40 years of faulty wiring

Courtesans, Culture, Courting and Court

There are famous porn stars, porn films, and hookers in our midst from decades gone by and current times. The Happy Hooker, Debbie Does Dallas, Monica Lewinsky, and Tracey  Lords to name a few, tend to be familiar names.  A courtesan, by contrast, was a woman who offered her sexual services in exchange for cash, jewellery, furs, a luxurious life at court, and bedding down with highly powerfCourtesanul men (like the President). However, certain types of courtesans weren’t held as low as whores or hookers, as is mistakenly thought. Prior to the Renaissance, courtesans conveyed information that wasn’t trusted to servants to visiting dignitaries. In Renaissance Europe, respected courtesans played an extremely important role in upper-class society. During this time royal couples led separate lives so aristocratic men and women sought gratification from people living at court. The most intimate companion of a ruler was called the favourite.It wasn’t easy to become the favorite as there was a lot of competition for this role.  If you saw the movie Marie Antoinette, Madam du Barry was a perfect example of the King’s favorite.  She was a divorced woman, a scandalous social position, and although she was the king’s favorite she was held in low regard by the court society (a fact of which she was blissfully unaware). Marie, as it were, hated her due to her crass nature and questionable reputation, but that’s another story.

Types of Courtesans
In one categogirlry was a type of courtesan known as the honest courtesan, who was an intellectual. In the other was a lower class of courtesan. Although the latter was better than an average prostitute, the former was treated equal to women of the nobility. One factor that separated an honest courtesan from the lower class was that her primary source of income was not her sexual role at court. They held a full-time job usually as artists and their court role was a secondary income. Courtesans from non-wealthy backgrounds were charming companionship. They were subject to lower social status, and religious disapproval. This courtesan was solely dependent on her benefactor making her vulnerable. Courtesans serving in this capacity began their career as a prostitute. If the courtesan satisfactorily served a benefactor, that benefactor would pass them to another benefactor of wealth, or set them up in an arranged marriage. In the event that the courtesan dissatisfied a benefactor, she was cast out of wealthy circles, reduced to street prostitution. She wasn’t even able to create designer handbags or sign a Hollywood contract and get rich that way.  Sucks (pun).


  1. payment in gems, furs, cash, financial security
  2. sometimes they became mistresses to powerful men (until they got old, then they were on their own)
  3. free room and board at the royal court (depending on how in-demand they were)
  4. sociopolitical freedom that most women only dreamed of
  5. they procured significant wealth for retirement built significant court networking
  6. if living alone, she had a personal servant to do her daily chores and run her errands
  7. the king’s company
  8. affordable luxuries

Job Requirements

  1. highly educated – in a time when literacy was unheard of among most people, this was no small feat
  2. knowledgeable about politics and current events
  3. able to sing or play a musical instrument
  4. willing to entertain the court (no, not that way, you) with her musical aptitude
  5. absolutely glittery and glowing at all times – she had to be bedecked with diamonds, wear white face powder, adorn herself in
  6. adorned in luxurious expensive gowns and furs
  7. be able to speak more than one language
  8. be able to sexually satisfy renowned men or women
  9. financially able to entertain friends with lavish dinner parties
  10. willing to forego motherhood for her social and financial status

Some courtesans were educated and raised by other courtesans who were nearing retirement and were willing to pass on their courtesan-ly knowledge to the up-and-comers (pun).  They usually charged a price for this education (they charged money for everything), thus ensuring even more retirement equity. From the time a girl was very young (around 7) she was brought to live with a courtesan where she receivedlove music lessons, was formally educated, learned to develop perfect posture and a ladylike grace when she walked, was taught makeup and hairstyling efficiency, and as she reached her teens, learned about sexually pleasing a man in bed. Courtesans usually lost their virginity to a client who paid great money for this honor. If her mentor arranged it, she received a significant amount from this payment. Her pupil also learned about her financial worth and not to accept anything less than significant financial sums for her sexual services.  Becoming a courtesan was a lifelong pursuit and usually had nothing to do with stepping into high heels and walking the streets in a shabby muskrat jacket and too much rouge. Courtesans were careful not to get pregnant or if they did, they worked hard to cause a miscarriage or obtained an abortion quickly from a trusted doctor. If the courtesan survived the abortion no one was any the wiser. Children were a liability as no one wanted to picture a courtesan as a mother….not sexy. It was rumoured that some courtesans “disposed” of unwanted children but this was rare: murdering a newborn was of course punishable by death. However women who did complete a pregnancy might be fortunate enough to have the illegitimate child of a king or an emperor.  Although the child did not have sociopolitical status, often she or he was generally well provided for by the father.

