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Concubinage is the state of a woman in an ongoing, usually matrimonially-oriented relationship with a man who cannot be married to her, often because of a difference in social status.
A concubine is generally a woman in an ongoing, matrimonial-like relationship with a man, whom she cannot marry for a specific reason. The reason may be because she is of lower social rank than the man or because the man is already married. Generally, only men of high economic and social status have concubines. Many historical rulers maintained concubines as well as wives.
Historically, concubinage was frequently voluntary (by the woman and/or her family's arrangement), as it provided a measure of economic security for the woman involved.
Where it has a legal status, as in ancient Rome, and in ancient China, concubinage is akin, although inferior, to marriage. In opposition to those laws, traditional Western laws do not acknowledge the legal status of concubines, rather only admitting monogamous marriages. Any other relationship does not enjoy legal protection; and the woman is essentially a mistress.
In Ancient Rome, this was the title of a young male who was chosen by his master as a lover. Concubini were often referred to ironically in the literature of the time. Catullus assumes in the wedding poem 61.126 that the young manor lord has a concubinus who considers himself elevated above the other slaves.
Among the Israelites, it was common for men to acknowledge their concubines, and such women enjoyed the same rights in the house as legitimate wives. The principal difference in the Bible between a wife and a concubine is that wives had dowries, while concubines did not.
The concubine commanded the same respect and inviolability as the wife, and it was regarded as the deepest dishonour, for the man to whom she belonged, if other hands were laid upon her; David is portrayed as having become greatly dishonoured when his concubines had a sexual relationship with Absalom.
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, as in the cases of Sarah and Hagar, Leah and Zilpah, Rachel and Bilhah. The children of the concubine had equal rights with those of the legitimate wife; for example, King Abimelech was the son of Gideon and his concubine.
Several biblical figures are portrayed as resorting to concubinage when they were not able to create natural children with their wives. The most famous example of this was with Abraham and Sarah. In the account, Sarah, feeling guilty about her inability to give Abraham children, gave her female slave - Hagar - to Abraham, and Ishmael resulted from the union; later, Sarah becomes fertile, and gives birth to Isaac, so she forces Abraham to exile Ishmael and Hagar into the desert.
In Judaism, concubines are referred to by the Hebrew term pilegesh. This is etymologically related to the Aramaic phrase palga isha, meaning half-wife. A cognate term later appeared in Greek as the loan word pallax/pallakis.
According to the Babylonian Talmud, the difference between a concubine and a full wife was that the latter received a marriage contract (Hebrew:ketubah) and her marriage (nissu'in) was preceded by a formal betrothal (erusin), neither being the case for a concubine. However, one opinion in the Jerusalem Talmud argues that the concubine should also receive a marriage contract, but without including a clause specifying a divorce settlement.
Certain Jewish thinkers, such as Maimonides, believe that concubines are strictly reserved for kings, and thus that a commoner may not have a concubine; indeed, such thinkers argue that commoners may not engage in any type of sexual relations outside of a marriage. Shortly before Maimonides had reached this view, Sunni Muslims officially prohibited mutah relationships (which are similar to concubinage relationships); some therefore suggest that Maimonides view was in response to this, in a similar way to Gershom ben Judah's ban on polygamy only being made after Christians had prohibited it.
Maimonides was not the first Jewish thinker to criticise concubinage; for example, it is severely condemned in Leviticus Rabbah. Other Jewish thinkers, such as Nahmanides, Samuel ben Uri Shraga Phoebus, and Jacob Emden, strongly object to the idea that concubines should be forbidden.
In the Hebrew of the contemporary State of Israel, the word pilegesh is often used as the equivalent of the English word mistress - i.e. the female partner in extramarital relations, even when these relations have no legal recognition. There are attempts there to popularise pilegesh as a form of premarital, non-marital and extramarital relationships which (in their view) would be permitted by Jewish religious law.
Saudi princes can have multiple concubines. Children from these relations may or may not be acknowledged. The former ambassador to the US, Bandar bin Sultan, was an example of an acknowledged case.