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Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV of France. circa 1750

Concubinage refers to the state of a woman or youth (known as the concubine or mistress) in an ongoing, quasi-matrimonial relationship with a man of higher social status. The concubine relationship is based on the power that one person has over another, typically a man’s power over a woman. Typically, the man has an official wife in addition to one or more concubines. Concubines have limited rights of support against the man, and their offspring are generally publicly acknowledged as the man's children, albeit of lower status than children born by the official wife or wives.

Often used in history, particularly when the wife of a leader was unable to bear children, concubines have served to produce significant offspring who have then contributed to the development of their tribe or nation. In the Middle Ages, concubinage between two unmarried people enjoyed legal tolerance, similar to the status of common-law marriage. In cases where the man is married, or has several concubines, the situation is similar to polygamy (marriage to multiple wives), although the status hierarchy of the women may be different. Involuntary concubinage has also been common, and can amount to the equivalent of sexual slavery. Supported by the lucrative, albeit illegal, activities of human traffickers, this type of concubinage continues today despite worldwide humanitarian efforts to eliminate it.


The origin of the term concubine can be traced back to Latin, from the word concumbere, which means, "to lay with."[1] In Roman times, Concubinus was the title of a young male who was chosen by his master as a bedmate.

Some historical Asian and European rulers maintained concubines as well as wives. Concubinage was frequently voluntary, as it provided a measure of economic security for the woman involved. Involuntary, or servile, concubine involves sexual slavery of one member of the relationship, typically the woman.

In modern usage, the term concubine often denotes the status of a quasi-wife who is not legally married to a man with whom she lives. The man (but not the woman) may or may not be in an ongoing legal marriage with another person.

In France, "concubine" is the official term for cohabitation of heterosexual and (since 1998) homosexual couples. Some benefits of married couples or those bound by civil union may then apply. In jurisdictions with common-law marriage, cohabiting partners may become common-law spouses after a certain length of time.


Concubinage has been common in various cultures throughout history. The social and legal status of concubines has differed, however, ranging from sexual slavery to common-law marriage. These differences have continued to contemporary times. For example, in a California court case involving inheritance, Rosales v. Battle, a Mexican court had decided that the plaintiff had been the concubine of the deceased, on the grounds that they "had maintained a relationship publicly comparable to a marriage for about four or five years and had always behaved as though they were married, even though they had not contracted legal matrimony."

Some examples of concubinage, under various circumstances, in several cultures are described below.


Pilegesh is the Hebrew term for a concubine with similar social and legal standing to a recognized wife, often for the purpose of producing offspring.

A pilegesh was recognized among the ancient Hebrews and enjoyed the same rights in the house as the legitimate wife. Since it was regarded as the highest blessing to have many children, while the greatest curse was childlessness, legitimate wives often gave their maids to their husbands to atone, at least in part, for their own barrenness. The concubine commanded the same respect and inviolability as the wife, and it was regarded as the deepest dishonor for the man to whom she belonged if hands were laid upon her.

According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sanh. 21a), the difference between a pilegesh and a full wife was that the latter received a ketubah and her marriage was preceded by a formal betrothal (kiddushin), which was not the case with the pilegesh. However, any offspring created as a result of a union between a pilegesh and a man were on equal legal footing with children of the man and his wife.

Several biblical figures had concubines when they were not able to create natural children with their wives. The most famous example of this was with Abraham and Sarah. Sarah, feeling guilty about her inability to give Abraham children, gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham. Their union created Ishmael. Other biblical figures such as Gideon, David, and Solomon had concubines in addition to many childbearing wives. The Book of Kings mentions that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines; the wives were royal princesses with dowries, while concubines had no dowries.