Those from wealthy backgrounds, by birth or marriage, who were acting as courtesans only for the social or political advancement of themselves and their spouses, were treated as equals. They were respected by their extramarital companions, both placing one another’s family obligations ahead of the relationship. Affairs of this sort were short-lived, ending when the courtesan or the courtesan’s spouse received the political position desired. The benefactor was aware of the political or social favors expected by the courtesan, the courtesan was aware of the price expected from them and the two met one another’s demands.

Murder Most Foul
Prior to the Victorian era, courtesans were limited in their apparel by sumptuary laws and were restricted in where they could appear at social functions. Periods of overt religious piety in a city led to persecution of the courtesans. In many cases it led to being executed following public trials that left them appearing to be evil, or power-hungry. Courtesans also betrayed one another in attempts to climb into higher positions of power. There are many cases throughout history where one courtesan tried to supplant the mistress to a king by discrediting her, and divulging secrets that could lead to her being cast aside. However, if a courtesan of “lower status” attempted to replace a courtesan of great power it resulted in the lower courtesan being exiled from the royal court, married off to a lesser noble in an arranged marriage, or murdered.

Out to Pasture
Most courtesans had enough sense to know when it was time to retire: they were in less demand and rather than suffer the humiliation of being put out to pasture, they let it be known they weren’t in the “business” anymore. This saved courtesan face and allowed her to retire with dignity, rather like receiving a gold watch and a good-bye dinner. As with most men in history (and today), men desired younger courtesans, and those who reached middle-age if they were particularly skillful in bed. Beyond that, mandatory retirement was expected or enforced upon her. However, there were many young courtesans wcourtho were also rejected at court and by benefactors depending upon their usefulness. There were also courtesans who were able to extend their careers into or past middle age and retire financially secure; is a good example. By the late 19th century, and early in the early 20th century, courtesans enjoyed social acceptance to the extent of becoming a friend to the wife of their benefactor. More often than not, a woman serving as a courtesan would last in that field as long as she could prove herself useful to her companion This, of course, excluded those who served as courtesans but were already married into high society. When referring to those who made their service as a courtesan as their main source of income, success was based solely on financial management and longevity. Many courtesans obtained the position of mistress to a king or a prince early on, but few lasted long, and after serving a prince or king there was nowhere to go but down.

Courtesan Trickery (pun)
One courtesan invited friends and acquaintances to her home for dinner where guests ate off solid gold plates.  After dinner the courtesan insisted everyone throw the plates into the river beside her home to demonstrate her wealth.  The next morning, she retrieved the dishes from a fishing net she strung alongside the riverbank.

A courtes40-08-13/60an was the mistress of an affluent man yet she was happy to entertain clients in the apartment he afforded her. One afternoon he arrived unexpectedly at her apartment and she was forced to push her unfortunate client onto the interlocking brick road beneath her balcony so as to prevent her lover from discovering him.  He broke a few bones.  She saved her neck.

Sometimes a man who had a contract with a courtesan sought to control this independent woman since he couldn’t marry her. However it was she who brought a man under her sexual and financial control. In order to retain her contract yet keep him at a safe distance, she remained sobre while she got him drunk during dinner, she used secret communications with him which was not allowed in the contract. Keeping him at bay while enjoying his wealth was a favorite ruse of the independent, clever courtesan. In certain eras and cultures, this was held in low status, however this may have been due to the courtesan’s ability to function as an independent woman and not be owned by husband, father, or brother.

Famous Courtesans
Mata Hari – a courtesan, exotic dancer, and accused spy, executed by the French for working as a spy for Germany during the First World War. Madam Mata was 41 years old when she met a violent death in front of a French firing squad, but what a life she enjoyed prior to her execution….almost made that whole mess worthwhile.  Marga366px-Mata_Hari_2retha enjoyed a lavish early childhood that included exclusive schools until the age of 13. At 18, Margaretha answered an advertisement in a newspaper placed by Colonial Rudolf MacLeod who was looking for a wife. Margaretha married Rudolf in Amsterdam on 11 July 1895, a significant move as the marriage enabled her to move into the Dutch upper class. The marriage was a  disappointment.MacLeod was an abusive alcoholic and blamed Margaretha for his lack of promotion. He kept a concubine. No wonder this dude had to advertise for a wife. However, Margaretha plunged ahead and revealed her artistic name: Mata Hari, Indonesian for “sun” in 1897. In 1899, her children fell ill from complications relating to the treatment of syphilis. Jeanne survived, but Norman died. The couple separated in 1902 and divorced in 1907.

