interpretations of hetaera have held they were concubines when they had a permanent relationship with a single man.[3]

Ancient Roman concubinae and concubini

Concubinage was an institution practiced in ancient Rome that allowed a man to enter into an informal but recognized relationship with a woman (concubina, plural concubinae) who was not his wife, most often a woman whose lower social status was an obstacle to marriage. Concubinage was "tolerated to the degree that it did not threaten the religious and legal integrity of the family".[4] It was not considered derogatory to be called a concubina, as the title was often inscribed on tombstones.[5]

A concubinus was a young male slave sexually exploited by his master as a sexual partner (see homosexuality in ancient Rome). These relations, however, were expected to play a secondary role to marriage, within which institution an adult male demonstrated his masculine authority as head of the household (pater familias). In one of his epithalamiums, Catullus (fl. mid-1st century BC) assumes that the young bridegroom has a concubinus who considers himself elevated above the other slaves, but who will be set aside as his master turns his attention to marriage and family life.[6]

In the Bible

Among the Israelites, men commonly acknowledged their concubines, and such women enjoyed the same rights in the house as legitimate wives.[7]

The concubine may not have commanded the same respect and inviolability as the wife. In the Levitical rules on sexual relations, the Hebrew word that is commonly translated as "wife" is distinct from the Hebrew word that means "concubine". However, on at least one other occasion the term is used to refer to a woman who is not a wife – specifically, the handmaiden of Jacob's wife.[8] In the Levitical code, sexual intercourse between a man and a wife of a different man was forbidden and punishable by death for both persons involved.[9][10] Since it was regarded as the highest blessing to have many children, wives often gave their maids to their husbands if they were barren, as in the cases of Sarah and Hagar, and Rachel and Bilhah. The children of the concubine often had equal rights with those of the wife;[7] for example, King Abimelech was the son of Gideon and his concubine.[11] Later biblical figures such as Gideon, and Solomon had concubines in addition to many childbearing wives. For example, the Books of Kings say that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.[12]

Illustration from the Morgan Bible of the Benjaminites taking women of Shiloh as concubines.

The account of the unnamed Levite[13][14] shows that the taking of concubines was not the exclusive preserve of Kings or patriarchs in Israel during the time of the Judges, and that the rape of a concubine was completely unacceptable to the Israelite nation and led to a civil war. In the story, the Levite appears to be an ordinary member of the tribe dedicated to the worship of God, who was undoubtedly dishonored both by the unfaithfulness of his concubine and her abandonment of him. However, after four months, he decides to follow her back to her family home to persuade her to return to him. Her father seeks to delay his return and he does not leave early enough to make the return journey in a single day. The hospitality he is offered at Gibeah, the way in which his host's daughter is offered to the townsmen and the circumstances of his concubine's death at their hands describe a lawless time where visitors are both welcomed and threatened in equal measure. The most disturbing aspect of this account is that both the Levite and his (male) host seek to protect themselves by offering their womenfolk to their aggressors for sex, in exchange for their own safety. The Levite acts in a way that indicates that he believes that the multiple rape of his unfaithful concubine is preferable to the violation of the virginity of his host's daughter or a sexual assault on his own person. In the morning, the Levite appears to be quite indifferent to the condition of his concubine and expects her to resume the journey, but she is dead. He dismembers her body and distributes her (body parts) throughout the nation of Israel as a terrible message. This outrages and revolts the Israelite tribesmen, who then wreak total retribution on the men of Gibeah and the surrounding tribe of Benjamin when they support them, killing them without mercy and burning all their towns. The inhabitants of (the town of) Jabesh Gilead are then slaughtered as a punishment for not joining the eleven tribes in their war against the Benjamites, and their four hundred unmarried daughters given in forced marriage to the six hundred Benjamite survivors. Finally, the two hundred Benjamite survivors who still have no wives are granted a mass marriage by abduction by the other tribes.

There are no concubines in the New Testament. Paul, the apostle, emphasizes that church leaders should be in monogamous marriages,[15][16] that believers should not have sexual relationships outside marriage and that unmarried believers should be celibate. Marriage is to reflect the exclusive relationship between the husband (Christ) and wife (his church),[17] described as a "mystery".

In Judaism

In Judaism, concubines are referred to by the Hebrew term pilegesh (Hebrew: פילגש‎). The term is a loanword from Ancient Greek παλλακίς,[18][19][20] meaning "a mistress staying in house".