In the Ch'in Dynasty (221 B.C.E. to 24 C.E.) in China, there was a subset of Confucianist rules for concubines. Such rules included concubines having to leave the bed after a sexual act even if the wife was not present, and concubines had to engage in sexual activities with their men at least every five days. Concubines might engage in incestuous activities amongst the men in their families.[2]


In the Middle Ages, in Europe, 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. 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.[3]

Historically, concubines or mistresses are often thought of in terms of the best-known women, such as Nell Gwynne and Madame de Pompadour. However, the keeping of a mistress was not confined to monarchs and the nobility; it permeated down through the ranks. Anyone who could afford one, regardless of social position, could have a mistress. She often provided companionship as well as sex, and demanded a lavish lifestyle as well as actual cash. Nor were mistresses always confined to the obscurity of a clandestine relationship; in the courts of Europe, particularly Versailles and Whitehall in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a mistress often wielded great power and influence. The mistresses of both Louis XV and Charles II were often considered to exert great influence over their lovers, their relationships being an open secret.

While the extremely wealthy might keep a concubine for life (as George II of England did with "Mrs Howard"), even after they were no longer romantically linked, such was not the case for most kept women. In 1736, when George II was newly ascendant, Henry Fielding (in Pasquin) has his Lord Place say, "…but, miss, every one now keeps and is kept; there are no such things as marriages now-a-days, unless merely Smithfield contracts, and that for the support of families; but then the husband and wife both take into keeping within a fortnight." Wealthy merchants and young nobles might have a kept woman, and being a mistress was typically an occupation for younger women, who might go on to marriage, if fortunate.

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 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 people—including their wives—whom 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.

During the nineteenth century, when morals became more puritanical, the keeping of a mistress became more circumspect, but conversely the tightening of morality also created a greater desire for a man to have a mistress. When an upper class man married a woman of equal rank, as was the norm, it was likely that she had been strictly brought up to believe that sexual intercourse was firmly for procreation rather than recreation. Some men thus went to a mistress if they wanted a less prudish female companion.

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 men—who, tradition dictated, would raise any children—and 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 client 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.[4]

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 non-marital 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 for marriage, lived together unmarried until they could accumulate sufficient wealth.[5]


According to various sources, it is estimated that from the 1930s to 1945, between 100,000 and 200,000 women, mostly from Japan's colony of Korea, were forced into sexual slavery and concubinage by the Japanese military.[6] These "comfort women," some as young as twelve when their ordeal began, endured years of coercion, violence, abduction, rape, and wrongful imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese.[7] Following many years of controversy, official apologies were made to the former comfort women by the Japanese government, including a letter from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 1991.[8]

Social aspects

The concubine relationship is based on the power that one person has over another. Typically, a concubine has limited rights and freedoms, and the person they are with is of a higher social status. Concubinage has, at different times throughout history, been openly endorsed by society and taken as a sign of the social elite. It is based on a patriarchal system of ideals; the concubine is usually a female.

People involved in such relationships are seen as objects rather than human beings, raising the issue of treating people, particularly women, as commodities. Additionally, concubinage may cause problems in the marriage, since a man may be married but have concubines as well, limiting the role his wife plays in the marriage.[9]

Involuntary concubinage has been a recurring problem through history. Involuntary concubine can be equated with sexual slavery. This process still happens all over the world, though many societies have spoken out against the practice and made it illegal.

In the past, concubines were often used as a dowry or to pay off debts between households. Contemporary times show that families sell their daughters into a life of concubinage to pay off debts or for financial support. Additionally, the women may be fooled into concubinage based on false promises of work. The context of concubinage can be traced to conflicts in socioeconomic status and gender oppression, both of which heavily influence its continued existence.

Concubines in the present day

Sexual slavery continues around the world, with human trafficking a key component of the problem.

In Africa, the colonial powers abolished slavery in the nineteenth century, but in areas outside their jurisdiction, such as the Mahdist Empire in Sudan, the practice continued to thrive. Institutional slavery has been banned worldwide, but there continue to be reports of women as sex slaves and concubines in areas without effective government control. In Ghana, Togo, and Benin, a form of religious prostitution known as trokosi, or ritual servitude, keeps thousands of girls and women in traditional shrines against their will, forcing them to act as "wives of the gods," the shrine priests performing the sexual function in place of the gods.

