What do you think of when you hear the term courtesan? I picture a room filled with red satin and lace. Plush pillows, a lush bed with curtains, dimly lit candles, and woman who knows all the ways to pleasure a man, and not just physically but mentally as well.
The term originated around 1540, and meant literally a woman of the court. Why? Because a courtesan is a glorified prostitute, a paramour to the royal, noble and wealthy men of society. She is much more educated and charming that a typical light-skirt walking the streets. Think of her as the European equivalent of a Japanese Geisha. She charges high dollar, and may have one sugar-daddy, ie, she’s the mistress to one man who houses her, clothes her, be-jewels her, and in return she provides him with companionship—at the same time she may be entertaining other men. A courtesan may even accompany a man to a social function, taking the place of his wife.
By the mid 18th century, courtesans were accepted on some level in society, but prior to this they were persecuted heavily at times. They could be accused of witchcraft, back-stab each other to get ahead, which happens at all times, but earlier on this could result in imprisonment and execution. Power struggles are something that will happen in any time period, but the repercussions are something that change drastically. In the 19th century it wasn’t unlikely to hear a courtesan’s name dragged through the gutter and then her lover’s name following it, tarnishing his reputation—and publicly humiliating her.
You must know that there is a difference between a mistress and a courtesan—and that is love. Courtesan sold herself, body and mind, as a career. A mistress gave away her love, and often had children with her lover. Now that’s not to say a courtesan couldn’t become a mistress, but then she wouldn’t be a courtesan anymore.
A courtesan could seduce a man with her mind, her charms, and knew all the latest techniques in bed—sometimes being bold enough to use toys.
Commonly a courtesan would go from one lover to the next. The most famous of courtesans came from France and were known as the demi-monde. However, they weren’t necessary born in France. France was much more open about women and sex, than anywhere else. When a courtesan came to England, it was a huge scandal. Of course most of them men were excited about it, and even some women were excited to learn some new techniques to entice their own men, or wanted to become a courtesan themselves.
So how does one get started as a courtesan? There were so many ways… The women came from all walks of life. Some grew up poor, and headed for a town where they learned to sell themselves—not just sex, but themselves. Others were actresses, who continued to perform both on stage and off. Widows, divorcees, women of the upper classes, you name it.
She may start as an assistant or companion to another courtesan, learning the ways of the trade, or she could simply start out as a mistress to a wealthy man, and then moved on. But for most women they realized what they could gain by being a courtesan—freedom. She was free to make her own decisions and not reliant on a husband to tell her what to do. Sure her clients might make demands, but if it became too much she wiped him from her list.
A very successful courtesan could be disgustingly rich—and some even gambled all their money away, or simply lived beyond their means. Because they were so wealthy and had mounds upon mounds of jewels, they often had a body guard or more than one to protect them and their possessions.
A courtesan would have her own suite of apartments or a grand house that she entertained in. And she wouldn’t just entertain clients—she would hold grand parties too.
When she began to reach an age where she was no longer a beautiful sight to see, some women still maintained a high volume of clientele, because they were intelligent and engaging. Others didn’t have so much luck and withered into the background. If she didn’t save any money, or had no family to look after her, she would often fall to dire straights, dying poor and sick. Some died in opulence, and even more so ended their careers by getting married.
You will find that some of the famous courtesans of the day wrote memoirs, here’s a list that I enjoyed reading:
*Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs: The Greatest Courtesan of her Age
*The Memoirs of Cora Pearl: The Erotic Reminiscences of a Flamboyant 19th Century Courtesan
For more famous courtesans, I lead you to one of my favorite blogs, Scandalous Women, written by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon. She is an amazing and talented writer!
Here are a few of my favorite articles she’s written:
Mata Hari Part 1 & Part 2
Who are your favorites?