The harem on wanton weekends

georges-antoine-rochegrosse-french-1859-1938-e28093-harem-girls-in-an-aviaryIf you want a harem, you really need to talk to my friend, fellow Bluestocking Belle Caroline Warfield, aka Carol Roddy, who has just release her book Dangerous Weakness. In Dangerous Weakness, the heroine spends part of her time in the seraglio at Istanbul.

But here’s what I know. The harem in Ottoman society was the woman’s quarters. Muslim men were permitted four wives (if they could afford them). Wealthy men also kept concubines – whose main job was to join their master in his bed.

Those weren’t the only inhabitants of the harem, however. The female relatives of the head of the household lived there, too: his mother, who was usually the head of the harem, his wives, his unmarried sisters, his daughters, and many, many female servants whose job it was to look after the women of higher status.

Concubines were an important part of Ottoman social structure. Wealthy and powerful men married to make alliances between families, and wives were suspected of remaining loyal to their birth family. Slave concubines had no such lineage, and could—so the theory went—be relied on to reproduce without bothersome politics.

And even a concubine could become the most powerful female in the household if the son she bore became the next master. Perhaps, if the household was that of the Sultan, the most powerful female in the Empire.


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