Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Life of a Courtesan

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:

Cora Pearl

Mata Hari Part 1 & Part 2

Who are your favorites?


Lucy said...

Thanks for this post Eliza- so interesting! I just recently read the 'Courtesans'by Joanna Richardson and was not very impressed by the technicality of the book since I do believe that many of these gals had extravagant personalities that warrant an exciting read. You're right about Elizbeth's site having wonderful posts on several of these ladies. I'll be writing on my blog about a famous Venetian courtesan soon- I'll be sure to link you;) Thanks.

Eliza Knight said...

Hi Lucy! Thanks for your comment!

I read that book as well--actually only some of it, because I fell asleep, lol.

I can't wait for your post! Let me know when you put it up!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks so much Eliza for linking to my past posts! I loved your overview on the life of the courtesan. There was more to the life of a courtesan than just being great in bed. I sometimes think it was tiring than being a common streetwalker.

I had just finished watching a documentary on the History of Sex, the segment on sex in the East and they talked about Geisha's and how they were not prostitutes. I think a lot of people, even after Memoirs of a Geisha, think that.

Pat McDermott said...

What fascinating pictures you found for your "Courtesan 101" post, Eliza! I always enjoy seeing the styles and smiles from past ages on your site. I found this post fun as I've included a fictitious courtesan to the cast of my WIP. Real or imaginary, they add sparks to whatever's going on around them. Great post!

Eliza Knight said...

You're welcome Elizabeth! Thank you for your comments! I think you're right, they ALWAYS had to be "on" so to speak to entertain, it must have been not only physically draining but mentally as well. I'm sure there was a lot of memorization of who like what, the rules for this game, politics, gossip etc...

I agree with you about Geisha! That was one of the reasons I wrote that post awhile ago. I was hoping to debunk that myth. They were educated artists :)

BTW-that is a fabulous documentary! They have broken it down even to the History of Sex in the Middle Ages too.


Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Pat! I love pictures, I'm a visual person, so while I do retain some info from reading, I like to see it too! Makes for a better picture in my own mind.

Good luck with your courtesan! I've often thought about using one in a story as well, I think it would be a lot of fun!

Angela Johnson said...

Very fascinating, Eliza. My favorite movie of all time is Dangerous Beauty. It's about Veronica Franco, a famous 16th century Venetian Courtesan, perhaps the same one Ms. Lucy mentioned. She was persecuted by the Inquisition and survived to help others of her kind. In the movie there's a great scene, one of many, where her mother shows her how to arouse a naked man, then takes her to the library where only men and Courtesans are allowed entrance. And to top it off, the hero in the movie, Veronica's main lover, was played by the hot and sexy Mr. Rufus Sewell.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eliza. I just signed an agent with my courtesan book. This blog was timely and fun for me! Thanks for the look into their lives!

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you for your comments Angela! I haven't seen that movie, I will definitely be adding it to my list!

Congrats Cheryl! Keep me posted, I'd love to read it!

Belle said...

I am in the process of writing a memoir/novel about my own experiences as a transsexual courtesan in the 21st century. I very much look forward to reading your book. I enjoy your blog and your point of view immensely!

Anonymous said...

Hello, I just happen on this site by chance.Its great,thank you.I was give a wonderfull Courtesan book for Christmas' Written by Kate Hickman.Has a lot of history on the most famous of Courtesans, From the Year 1745 untill 1920..

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Astonishing Redd said...
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Julie said...

These readings are fantastic. It is a shame this profession is looked down upon so. Maybe one day...

Unknown said...

yes, as someone mentioned above - Veronica Franco - who's life was made into a movie called 'Dangerous Beauty' is my favorite courtesan from history. One other famous scene from that movie and also in history, is that Venice was visited by a famous prince of dubiuos sexuality, and he wanted to see Veronica, and in return for being 'pleased' the court stood to gain military ships and an alliance. So ... big things were on the line! ;-)

another of my favorite stories is that of Aimee -- the well-to-do French girl, with diplomatic connections, who was kidnapped at sea, and taken to be in a harem in Turkey. There she rose to become the highest ranking woman in Turkey, a contemporary of Catherine the Great. True story. There was a movie made of her life called Intimate Power, with F. Murray Abraham (not the greatest script but it is a true story), based upon the book 'Valide'

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