The Role of the Courtesan in Classic European Society Essay

Throughout history kings, emperors, and other aristocracy have always had their mistresses, concubines, and maybe even multiple wives, but the late 17th century and the 18th and 19th centuries to the beginning of the 20th century, was the age of the courtesan. A courtesan is defined as a woman who engages in sexual intercourse for payment; a lady of easy virtue. (2003. In Roget & apos;s II The New Thesaurus. ) Throughout history their main association has been as the companions of royalty or an individual in high standing in a royal court.

They were often very well educated, well versed and very well dressed women, and because of their position at court wielded social as well as political power. Some did this better than others, which could either lead to great success and a lifetime of being taken care of or contribute to their and their benefactors downfall. Often times these ladies were born into poverty with no education or manners, and they have to be taught all of the tools necessary for a life at court. The common households of the time depended on the labor of both, the woman and the children, to support the family.

There were very few jobs available for women aside from charwoman, taking in laundry, chambermaid, seamstress, and weavers. However, this still was usually not enough to live on whether they were single or had families to care for, so they often had to turn to part time prostitution. A woman who did this was called a grisette. As defined by Webster’s dictionary a grisette is: ‘A young French working class woman….. A young woman combining part-time prostitution with another occupation. ’((2010). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Retrieved April 24, 2010). Many of them worked in the Paris garment district and they were called grisettes for the drab gray muslin material that their dresses were made from. At an early age they walked the streets or attended local balls in an effort to attract a richer prospect. Of these girls those who had the potential to become a courtesan were a lorette(Griffin, S. Pg. 7) Madame Jeanne du Barry would be a very good example of this. At age 15 she was working in the garment district, where she caught the eye of high class imp/procurer, Jeane du Barry, became his mistress, and he introduced her to high society where she quickly rose to become a mistress, though not the official mistress, to Louis XV. Her aspirations to succeed Madame de Pompadour as official mistress to Louis proved to be her downfall. Because of their humble beginnings however beginnings, and lack of economic self sustenance, these women were often had a lower social status and they had to be prepared at all times for a visit from their benefactor or benefactors. For aristocratic woman who became a courtesan it was only slightly different.

Instead of being introduced by a pimp, or procurer as Madame du Barry, they were usually introduced into the life of the courtesan by their mothers, who acted as sort of a procurer, who themselves had once been courtesans. Unlike those that started out as grisettes or lorettes they were eligible to become the official mistress of the king if it was offered to her. Unlike the lower class courtesans who started out as prostitutes who did not have the means to be educated, the aristocratic woman had the means to be educated but was not.

She was normally trained in things like piano, embroidery, singing, and slight bit of reading. Any other education she got was from listening or sneaking. Without family support or money of her own the only options she had were to become a governess, enter a convent, or become a courtesan. Being a courtesan was often more profitable than being the queen. They often sported better jewelry than the queen, and their jewelry was made by the best jewelers in Europe, such as London’s’ Rundell and Bridge.

It’s said that Lady Conyngham, the last mistress of George IV, massed the most gems in her short ten years; it’s estimated that at today’s prices it would have been over 10 million dollars. The diamond necklace that caused Marie Antoinette so much trouble during the French Revolution, was actually originally commissioned for Madame du Barry, but Louis died before he could actually give it to her. There was a serious rivalry between many of the courtesans not only for the king’s attention and official recognition, but for the things that they collected.

Sometimes this would cause quite a scene. A story was told about one such occasion between Liane de Pougy and Belle Otero: “First. Otero makes her entrance, dripping with diamonds and precious gems in every form: necklaces, bracelets, earrings, anklets, layered and piled in a glittering display of astonishing abundance. Then, shortly after, Pougy enter, wearing only one very elegant diamond necklace, but she is followed by a maid who carries a high pyramid of her priceless jewelry stacked on a red pillow. ”(Griffin, S. 2001.

The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues. New York: Broadway Books. Pg. 3. ) Earning these things wasn’t easy. The courtesan was required to know table manners, speak properly, and dress fashionably, as be available to host parties at her home for her benefactor, attend and be knowledgeable of operas. They also needed to be able to walk gracefully, speak on and subject. In some ways the courtesan was the quintessential patriot, even if most the time her actions were really just for self-preservation and economic gain.

She was expected to ‘relax the king when he was upset, build him up when he’s depressed, and encourage him to greatness in times of war. ’(Herman, E. 2004. Sex With Kings. Pg. 5). It’s said that Lady Pompadour helped to run the army during the Seven Years War. Earning them in the English court wasn’t as easy as earning them in the French court either; where the king was the highest authority in France, in England the king had to get everything approved by the court counsel. Courtesans were also expected to encourage and support the arts.

