Infant in a cradel. Troyes - BM - inc. 080 © Institut de recherche et d'histoire des textes - CNRS

In October of 1390, Anthonius Auctor, a Marseille peasant, and his concubine, Alasacia Raymbaude, made their way across the city to the house of the notary Petrus Aycardi to have a contract drawn up. The business was rather unusual. In the preamble to the contract, Anthonius took note of the many services and benefits freely conferred by his concubine on a daily basis. To remunerate her for those services, Anthonius asked the notary to draw up a contract of donation that would convey a small set of household items to her. It was a curiously conditional donation, however, for as the act reads, Anthonius gave the things on the condition that she "will do good" (bonum aget). Should she choose to do the opposite of good, Anthonius was empowered to take back all the things. Here, Anthonius seems to have had second thoughts about his impetuous act of generosity, for the next line goes on to read "and in case he should wish to take anything back from Alasacia for any occasion, reason, or cause whatsoever, Anthonius should be allowed to deny [the donation] and seize those things as his own property." One can almost feel the notary's perplexity as he tried to find the legal language to describe a donation that was not, in fact, a donation at all.

As Michelle Armstrong-Partida and Susan McDonough have shown, references to concubines can be found everywhere among the archival sources from later medieval Mediterranean Europe. As this act suggests, concubines such as Alasacia stood on unstable sands. On the one hand, the act performs a legal role not dissimilar to a dowry contract made after the fact, conferring upon her a small nest-egg that could contribute to her support in the event that Anthonius should predecease her. The items listed constituted a fairly complete though basic set of household items and linens: three blankets, five bedsheets, fifteen canes of linen fabric, four tablecloths, two napkins, two chests, a dough-kneading trough, a tripod, a quarter-measure, a coffer, a new bottom mattress, a bedframe, two benches, a dozen trenchers or bowls, a cradle, a sky-blue cloak with two buttons made of pearls and two buttons made of silver, and a deep blue houppelande. At going prices, these items might have been worth a total of 20 florins, respectable enough for peasants. Of the items, the most arresting is the cradle, suggesting that the two had had a child together. Perhaps the arrival of an heir spurred Anthonius's act of generosity. It is important to bear in mind that the act of providing Alasacia with the functional equivalent of a dowry was not necessarily motivated by the purest beneficence. In a situation where Anthonius was falling into debt, for example, he may have hoped that he could stiff some of his creditors by means of this donation. But even if the donation was motivated by gratitude and affection alone, it is difficult not to look askance upon the conditions he imposed. Though relations between any married couple could be suffused with masculine power — considerable moral pressure to "do good" was doubtlessly placed on many married women — Alasacia, as a concubine, had none of the legal guarantees enjoyed by dowered women.