Courtesans: prostitutes of status

French Courtesan Halloween Costume

The word courtesan has been thrown around a lot lately. In English, courtesan simply means a high-class prostitute and was used repeatedly on television news during the Eliot Spitzer’s prostitution scandal. Paris Hilton is often called a courtesan and Michelle Pfeiffer just recently depicted the role in the film Chéri (where she seduces a man 20 years younger than her.) Courtesans served a traditional in role in French aristocratic socioity for over four centuries, and with Halloween around the corner and courtesan costumes flying off the shelves, I decided to actually learn a bit about France’s classiest ladies of the night.

The word court as in “a court of law” and as in “to court an object of affection” both have their origins in the royal courts of feudal society in Europe where the court was the center of government as well as the residence of the monarch. “To court” someone means to behave like someone’s who attends court, which is a reference to the Courtesans of the 16th – 19th century Europe that prevailed in Italy and France.

Portrait of Madame de Pompadour, c.1750

In Renaissance Europe, courtiers played an extremely important role in upper-class society. It was customary during this time for royal couples to lead separate lives. Couples commonly married simply to preserve bloodlines or to secure political alliances. Because of this, men and women would often seek gratification and companionship from people living at court.

There were generally two kinds of Courtesans, those for whom being a courtesan was a primary means of employment, and those who had entered into a one time sexual contract as a way of advancing their (or their mate’s) position within the elite society. At this time, it was completely acceptable to enter into a sexual agreement in exchange for a position of status. For example, the wife of a Noble might become the courtesan of a Lord simply to secure a position for her husband within the Lord’s court. Arrangements of this sort were specifically agreed upon ahead of time, and the courtesan had the right to recourse if the deal was not honored.

Unlike arrangements of this kind, full-time courtesans had few rights and could easily find themselves cast out of court if they displeased their benefactor. However, if they served their benefactor well, when he/she tired of the courtesan, the courtesan would be given to another noble or perhaps set up in an arranged marriage with a semi-wealthy merchant.

Marie Duplessis, French Courtesan

Up until the early 18th Century,  women leading the life of a courtesan in a royal court in romantic relationships with kings, achieved wealth and status that would eventually lead to many of them being executed following very public trials. These trials often left them appearing to have been evil, or power-hungry, when in fact they were more often than not, merely a lover and mistress to the king. By the late 18th Century, courtesans would often find themselves cast aside by their benefactors, but the days of public execution or imprisonment based on their promiscuous lifestylesa were over.

There are many famous courtesans, like Marie Duplessis, a French courtesan who worked her way from a humble prostitute at the age of 13 into one of the most prized courtesans. Before she died at age 23 of tuberculosis, Duplessis left behind several letters describing the extravagant life of a successful courtesan. She describes an apartment draped in muslin and silk, carriage and horses, servants, wines and food including an excess of sweets, a wardrobe full of dresses, hats and shoes, and jewelry. She spent her days choosing what to wear, riding her carriage, going to balls, the theater and to concerts and entertaining her lovers.

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