They were the inspiration for many great works by some of the best artists of their times. Lola Montez (1821-1861), dancer and actress, is said to be the inspiration behind the saying, “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. ” Violetta Valery a character in Verdi’s La Taviata inspired by Marie Duplesis(1824-1847), who started out as a grisette, then to lorette, and subsequently courtesan to several different prominent men, including Alexandre Dumas and Count Edouard de Perregaux, who she married for a short time. Courtesans have also inspired such modern day classics as My Fair Lady (1964.

George Cukor Director, Warner Brothers. ), in which a low class flower girl is to be a society lady, Gigi(Minneli, V. ), in which a young girl is taught the art of being a courtesan by her aunt who used to be a courtesan herself. Virginia Oldoini, Contess di Castiglione, though considered quite self centered because she didn’t seem to care at all about what her benefactor Napoleon III of France wanted, needed, or even really cared about, was a big fan of the emerging art of photography and sat for the royal photographers Pierre-Louis Pierson on a regular basis.

Even to go so far as to recreate pivotal moments in her life to have them photographed. Artists also to liked the courtesans a great deal, because they always seemed to be women that were willing to do something a little risque, which that usually meant that they were more than willing to pose nude. Despite what many people think the many of the courtesans were accomplished in their own rights. Many of them penned their own autobiographies, and many can be counted as notable singers and actresses. The courtesan had more power and independence than the average woman of the day.

Normally if a woman had any wealth it was through a father, brother, uncle, or some other male relative. They could be considered the start of the feminist movement, because the courtesans’ wealth was her own to do with as she pleased. Courtesans collected money, gold, titles, estates, and especially jewels. A smart courtesan started ‘collecting’ as soon as she was appointed because she knew that at any moment it could all be taken away, whether it is by losing the kings favor, the kings death, or a change in political climate of the time, she always needed to have cash on hand, something that could be converted to cash quickly.

Some only kept their positions for a short time, and others kept them for their lifetime. As did Madame de Pompedour. Though Pompedour was only Louis XV’s mistress for 5 years, 1744 to 1749, she actually celebrated a lofty 19 years as the official court mistress even though they were no longer having intercourse, she actually had rooms at court and received several gifts of at least seventeen estates, as well as several investment properties she bought herself, as well as being given several titles, the one of duchess being given to her as consolation for the king mistakenly having a very brief affair with her cousin.

She lasted such an extended period of time because she became somewhat of a trusted advisor to the king. There were many attempts to usurp her position as official royal mistress that didn’t quite pan out for the plotters. Charlotte-Rosalie, cousin of Madame Pompadour another cousin Madame d’Estrades, and her lover comte d’Argenson, were all banished from court after their plot to get Charlotte established as the royal courtesan and Madame Pompadour had the person who told about the plot ‘appointed Ambassador to the Vatican and he later became foreign minister to France. (Herman, E. 2004. Sex With Kings. Pg. 120. ) Not everyone looking to unsettle a royal mistress was just out for personal gain. Some of them were backed by nobles who wanted a little more political influence with the king. After suffering through many years of her temper tantrums and interfering with state affairs, Augustus the Strong of Poland’s ministers decided that the kings’ mistress, Madame Cosel, needed to be replaced by a more amiable court mistress. While the king was away on state business at the Warsaw court they held a meeting to determine the best possible candidate.

She was soon replaced by Countess Maria Magdalena von Denhoff and eventually imprisoned, until she died in 1765. In the case of Lola Montez(1821-1861), mistress of Ludwig I of Bavaria is considered to be a very large contributor to his fall from popularity and his eventually abdication from the throne in 1848. The Bavaria people didn’t quite like her temper tantrums, her ill conceive influence over the king and especially didn’t appreciate her plan to become a member of the Bavarian nobility. She later died of pneumonia in the United States, after a stroke in 1861.

Despite the fact that throughout history courtesans have been considered by some as women of easy virtue, and shunned by many in society if they didn’t have the right persons ear, or ostracized by the church for their infidelities, that is unless you were Madame Pompadour who convinced the church that she had stopped sleeping with the king, which wasn’t an absolute lie because she really had years ago, and that she was truly repentant for her indiscretions so that she could take communion, and become a lady in waiting to the queen.

Courtesans were a necessary evil in society. Though there had been powerful women in history there had never really been so many at one time, in an era where women were quiet, demure, and usually relegated to the background, never really seen or heard these women had the courage to stand up for themselves, find ways to support themselves, and elevate their positions in society, even though that position wasn’t always secure. These ladies were far ahead of their time.


Courtesan. (2003). In Roget's II The New Thesaurus. Retrieved from Griffin, Susan (2001). The Book of the Courtesans: a Catalogue of Their Virtues. New York: Broadway Books. Page 6, 7, Grisette. (2010). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.Retrieved April 24, 2010, from Cukor, George (Director). (1964). My Fair Lady [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Brothers. Minnelli,Vencente (Director). (1958). Gigi [Motion Picture]. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Herman, Eleanor. 2004. Sex With Kings: Five Hundred Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge. New York. Harper Collins.