According to the Babylonian Talmud,[7] the difference between a concubine and a full wife was that the latter received a ketubah and her marriage (nissu'in) was preceded by an erusin ("formal betrothal"). Neither was the case for a concubine. One opinion in the Jerusalem Talmud argues that the concubine should also receive a marriage contract, but without a clause specifying a divorce settlement.[7]

Certain Jewish thinkers, such as Maimonides, believed that concubines were strictly reserved for kings, and thus that a commoner may not have a concubine. Indeed, such thinkers argued that commoners may not engage in any type of sexual relations outside of a marriage.

Maimonides was not the first Jewish thinker to criticise concubinage. For example, Leviticus Rabbah severely condemns the custom.[21] Other Jewish thinkers, such as Nahmanides, Samuel ben Uri Shraga Phoebus, and Jacob Emden, strongly objected to the idea that concubines should be forbidden.

In the Hebrew of the contemporary State of Israel, pilegesh is often used as the equivalent of the English word "mistress"—i.e., the female partner in extramarital relations—regardless of legal recognition. Attempts have been initiated to popularise pilegesh as a form of premarital, non-marital or extramarital relationship (which, according to the perspective of the enacting person(s), is permitted by Jewish law).[22][23][24]

In China

Consorts and children of the Qianlong Emperor, Qing dynasty, 18th century

In China, successful men often had concubines until the practice was outlawed after the Communist Party of China came to power in 1949. The standard Chinese term translated as "concubine" was qiè 妾, a term used since ancient times. Concubines resembled wives (Chinese: ; pinyin: ) in that they were recognized sexual partners of a male family member, expected to bear children from him. In English the term concubine is also used for what the Chinese refer to as pínfēi (Chinese: 嬪妃) "consorts of emperors", some of very high rank.[25]

In premodern China, it was illegal and socially disreputable for a man to have more than one wife at a time, but he could have concubines.[26] At first a man could have as many concubines as he could afford, however, from the Eastern Han (25–220 CE) onward, the maximal number of concubines a man could have was limited by law. The higher ranking and the more noble an identity a man possessed, the more concubines he was permitted to have.[27]

A concubine's treatment and situation were highly variable and were influenced by the social status of the male to whom she was engaged, as well as the attitude of the wife. In the Book of Rites chapter on “The Pattern of the Family” (Chinese: 內則) it says: “If there were betrothal rites, she became a wife; and if she went without these, a concubine.”[28] Besides, wives were married with dowries but concubines were not. Concubines could be taken without any of the ceremonies used in marriages. And neither remarriage nor a return to her natal home in widowhood were allowed.[29]

The position of the concubine was generally inferior to that of the wife. Although a concubine could produce heirs, her children would be inferior in social status to "legitimate" children. And the child of a concubine had to show filial duty to two women, their biological mother and legal mother–the wife of their father.[30] Allegedly, concubines were occasionally buried alive with their masters to "keep them company in the afterlife".[31] After the death of a concubine her sons would make an offering to her, but these offerings were not continued by her grandsons, who only made offerings to their grandfather’s wife.[32] Until the Song dynasty (960–1276 CE), it was treated as a serious breach of social ethics to promote a concubine to a wife.[29]

In Qing China (1644-1911 CE), the status of concubines improved: it became permissible to promote a concubine to wife, if the wife had died and the concubine was the mother of the only surviving sons. Moreover, the prohibition against forcing a widow to remarry was extended to widowed concubines. Tablets for concubine-mothers seem to have been more commonly placed in family ancestral altars and genealogies of some lineages listed concubine-mothers.[29]

Despite the limitations imposed on Chinese concubines, history and literature offer examples of concubines who achieved great power and influence. For example, in one of the Four Great Classical Novels, Dream of the Red Chamber (believed to be a semi-autobiographical account of author Cao Xueqin's own family life), three generations of the Jia family are supported by one favorite concubine of the emperor.

