Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The World of Courtesans

What exactly was a courtesan? From Lucy's interview with author Gabrielle Kimm:
I was so ignorant at the beginning of this process that I started off by thinking that a courtesan was nothing more than a better-paid and more richly-dressed prostitute.  But, as I began reading and researching, I found out what they were really all about, and was absolutely amazed!   Yes, fundamentally, a courtesan is a highly-paid whore.  She is a woman who trades her body and her sexual prowess for large sums of money (or property, or gems, or whatever the payment happens to be.)
But the courtesan is more than that. 
Courtesans were cultured – some were skilled writers and artists, some were dancers, others philosophers or orators – and fundamentally and astonishingly, they were independent businesswomen, in an age where most women, right up to the highest ranks of the nobility, had virtually no rights at all, either socially, financially, or sexually.  Almost all Renaissance women were beholden to their fathers until marriage, and then to their husbands until death....The courtesans, on the other hand, were essentially independent.  They never worked for pimps, they chose their own clientèle and they managed their own diaries.  They retained or dismissed their patrons according to preference and earned sometimes vast sums of money in the process.  Some of the greatest of them – who were known as the cortigiane oneste (honest courtesans), were the sixteenth century equivalent of A-list celebrities. 
The authorities tried to control these women – dictating what fabrics and jewels they could and couldn’t wear, forbidding particular areas of cities, specific church services, etc – but many of the courtesans simply ignored these exhortations, and just did what they wanted anyway!  In many ways, they were, to look at and to listen to, virtually indistinguishable from their virtuous counterparts in the ranks of the nobility, but they existed on a separate plane, as it were, in what was perhaps a sort of alternative society. (Read entire post.)
Unlike contemporary women who take many lovers and even shack up with them, courtesans set a value upon themselves; they did not give themselves away for nothing. Courtesans may have been glorified prostitutes but they expected the men in their lives to support them in style. Share


The North Coast said...

Modern women who "shack up with a lot of men" DO set a value on themselves.

But the value is not monetary. A modern woman earns her money at an honest, productive occupation, and the value she trades with her men is that they must be the kind of people she loves and can identify with.

I'm eternally grateful that I live in a time and place where I can sell my fungible skills and knowledge at an impersonal, non-sexual job, and choose my man on the basis of his decency,kindness,fidelity, intelligence,honestly, charm, looks, sex appeal, similar interests,ability to support me emotionally, and other valuable human traits that have nothing to do with money, and are often harder to find as you ascend the social ladder in a country that tends to elevate sociopaths to wealth and position.

elena maria vidal said...

NC, I agree that it's always a million times better when women are not compelled to engage in the sex trade in order to make a living. However, I wish I could say that I think that modern women who engage in promiscuous sexual lifestyles just for the fun of it have it better than the courtesans of old. I just don't. I have seen too many women come into middle age after a long string of men and they are all struggling with depression or alcoholism or post-abortion trauma or other problems. Of course, many of the courtesans went through similar things when they became old or sick, as in Camille.

The North Coast said...

I agree that promiscuity never brought anyone happiness, and does bring broken hearts, loneliness, unwanted pregnancies, and STDs.... and, all too often, violence and serious injury. Often, the broken heart preceded the string of lovers; the woman didn't expect much and didn't get much, either.

But, honestly, I've known, out of hundreds of acquaintances met running with fairly liberal people, very few women who I'd call promiscuous. A handful, really, over decades. A couple were good friends who were working through issues that had ridden their backs since early childhood, and started on life with low self-esteem and a lack of belief in their possibilities. They stumbled into promiscuity rather than choosing it, and from what my Great Generation mother tells me,
there was a comparable number of women who conducted their lives the same way, the difference being that they didn't elevate it to a philosophy. These young women don't intend to have a whole string of lovers- it just falls out that way because they don't know how to forge stable relationships. My friend would enter each new fling with great hopes-"This is the one!!"- just to see it fall apart 9 months later, then a frantic search for a replacement would commence. Her expectations were absurdly unrealistic and she would project her fantasy male onto any man who responded to her. Reeking of desperation, she would jump right into a physical relationship against the advice of friends, and would burn through the affair within months, with dramatic fights commencing within weeks.

What I note about these people is that they are very needy, dependent, indecisive, easily led, and crave drama. Often, they grew up in very disturbed homes that have an outward appearance of normalcy.

elena maria vidal said...

Those are excellent points, NC! I have found the same to be true and I have no doubt that is what happened to many women who became courtesans.

PV said...

Why do not go simply for marriage NC? Why shacking-up? Why not courtship? Courtship did work fairly good for my parents generation back in Europe. In contrast the current shacking up generation seams to have a major problem with marriage stability.

The North Coast said...

I never shacked up, so I don't understand why one would prefer it to marriage.... except in special cases and as long as no children are involved.

These special cases usually involve property- specifically property belonging to one that he or she does not want the partner having a claim on. I can understand why some people these days are distrustful. One woman here in IL had a small nest egg of about $100K. She married in her early 30s. Her husband soon found a job in California, a Community Property state, whither they moved. A month after their arrival, he divorced her and of course took half her assets, even though they'd been married only 9 months. It was a severe financial blow to her as well as being devastating financially.

I hate to sound so cynical and "materialistic", but marriage is as much a business arrangement as a love relationship, and if you don't feel comfortable in "business" dealings with your partner, you might want to put off marriage until you do. I somehow don't think it's any more cynical to just live with someone than it is to demand a pre-nup agreement regarding the disposition of property and other assets, or where and how you'll live, and many other issues that don't usually come up in a live in arrangement, unless one partner is foolish enough to become financially dependent upon the other.