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Basic Information

A concubine (from the Latin concubare - to take to bed) is an (almost always female) domestic partner who lacks the social status and recognition of marriage.

The exact status of a concubine will vary by circumstance and culture - in some times and places she may be a wife in all but name, in others nothing but a sex-slave. In a few cases she may even wield power and influence above that of a wife (especially if the relations between her partner and his wife are poor). Historical reasons for concubinage will also vary - often concubinage is a form of semi-polygyny where a successful man is permitted to maintain multiple female partners but only one is granted the status of a wife (or generally for any women over his culture's limit on number of wives). A concubine may also remain unmarried because her husband is otherwise not permitted (socially or legally) to marry her due to her lower social rank, ethnicity (besides more recent examples, many civilisations e.g. the Romans, prohibited or heavily restricted marriage to non-natives) or factors - or, indeed, issues of his own such as a profession that forbade marriage (Roman priests were - and in some places still are - know to skirt rules on clerical celibacy by keeping "housekeepers"). A man may also inherit a concubine - some Islamic theologians hold that their tradition of concubinage resulted from a desire to make provision for the widows of their defeated enemies; there are also cultures in which a man may be obliged to take his brother's widow in as some form of wife and even to father an heir for his brother if one does not already exist1. In general, the difference between simple cohabitation and concubinage will be a power/status imbalance within the couple.

Children of concubines have traditionally been considered illegitimate, but more respectable than illegitimate children born outside any formal arrangement. Where a culture has a concept of an "acknowledged bastard" the children of concubines often enter into it. Even where legitimacy is granted, hereditary precedence will normally be given to the children of wives. Any culture that practices concubinage will normally have its own set of expectations of the man with regard to the children of the relationship, which will include some form of provision - usually not to the degree of his trueborn children, but so that they are comfortably established. Notably it has traditionally been common for the children of a slave concubine to be freed and trained in a respectable trade or profession - partly as a courtesy to their mother and partly to spare their father the shame of having servile descendants.

Historically male concubines were not particularly common - although they did occur from time to time and could be the result of a homosexual man keeping a male lover despite being obliged to marry a woman. Where the "concubine" is significantly younger than the master, the term catamite may be applied. Presumably eunuchs and transgender men might also have served in this role.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • As pointed out in The Dresden Files a character with a more archaic outlook can cause significant values dissonance with their interpretation of modern trends towards non-marital cohabitation (thinking of the shock Leanansidhe causes by referring to Susan Rodriguez as Harry's concubine).
  • Consider the social consequences of concubinage when making it widespread - including unforeseen ones; for example in the early C19, a substantial number of skilled tradesmen in the Southern US were mixed race, the result of the children of slave concubines set up in apprenticeships and subsequent trade by their fathers.
  • Likewise, entire communities such as the Amerindian Metis (who admittedly had other origins as well) and the South African Baster can come from the offspring of "unrecognised marriage". In a fantasy setting "half elves" or "half orcs" might form similar distinct tribes if there are enough of them.
  • Highly amusing to have a PC informed that his brother has died and he has an inheritance to claim … only for him to rush to the executor and find he has inherited his brother's wife and children. Well, funny for the rest of the group anyway. Once. Perhaps.
  • There appears to be no historical evidence of a society in which it has been socially acceptable for women to openly keep male concubines - again, in fictional settings this need not be the case.
  • Conflict between the children of concubines and their "trueborn" siblings is a staple trope, going back at least as far as Isaac and Ishmael. This may be a particular issue in a society where the legitimate wife is rather too closely related to her husband and the legal heirs are riddled with hereditary defects as a result, whilst the concubine's children are healthy.
  • Likewise, the conflict between wives and concubines - or concubines and concubines. Harem politics is a recognised thing.
    • A lack of conflict is also entirely possible - if husband and wife have no interest in each other, concubines may be an acceptable substitute.
  • Speaking of values dissonance, the power imbalance may be confusing to anyone brought up on modern gender politics - the work of Margret Atwood is much (mis)cited in this regard.
  • Once biomimetic androids and/or bioroids become common, this may be a thing again - with its own social issues.
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