From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- History does not tell of a single courtesan, however fêted in her heyday, who died rich. Pregnancy was a constant risk, as was disease. If a courtesan bore a female child, and the child was pretty, she would be introduced to the life as soon as her mother grew too old to attract the best-heeled clientele, and her mother would act as her doorkeeper. Behind the glimmering images of the great courtesans lay the reality of the hundreds of thousands of women who would sell sexual favours if they could, wenches who would do the deed for a dish of coals or a mutton chop. --Germaine Greer, 2011
A courtesan is a term descendent from French courtisane, from Italian cortigiana, feminine of cortigiano ‘courtier’, from corte ‘court’. Literally, the word means "a lady of the court"; since the mid-16th century the term has been in usage for a high-class prostitute or mistress, especially one associated with rich, powerful, or upper-class men who provided luxuries and status in exchange for her services. A French dictionary published in 1873 describes a courtesan as "toute femmes de mauvaise vie qui est au-dessus des simple prostituées." (All women of vice who are above the simple prostitutes.) In Renaissance Europe, courtesans played an important role in upper-class society, sometimes taking the place of wives at social functions. As it was customary during this time for royal couples to lead separate lives—commonly marrying simply to preserve bloodlines and to secure political alliances—men would often seek sexual gratification and companionship from a courtesan.
Courtesans usually enjoyed more freedoms than was typical of women at the time. For example, they were financially stable and independent. Being in control of their own resources meant that they did not need to rely on their spouses or male relatives to survive, as was the case for the majority of women.
The term "courtesan" has often been used in the political context to damage the reputation of a powerful woman, or disparage her importance. Particularly striking examples of this are when the title was applied to the Byzantine empress Theodora, who had started life as a burlesque actress but later became the wife of the Emperor Justinian and, after her death, an Orthodox saint; the term "courtesan" has also been disparagingly and inaccurately applied to influential women like Anne Boleyn, Madaline Bishop, Diane de Poitiers, Mathilde Kschessinska, Pamela Harriman and Eva Perón.
Pietro Aretino, an Italian Renaissance writer, wrote a series of dialogues (Capricciosi ragionamenti) in which a mother teaches her daughter what options are available to women and how to be an effective courtesan. The French novelist Balzac wrote about a courtesan in his Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838–47). Emile Zola likewise wrote a novel, Nana (1880), about a courtesan in nineteenth-century France.
- Courtesans : Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Katie Hickman (2003). New York: Morrow. ISBN 0-06-620955-2.
- Grisette (French)
- Religious prostitution
- Kanhopatra—an Indian courtesan, who is venerated as a saint
- Sing-song girls