While the word courtesan today means “the most well-rounded escort”, throughout history best courtesans enjoyed a rock-solid social status. Known as the companions to the royals and their court, courtesans enjoyed lavish lifestyles, power and influence and opportunities they would have never achieved otherwise.
Expectations of a courtesan
As a top-rated escort, a courtesan was expected to be a socially acceptable companion who was worldly, well-educated, intelligent and witty, attractive and dressed well. A courtesan could be expected at any time to take part in conversations involving world’s politics, to the latest trends in art and music.
Royals were often married simply to enhance blood lines and to establish or strengthen political alliances with other nations or regions. Because these marriages were for other reasons besides personal attraction, the royals often led separate lives and had additional interests. Each member of a marriage usually had extra-marital companions to fulfill their lives. Courtesans filled these roles.
Courtesan as an occupation
In a nutshell, a courtesan was kept around to please her benefactors. In addition to providing sexual services, courtesans accompanied their patrons to social functions, on vacations, to political meetings, and in exile. The services they provided were very similar to what one can expect from an educated, intelligent, tactful escort today.
Some courtesans were born or married into wealth, which gave them an immediate boost into high society. These courtesans often engaged in activities that would promote their social or political status (or the status of their husbands). Courtesans of wealth were respected by their benefactors and the court, as well as treated as an equal.
Most courtesan/benefactor relationships were treated as business arrangements. The courtesan was taken care of financially by her benefactor in exchange for being available when called for. However, if the courtesan or the benefactor decided to end the arrangement, the courtesan was awarded a title, money, real estate or something else as value as she left.
Unions with courtesans were popular and accepted through ancient as well as modern history. This kind of relationship is easily found in the wealthiest circles of Europe of the XVII-XX centirues.
Despite the fact that many courtesans were born or married into families with some status to begin with, some commoners found themselves invited to court as a result of their sex appeal, personality, wit or beauty. Many came from the theatre, having acted onstage and catching the eye of a noble.
The courtesan industry was immensely competitive. Aspiring mistresses to kings, dukes and lords often attempted to supplant rival escorts by betrayal and lies. Many women were put on trial for witchcraft due to their close relationships and influence on royals, and others were set up for crimes they didn’t commit. While some of these efforts to sabotage other courtesans’ relationships with their benefactors worked, others backfired which would cause the betraying courtesan to be married off to a less-noble invidual and sent to live elsewhere or thrown out into the streets to finish her days as lowly prostitute.
Women who did not serve as courtesans led very hard, difficult lives and rarely gained independence or recognition as individuals. Through their lives as courtesans, many women found freedom and opportunities to aspire to new levels.
Escort and prostitution services frowned on by the church
Extra-marital affairs were not accepted by the Catholic church during the Middle Ages for two reasons: it showed that the church with its self-proclaimed moral authority could be successfully ignored, and left less money to the church. Hypocrisy was alive and well back then just like it is today: a few Popes were living with long-time companions, and some even had children despite their celibacy vow. On the other hand, it was said that prostitution should be tolerated because it helped to prevent greater evils such as masturbation, rape and sodomy.
There were many women who led successful lives as courtesans. However, three interesting women come to mind when considering powerful, successful women of the era.
- Nell Gwyn, 1650-1687
- “Pretty, witty Nell” was the mistress to King Charles II of England. Born to a mother who ran a bawdy house, Nell escaped that world by entering the theatre at age 14. Finding that she had quite a comedic talent, she was admired by many men of wealth and eventually caught the eye of King Charles. She attempted to supplant the King’s current mistress by slipping a laxative into the tea-time cakes of the mistress the night she was to lie with the King. While that did not work, she eventually won his affection and became the King’s mistress. She was only one of the King’s mistresses to ever win the affection of the public.
- Madame de Pompadour, 1721-1764
- Born as Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Madame de Pompadour was the mistress of King Louis XV from 1745 until her death. She was considered beautiful, intelligent and refined, which came from her good education. Married at 19 years old, she became well known in society. The King heard of her and requested an introduction. The King titled her a Marquise and introduced her at court. Because she was a simple commoner, she had many enemies at court. But this did not stop her progress as the King’s mistress. She gained much influence with him and established a good relationship with the Queen. However, due to her political influence, many historians claim she was the cause of France entering into the 7-Year War.
- Cora Pearl, 1835-1886
- Educated at a convent school in Bologne, Cora Pearl found her way as a courtesan to wealthy men looking for socially acceptable, pretty, intelligent, discreet and witty escorts. However, her personality proved her flamboyance and sexual appetite, along with her gambling and spending problem. Stories were told about her outrageous lingerie bills, bathing in champagne baths in front of dinner guests and presenting herself as dessert at dinner. She moved between Paris and London and her lovers included William, Prince of Orange, King William III of the Netherlands, Duke Morny, Prince Napoleon (cousin to Napoleon III) as well as less famous nobility. She supported herself the last 10 years of her life.