Commonly refers to a relationship between a man (usually of higher social status) and a woman, where the man has an “official” wife, and possibly more than one concubine. Concubines had limited rights though any children are acknowledged, though their status is second to that of children born unto the “official” wife. Concubinage was usually an “exclusive” arrangement between two parties.
With the tolerance of polygamy, a concubine was only defined in terms of her disparity in position or rank with the principal wife.
A legitimate spouse, of an inferior social grade or a bondwoman, is often given the appellation of concubine. This term did not invalidate her marriage, it did, however, indicate that she was not equal to her husband in rank, nor did she share in her husband’s property or in the administration of his household.
From Genesis 21:9-14, we see that the dismissal of a concubine and of her children was permissible.
Concubines were permitted in ancient Greece and their children were legitimate if recognized by their fathers.
A concubine was recognized by law in the absence of a legal wife. She was usually from a lower social rank than her husband, and her children, though not considered the equals of those of the legal wife (uxor) were nevertheless termed natural (naturales) to distinguish them from spurious offsprings (spurii). The father of these children was required to maintain them, as he would his legitimate offspring, and to provide for them upon his death - in the absence of legitimate children, this amounted to one-sixth of his property. Legitimate concubinage under Roman Law did not require the intention of the two parties to remain together until the death as man and wife.
The “Lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus” and the “Papia Poppæa” both allowed for temporary and permanent concubinage. The “Lex Julia” stipulated that only women of low rank should be chosen as concubines, and any children would be considered illegitimate unless their parents later married. Permanent concubinage, though not recognized by the civil law, was viewed as a real marriage, as it involved the intention and consent of both parties to form a lifelong union. This the Church allowed. However, the “Lex Julia” was condemned as immoral by the early Christian Church.
The Council of Toledo (398 - 400) pronounced a sentence of excommunication against any person who in addition to having a legal a wife also kept a concubine. It stated that: “…. if a man has no wife, but a concubine instead of a wife, let him not be refused communion; only let him be content to be united with one woman whether wife or concubine".
With the fall of the Roman Empire (410), the institution of legitimate concubinage fell into disuse and concubinage came more and more to have only the modern significance, that of a permanent illicit union, and as such was variously proceeded against by the Church.
A concubine was defined as a woman who had regular “activities” (one may assume of a sexual nature) with a man, and lived in a state of cohabitation. Children born of this union were considered illegitimate. However, the state of concubinage often came about as a result of a lack of dowry - a father would then give his daughter as a concubine.
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.
As late as the mid 11th Century, Roman Councils (1052 & 1063), those who had both a wife and a concubine at the same time” were forbidden communion - this implies a sort of tolerance.
In Germany, "left-handed" or "morganatic" marriages were allowed by the Salic law between nobles and women of lower rank. In different states of Spain the laws of the later middle ages also recognized concubinage.
In the East, however, Byzantine Emperor Leo (d. 911) insisted that only a formal marriage had legal status; whilst in the Western Empire, concubinage was still recognized even by the Christian Emperors.
In Iceland, a concubine was recognized in addition to the lawful wife, though it was forbidden for either to dwell in the same house - therefore sepearet households needed to be established.
The Norwegian law of the later Middle Ages provided in the absence of legitimate sons, the kingdom should descend to illegitimates.
In the Danish code of Valdemar II. (enforced from 1280 to 1683), stated that a concubine kept openly for three years shall thereafter become a legal wife - this was the custom of hand vesten or "handfasting".
In Scotland, the laws of William the Lion (d. 1214) speak of concubinage as a recognized institution; and, in the same century, the great English legist Bracton treats the "concubina legitima" as entitled to certain rights.
It became an established pattern for a man of higher status to maintain a low status woman as a concubine - this could also include servants. In the case of the aristocracy, some high status women became the concubines of the nobility or royalty. In this instance, where marriages were usually arranged for political or social reasons, the concubine could provide an emotionally satisfying relationship. For unmarried or widowed men, this type of arrangement could given the semblance of a “normal” family life - even more so if children were the result of the union.
Concubinage was also used as a means of social advancement. High status men flaunted their wealth and power through richly attired concubines, who were maintained with their own household. Low status women (and their families) were attracted by the prospect of an alliance with wealthy and powerful men. In these circumstances, children were traditionally provided for (education, dowry, and marriage). For high status men, the arrangement of marriages of former concubines and illegitimate children was seen as a means of maintaining a social network.
In 14th Century Italy some patrons and concubines (now identified by the term “femina”) defined their obligations in written contracts. In the late 14th Century, however, a small number of cities (including Cremona and Würzburg) began to make concubinage a crime.
By the late 15th Century, long-term concubinage began to wane as both the Church and State invested in the institution of “legitimate” marriage with an emphasis on increased social and moral obligations and responsibilities. More and more cities began to make concubinage a crime, with adulterous relationships receiving harsher punishments.
The Fifth Lateran Council (1514) and The Council of Trent (1545 - 1563) renewed the old ecclesiastical penalties against concubinage, and they added new ones. These forbade and rendered null and void any and all clandestine unions, and thus removed forever the appearance of legitimate concubinage.
At the same time, in France (1516), 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.
However, in Islam, concubinage was alive and well, and was critical to the success of the Ottoman Harem. From the mid to late Middle Ages, concubinage was normal and unremarkable. It is interesting to note that many of the Ottoman Sultans themselves were almost invariably the children of slave concubines. For the average Muslim man, there was no limit on the number of concubines he could possess. It was however, forbidden under Law for a Muslim man to marry his concubine - and yet, one of the most charismatic of Muslim Sultans, Suleyman the Magnificent, did just that, and agains breaking with Muslim traidtion, he maintained a monogamous marriage.
“In its strict sense it is used of those unions only in which the man and the woman are free from any obligation arising from a vow, the state of matrimony or Holy Orders, or the fact of relationship or affinity; it is immaterial whether the parties dwell together or not, the repetition or continuance of illicit relations between the same persons being the essential element”. (Catholic Encyclopedia)
In Japan (1860s), the Meiji Civil Code legally adopted monogamy. During this period, when respectable men and women were not permitted to engage socially, men turned to concubines for entertainment and sexual pleasures (Geishas). Again, a concubine was regarded as a status symbol - it meant wealth, power and authority. Women, especially low status women, had very few rights, and it was not uncommon for a poor family to sell their daughter into concubinage in order to provide for the whole family.
Servile or Involuntary Concubinage:
Custom in which a young woman or girl is “transferred” by inheritance (through the death of a male) or purchased (when the female is sold, often by her family). It is an involuntary state that in some cases involves the sexual slavery of one party, usually the female.
Nepal - traditionally, young girls were offered by serfs as servile concubines to their feudal overlords.
Ethiopia - a man would assault / defile a young girl against her will then go to her family demanding her as a wife - family or girl could not refuse as unlikely she would marry.
"For my part, I adhere to the maxim of antiquity: The throne is a glorious sepulchre."