Imperial concubines, kept by emperors in the Forbidden City, had different ranks and were traditionally guarded by eunuchs to ensure that they could not be impregnated by anyone but the emperor.[31] In Ming China (1368-1644), there was an official system to select concubines for the emperor. The age of the candidates ranged mainly from 14 to 16. Virtues, behavior, character, appearance and body condition would all be taken as selection criteria.[33]

Lady Yehenara, otherwise known as Empress Dowager Cixi, was arguably one of the most successful concubines in China's history. Cixi first entered the court as a concubine to the Xianfeng Emperor, and gave birth to his only surviving son, who would become the Tongzhi Emperor. She would eventually become the de facto ruler of Qing China for 47 years after her husband's death.[34]

The concept of men having relationships with one or more concubines has seen a comeback since modern China has prospered. The women involved typically say they feel fine about exploiting their youth and beauty for the sake of earning money,[35][36] not having to live with the primary wives any more as in the past.

In Islam

Harem, by Doroshevich, c. 1905
Painting of seated women, with man standing
Women of the Harem by Jules Laurens, circa 1847

Concubines were common in pre-Islamic Arabia and when Islam arrived, it had a society with concubines. Islam introduced legal restrictions to the concubinage[37] and encouraged manumission.[38] According to the Islamic tradition, numerous Hadiths show Muhammad and the early companions had concubines of their own, some of whom were willingly acquired in war (ex. Sahih Bukhari Volume 7, Book 62, Number 137; Sahih Muslim Book 8, Number 3371; Sahih Muslim Book 8, Number 3432). Children of concubines were generally declared as legitimate as children born in wedlock, and the mother of a free child was considered free upon the death of the male partner.

Ancient times

In ancient times, two sources for concubines were permitted under an Islamic regime. Primarily, non-Muslim women taken as prisoners of war were made concubines as happened after the Battle of the Trench,[39] or in numerous later Caliphates.[40] Upon rejecting their initial faith and embracing Islam, it was encouraged to manumit slave women or bring them into formal marriage.

Scene from the Harem by Fernand Cormon (1845–1924)
Drunken Oriental man groping a Chinese girl
Drunken prince assaults Chinese maiden; miniature from Gulistan, Herat, 1427

Modern times

According to the rules of Islamic Fiqh, what is halal (permitted) by Allah in the Quran cannot be altered by any authority or individual. Therefore, although the concept of concubinage is halal, concubines are mostly no longer available in this modern era nor allowed to be sold or purchased in accordance with the latest human rights standards. However, as change of existing Islamic law is impossible, a concubine in this modern era, if existing, must be given all the due rights that Islam had preserved in the past.

It is further clarified that all domestic and organizational female employees are not concubines in this era and hence sex is forbidden with them unless Nikah (formal marriage)[41] or mut'ah[42] (temporary marriage – which only Shi'ah Islam permits) is committed through the proper channels. Although sometimes the two are confused, mut'ah is not concubinage.

In the United States

Free woman of color with quadroon daughter; late 18th century collage painting, New Orleans.

When slavery became institutionalized in the North American colonies, white men, whether or not they were married, sometimes took enslaved women as concubines, most often against the will of the woman. Marriage between the races was prohibited by law in the colonies and the later United States. Many colonies and states also had laws against miscegenation, or any interracial relations. From 1662 the Colony of Virginia, followed by others, incorporated into law the principle that children took their mother's status, i.e., the principle of partus sequitur ventrem. All children born to enslaved mothers were born into slavery, regardless of their father's status or ancestry.[43] This led to generations of multiracial slaves, some of whom were otherwise considered legally white (one-eighth or less African, equivalent to a great-grandparent) before the American Civil War.

In some cases, men had long-term relationships with enslaved women, giving them and their mixed-race children freedom and providing their children with apprenticeships, education and transfer of capital. In other cases, the men did nothing for the women except in a minor way. Such arrangements were more prevalent in the Southern states during the antebellum years.

Jefferson–Hemings controversy

Historians widely believe that the widower Thomas Jefferson, both before and during his presidency of the United States in the early 19th century, had an intimate relationship of 38 years with his multiracial slave, Sally Hemings, and fathered all of her six children of record.[44] He freed all four of her surviving children as they came of age. The Hemingses were the only slave family to go free from Monticello. The children were seven-eighths European in ancestry and legally white. Three entered the white community as adults. A 1998 DNA study showed a match between the Jefferson male line and a male descendant of Sally Hemings.[44]


In Louisiana and former French territories, a formalized system of concubinage called plaçage developed. European men took enslaved or free women of color as mistresses after making arrangements to give them a dowry, house or other transfer of property, and sometimes, if they were enslaved, offering freedom and education for their children.[45] A third class of free people of color developed, especially in New Orleans.[45][46] Many became educated, artisans and property owners. French-speaking and practicing Catholicism, these women combined French and African-American culture and created an elite between those of European descent and the slaves.[45] Today, descendants of the free people of color are generally called Louisiana Creole people.[45]

