Concubinage (Lat. concubare, to cohabit), a term applied in ancient times to a quasi-conjugal relation. Among the Hebrews the concubine was liable to be discarded, and to see her offspring excluded from the inheritance, though in most cases provisions were made for her and her .children. The barrenness of a marriage often led to concubinage. Sometimes, with the wife's consent, her housemaid became the husband's concubine, to bring children into the family, but without his ceasing to stand in a marital relation to the wife. Subsequently the laws attempted to check excesses. The faithlessness of a concubine was not punished as severely as that of a wife; yet the line of demarcation between the two was so narrow that the paramour of the concubine was considered as her husband and as the son-in-law of her father. The first act of a usurper consisted generally in appropriating the concubines of his predecessor. Among the Persians concubinage likewise prevailed. Darius was followed to the battle field by numerous concubines, arrayed in regal splendor. Among the ancient Egyptians priests were allowed only one wife; and though polygamy was not prohibited among the rest of the people, monogamy seems to have been the general practice.
Among the Greeks the concubine was usually a native-born female, who occupied a position between a wife, a servant, and a harlot. Outrages on her person were resented as severely as if she had been a wife; but she had to perform menial services, and after the death of her quasi-husband she was often treated like a slave. The laws of Athens sanctioned the relation of concubinage, which however was more trifled with among the Greeks than among the Hebrews; and the concubine was often made over to others, especially to guests of the house or to sons. - In Borne the regular paramour of a married man was originally called pellex (harlot). The laws of Numa Pompilius excluded her from legal wedlock, and she was only admitted to the temples after having cut off her hair and sacrificed a lamb. Afterward the designation of concubine superseded that of pellex, and the illicit character of the relation was removed, so far as concerned the permanent cohabitation of a Roman spinster with a bachelor or widower, who was not a blood or collateral relation.
No written contract was required by the law, but the social status of the wife was denied to the concubine; and the children, though regarded as of more honorable origin than those of unknown or disgraceful parentage, were yet looked upon as quasi-fatherless. The concubine seems to have been so far considered as a wife as to be liable to punishment for adultery. Concubines usually belonged to the lower classes; and at one time free-born Roman girls were precluded from becoming concubines unless they had sunk to the lowest depth of degradation, or had been employed on the stage or in other pursuits which were then considered disreputable. Subsequently it became requisite for a concubine to be a free-born Roman, and some authorities doubt whether common prostitutes were eligible for the position at any period of Roman history. Caesar allowed to each Roman as many concubines as he desired. Vespasian, Antoninus Pius, and other widowers who had children by their deceased wives, preferred concubinage to new marriages. Con-stantine made legal marriage with a concubine indispensable for legitimizing the children; but this regulation had little effect, and he eventually allowed a concubine in addition to a wife.
The relation continued to prevail to some extent under Justinian, with the legal designation of licita consuetudo; and though suppressed by the emperor Leo I., it was retained for a considerable period. - The church of Rome forbade temporary concubinage; but a lifelong relation of the kind, though not expressly sanctioned, was long tolerated. The council of Toledo, A. D. 400, punished it with excommunication for married men, but bachelors who kept concubines were not excluded from the communion. St. Isidore, archbishop of Seville (died in 636), expressed the opinion that no Christian ought to have more than one wife or one concubine. The term priestess often occurs in mediaeval writings to designate the concubine of a priest. Leo X. (1513-'21) and other popes opposed concubinage, and the council of Trent declared it to be criminal. The Protestant churches do not seem to have ever sanctioned the relation in any form. - Among the Germans the relation with a Nebenweib or Halbweib (half-wife) was prohibited by imperial regulations in 1530, and made liable to penalties in 1577, which however were seldom inflicted, and the case was habitually disposed of by enforcing a separation.
For a long time the children of concubines were looked upon as bastards, and were not entitled to inherit the property of the deceased father, which was confiscated by the state. In more recent times this rigor has been greatly relaxed, and the claims on the father granted to the children by the ancient Roman laws are generally conceded to them in Germany, though the practice varies in different states. - In France, as in other countries, the term concubinage was often applied to illicit relations which do not strictly belong to that category; and the children resulting from such alliances, though not regarded as legitimate, were not deprived of rights. There, as in many other parts of the world, whenever they rose to eminence they gloried in the appellation of bastards, and were frequently legitimated by the king. Until the revolution marriages were celebrated only in churches, and parties whose union was not consecrated at the altar were legally regarded as living in concubinage, and the children as bastards.
The revocation of the edict of Nantes especially doomed Protestant children to these disabilities. - In regard to China, S. Wells Williams states that it is not infrequent for a man to secure a maid servant in the family, with the consent of his wife, by purchasing her for a concubine; especially if his occupation frequently calls him away from home, in which case he takes her as his travelling companion, and leaves his wife in charge of the household. The sons of a concubine being considered as legally belonging to the wife, parents betroth their daughters early, so as to prevent them from becoming concubines. Among the masses of the people it is rare to find more than one woman to one man; but in about two fifths of the wealthier families there are one or more concubines. The degradation of the wife, the elevation of the concubine, and the taking of a second wife are regarded as illegal and void; and the status of the purchased concubine is as carefully defined by the law as that of the wedded wife. The widow is occasionally sold as a concubine by her father-in-law; but this being regarded as degrading, and depriving her of the custody of her children, widows generally strive to escape from this fate. A widower is not restrained by law from marrying any of his concubines.
In Japan concubinage is sanctioned by law, and is not regarded as particularly improper. - As regards Mohammedan and other countries where polygamy prevails, see Polygamy.