The Role of the Courtesan in Classic European Society
(18th and 19th Century)
May 26, 2010
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 pimp/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...
References: Courtesan. (2003). In Roget's II The New Thesaurus. Retrieved from http://www.credoreference.com/entry/hmrogets/courtesan
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 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/grisette
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