See also


  1. James Davidson. Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. p. 98. ISBN 0-312-18559-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. James Davidson. Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. pp. 98–99. ISBN 0-312-18559-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. James Davidson. Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. p. 101. ISBN 0-312-18559-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Grimal, Love in Ancient Rome (University of Oklahoma Press) 1986:111.
  5. Kiefer, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome (Kegan Paul International) 2000:50.
  6. Catullus, Carmen 61; Amy Richlin, "Not before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men", Journal of the History of Sexuality 3.4 (1993), pp. 534–535.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Staff (2002–2011). "PILEGESH (Hebrew, ; comp. Greek, παλλακίς)". Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13 June 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Genesis 30:4
  9. Leviticus 20:10
  10. Deuteronomy 22:22
  11. Judges 8:31
  12. 1 Kings 11:1-3
  13. Judges 19
  14. Judges 20
  15. Timothy&verse=3:2&src= 1 Timothy 3:2
  16. Timothy&verse=3:12&src= 1 Timothy 3:12
  17. Ephesians 5:31-32
  18. Michael Lieb, Milton and the culture of violence, p.274, Cornell University Press, 1994
  19. Agendas for the study of Midrash in the twenty-first century, Marc Lee Raphael, p.136, Dept. of Religion, College of William and Mary, 1999
  20. Nicholas Clapp, Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen, p.297, Houghton Mifflin, 2002
  21. Leviticus Rabbah, 25
  22. Matthew Wagner (16 March 2006). "Kosher sex without marriage". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 13 June 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Adam Dickter, "ISO: Kosher Concubine", New York Jewish Week, December 2006
  24. Suzanne Glass, "The Concubine Connection", The Independent, London 20 October 1996
  25. Patricia Buckley Ebrey (2002): Women and the Family in Chinese History. Oxford: Routledge, p. 39.
  26. Ebrey 2002:39.
  27. Shi Fengyi 史凤仪 (1987): Zhongguo gudai hunyin yu jiating 中国古代婚姻与家庭 [Marriage and Family in ancient China]. Wuhan: Hubei Renmin Chubanshe, p. 74.
  28. 聘則為妻,奔則為妾。The translation is by James Legge.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 Ebrey 2002: 60.
  30. Ebrey 2002: 54.
  31. 31.0 31.1 "Concubines of Ancient China". Beijing Made Easy. Beijing Made Easy. 2012. Retrieved 13 June 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. Ebrey 2002: 42.
  33. Qiu Zhonglin(Chung-lin Ch'iu)邱仲麟:"Mingdai linxuan Houfei jiqi guizhi" 明代遴選後妃及其規制(The Imperial Concubine Selection System during the Ming Dynasty). Mingdai Yanjiu 明代研究(Ming Studies) 11.2008:58.
  34. Sterling Seagrave, Peggy Seagrave (1993). Dragon lady: the life and legend of the last empress of China. Vintage Books.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  35. "Er nai - the modern Chinese concubine".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  36. Clifford Coonan (25 August 2009). "Welcome back: Return of capitalism to China means a major comeback for the concubine". The Independent. Retrieved 12 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  37. Maarif ul Quran,
  38. Maarif ul Quran,
  39. Majlisi, M. B. (1966). Hayat-ul-Qaloob, Volume 2, Translated by Molvi Syed Basharat Hussain Sahib Kamil, Imamia Kutub Khana, Lahore, Pakistan
  40. Murat Iyigun, “Lessons From the Ottoman Harem on Culture, Religion & Wars,”University of Colorado, 2011
  41. "Definition of Nikah (Islamic marriage)". Retrieved 16 December 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  42. Motahhari M. "The rights of woman in Islam, fixed-term marriage and the problem of the harem". website. Accessed 15 March 2014.
  43. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619–1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993, p. 17
  44. 44.0 44.1 "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account", Monticello Website, Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Retrieved 22 June 2011. Quote: "Ten years later [referring to its 2000 report], TJF and most historians now believe that, years after his wife's death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson's records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston Hemings."
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 45.3 Helen Bush Caver and Mary T. Williams, "Creoles", Multicultural America, Countries and Their Cultures Website. Retrieved 3 Feb 2009
  46. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619–1865, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993, pp. 82-83

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