By 1905, Mata Hari began to win fame as an exotic dancer. Promiscuous, flirtatious, openly flaunting her body, Mata Hari was an overnight success from the debut of her act on 13 March 1905. She became the long-time mistress of a millionaire industrialist. She posed as a Java princess of priestly Hindu birth. The most celebrated segment of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jeweled bra. She wouldn’t remove the bra as she was self-conscious about being small-breasted.Mata Hari was a successful courtesan, who had relationships with high-ranking military officers, politicians (happy birthday, Mr, President….)Her relationships took her across international borders.

In January 1917, the German military attaché transmitted radio messages to Berlin describing the activities of a German spy, code-named H-21. French agents intercepted the messages and identified H-21 as Mata Hari. Mata Hari was arrested in Paris, put on trial, accused of spying for Germany and consequently causing the deaths of 50,000 soldiers. Neither the French or British intelligence produced evidence against her but she was found guilty and executed by firing squad at the age of 41. German documents unsealed in the 1970s proved that Mata Hari was a German agent. She had entered German service, and was instructed that her reports were to be sent to the Agent mission in the German embassy.  She was indeed given the code name H-21. Mata Hari wasn’t just well-versed in politics, as was expected of a courtesan. She lived and died by them.  Cool.

Madame de Pompadour – was the official chief mistress of Louis XV from 1745 to her death. She claimed that, at the age of nine, she was taken by her mother to a fortune teller and told she would someday reign over the heart of a king. Her mother believed the prophecy and nickpompnamed her “Reinette” (meaning “little queen“). At the age of nineteen, Jeanne Antoinette was married to Charles-Guillaume Le Normant d’Étiolles, who provided large financial incentives. on the night of 25 to 26 February 1745, Jeanne was invited to a masked ball at the Palace of Versailles By March, she was the king’s mistress. On 7 May, the official separation between her and her husband was pronounced. She wielded power and control behind the scenes, especially when another of the king’s mistresses, Marie-Louise O’Murphy attempted to replace her. The younger and less experienced Morphyse was married off to an Auvergne nobleman, not a bad deal considering he was rich and she could have been beheaded. Ouch.

Madame de Pompadour had enemies among the royal courtiers. However there were several reasons for her lasting influence over Louis. First, she established a cordial relationship with Marie Leszczyńska,  realizing that showing respect for Marie eased Louis’ guilt. The Queen often said “If there must be a mistress, better her than any other.”  She put all of her effort into bringing fun into the melancholy life of the King. She threw dinner parties for him and put on plays that exalted him. The royal mistress reminded Louis of her beauty by commissioning paintings that highlighted her exquisite features and hid her ageing looks. Madame de Pompadour is said to have arranged lesser mistresses for the King’s pleasure to replace herself.Although they had ceased being lovers after 1750, they remained friends, and Louis XV was devoted to her until her death from tuberculosis in 1764 at the at the age of forty two. Many enemies were relieved and she was blamed for the Seven Years’ War. Pretty cool considering very few women in history have been blamed for an entire war and especially one that lasted 7 years (is that anything like the 7 year itch?) 

Marie-Louise O’Murphy
Marie-Louise O’Murphy de Boisfaily
was one of the younger mistresses of King Louis XV of France. She enjoyed only a short-term run as a courtesan due to her own stupidity. Giacomo Casanova relates that he found her “a pretty, ragged, dirty, little creature” of thirteen years. Struck by her beauty when seeing her naked,he had a nude portrait of her painted, a copy of which found its way to the King, who took her as one of his mistresses. She quickly became a favourite, and, after a miscarriage in 1753 (which apparently deeply affected the King)on the, she gave birth to Louis XV’s illegitimate daughter. After serving as a mistress to the King for just over two years, O’Murphy made a mistake that was common for many courtesans, that of trying to replace the official mistress: she tried to unseat the longtime royal favorite, Madame de Pompadour. This ill-judged move resulted in O’Murphy’s downfall. A marriage was arranged to Jacques Pelet de Beaufranchet. A marriage was the punishment for her poor political move. Interesting.Her husband was killed in action on 5 November 1757. Two years later, O’Murphy married, a widower with three children. O’Murphy gave birth to another daughter, who might have been another illegitimate daughter of Louis XV. This husband died on 24 April 1783. Twelve years later, O’Murphy married again. Her new husband was twenty-eight years younger than her. Demi Moore has nothing on her. This union failed, and after three years, they divorced (another page out of Moore’s diary). O’Murphy never married again. During the French Revolution, O’Murphy was imprisoned because of her royal connections, but she survived the Reign of Terror. She died in 1814 at the age of 77.