Polygyny, a form of polygamy in which the husband has multiple wives, is still practiced in many countries in Africa. This custom has been a part of many African populations for centuries, and there are a number of supporters and critics of the system. Supporters of the system say that more wives at home cultivate a better home life and allow a division of labor in the work that needs to be done. Critics say that not all the wives are treated equally, nor are they capable of being treated equally, resulting in relationships similar to concubinage. Polygyny is decreasing, but continues to be fairly widespread across the continent.[10]

Incidents in China have involved politicians being exposed funding concubines with government money. It is suggested that concubines have become a staple of power and status in the Chinese government, and that the most powerful politicians have multiple concubines, with the most mistresses being a mark of the elite. When a politician has a concubine, he is automatically suspected of embezzlement because of the level of salaries of government officials. New laws have given wives more power when a husband is caught with a mistress and a divorce ensues, but this is not expected to deter the practice of keeping concubines. Women in Chinese culture are often looked at as commodities, and so men with power flaunt it through the acquisition of different concubines.[11]

In Israel, there have been attempts to popularize pilegesh relationships as permitted forms of premarital, non-marital, and extra-marital relationships. Rabbinic Judaism has essentially outlawed all forms of polygamy, but has made exceptions to those who immigrate to the country already involved in a polygamous relationship.

Notable concubines

  • Jane Shore, mistress of King Edward IV of England, later mistress of Thomas Grey, 1st marquess of Dorset, and then of Lord Hastings.[12]
  • Yang Yuhuan, one of the most famous Chinese concubines.
  • Micaela Villegas, a famous Peruvian mistress.[13]
  • Agnes, concubine and later wife to Gebhard Truchsess von Waldburg, archbishop of Cologne.[14]
  • Nell Gwynne, mistress of King Charles II of England.[15]
  • Madame de Pompadour, well known courtesan and the famous mistress of King Louis XV of France.[16]


  1. Online Etymology Dictionary, Concubine. Retrieved June 16, 2007.
  2. History of Sex, Ancient China. Retrieved June 16, 2007.
  3. James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: 1987) ISBN 978-0226077833
  4. Emlyn Eisenach, Husbands, Wives, and Concubines: Marriage, Family, and Social Order in Sixteenth-Century Verona (Truman State University, 2004). ISBN 978-1931112352
  5. Olwen Hufton, The Prospect before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe, Vol. 1: 1500–1800 (New York, 1996).
  6. United States Office of War Information, Japanese Comfort Women. Retrieved July 11, 2007.
  7. Yuki Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery & Prostitution During World War II & the US Occupation (Routledge, 2001). ISBN 0415194008
  8. Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Letter from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the former comfort women. Retrieved July 11, 2007.
  9. Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice. (Oxford University Press, 2000). ISBN 978-0195112108
  10. Peter Wadri, Three Wives and a Score of Children, the African way... Retrieved June 21, 2007.
  11. Don Lee, Second Wives Are Back. Retrieved June 16, 2007.
  12., Jane Shore.
  13., Micaela Villegas. Retrieved July 12, 2007.
  14., Truchsess von Waldburg Gebhard. Retrieved July 12, 2007.
  15., Neil Gwyn. Retrieved July 12, 2007.
  16., Madame de Pompadour. Retrieved July 12, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brundage, James A. 1987. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago. ISBN 978-0226077833
  • Eisenach, Emlyn. 2004. Husbands, Wives, and Concubines: Marriage, Family, and Social Order in Sixteenth-Century Verona. Truman State University. ISBN 978-1931112352
  • Nussbaum, Martha. 2000. Sex and Social Justice. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195112108

External links

All links retrieved March 17, 2017.


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