Catherine Walter
CatherinCatherine_Walters00e Walters, also known as “Skittles“, was a fashion trendsetter and one of the last of the great courtesans of Victorian London. Her nickname is thought to have originated from her working at a bowling alley (skittles is the game which evolved into bowling.) Walters was rumoured to have had intellectuals, leaders of political parties, aristocrats and a member of the British royal family amongst her benefactors . Her classical beauty was matched by her skill as a horsewoman, for which she was equally renowned. During her life as a courtesan, her discretion and loyalty to her benefactors became the focal point of her career. There were many rumours about her being involved with certain wealthy men of the time, but she never confirmed or denied these rumours. This gave her great weight in the courtesan lifestyle, and made her a sought-after commodity. It also gave long life to her career, and helped her to retire a wealthy woman of society.  Well done, old girl.


Madam du Barry
Jeanne Bécu, comtesse du Barry
was the last Maîtresse-en-titre of Louis XV of France and one of the victims of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Her true father was not known. At the age of fifteen, Jeanne left the convent as she had ‘come of age.’ Jeanne was then employed as a companion to an elderly widow, Madame de la Garde, but was sent away when her youth and beauty began to meddle in the marital affairs of la Garde’s somewhat middle-aged sonsher. Her beauty came to the attention of Jean-Baptiste du Barry, a high-class pimp/procurer.. Du Barry made her his mistress and established Jeanne’s career as a courtesan in the highest circles of Parisian society.   Jeanne could not qualify as an official royal mistress unless she had a title; this was solved by her marriage to du Barry’s brother, comte Guillaume du Barry.  JeMadame_du_barryanne was a tremendous triumph at court. She wore extravagant gowns of great proportions. With diamonds covering her delicate neck and ears, she was now the king’s maîtresse déclarée. Jeanne was installed below the King’s quarters. While Jeanne wasknown for her good nature, she grew unpopular because of the king’s extravagance towards her. Her relationship with Marie Antoinette was contentious. The princess defied court protocol by refusing to speak to du Barry. Madame du Barry furiously complained to the king. During a ball on New Year’s Day 1772, Marie Antoinette threw into the air these words for du Barry to take or leave, “there are many people at Versailles today,” the last time the two would speak. Following the death of Louis XV, du Barry was exiled and suspected of financially assisting émigrés who had fled the French Revolution. The Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris accused her of treason and condemned her to death. On the way to the guillotine, she collapsed and cried “You are going to hurt me! Why?!” Terrified, she screamed for mercy and begged the crowd for help. Her last words to the executioner were: “One more moment, Mr. Executioner, I beg you!”. Madame du Barry was beheaded by guillotine. Her corpse was disposed of in the Madeleine Cemetery, where many victims of the Terror, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, had also been buried.

Mary Boleyn (the other Boleyn girl)
Mary Boleyn was the elder sister of English queen consort Anne Boleyn. Mary was one of the mistresses of Henry VIII. It has been rumoured that she bore two of the king’s children, though Henry did not acknowledge either of them. Mary Boleyn married twice: in 1520 to Sir WillMary_Boleyniam Carey, and secretly in 1534 to William Stafford, a commoner and a soldier. This secret marriage to a man so far beneath her station angered both Henry VIII and her sister, Queen Anne, and resulted in Mary’s banishment from the royal court; she spent the remainder of her life in obscurity. At some point, Mary became Henry’s mistress. The liaison was never publicised, and Mary never enjoyed the fame, wealth and power that Henry’s earlier mistresses enjoyed, which was usual for other acknowledged mistresses in France and other kingdoms. Although Mary was alleged to have been more attractive than her sister, Anne seems to have been more ambitious and intelligent. When the king took an interest in Anne, she refused to become his mistress, being shrewd enough not to give in to his sexual advances.  Henry was determined to marry her. Mary and her husband remained social outcasts, living in retirement in a house which was owned by the Boleyns. After Anne’s execution, their mother retired from the royal court, dying in seclusion just two years later.


December 29, 2012 - Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. […] Courtesans, Culture, Courting and Court (jl10ll.wordpress.com) […]

    Pingback by The Magnificent Courtesan by Lozania Prole (Popular Library 334 – 1951) | Vintage (and not so vintage) Paperbacks | January 12, 2013 | Reply

  2. I didn’t know Downton Abbey was made after a book!

    It’s 7a so I admittedly skimmed it but it has all my favorite tags (you missed horsewoman) so I’ll be back. Any insight into Skittles’ namesake? Apparently the etiology varies from a shuttle, to an arrow, a [bowling] pin or an obstacle set on a pool table to presumably increase the difficulty of a particular shot?

    Comment by ardidito | February 17, 2013 | Reply

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