No ! A courtesan is not a lady of the court to whom one tells a tale! She is a prostitute for whom the French language has respect (the royal favorites enjoy a special status). Cocottes, demi-mondaines or "horizontals", they escape the obscenity of terms reserved for ordinary whores. But how are they different from the latter? What do we know about them? Rich and famous, freed from the male yoke, have they in their own way contributed to female emancipation?
Qualities and values of a courtesan
The word courtesan, which is the least dishonest synonymous with whore, took its origin at the court of Rome, namely the first devotees who frequented more than familiarly day and night the prelates of Rome. This situation, which associates prostitution, devotion and the court world, is the source of a scandal based less on venality than on the public and regular nature of these relations.
The great courtesans are in fact only prostitutes who enrich themselves by this profession, claiming the freedom to use their bodies as they see fit. Their attire, exhibited with extravagance and originality, inspire models of elegant women from all walks of life. That their other qualities - intelligence - culture - spirit - business sense - have helped them stand out from the crowd is undeniable, which their beauty alone cannot guarantee.
Unlike the prostitute ostracized from society, the courtesan crosses domestic and social barriers by putting on a spectacle in the most fortunate circles, which means that she has received, or has acquired a minimum of education and knowledge. Dance, music and theater (which are the main sources of access to the profession) allow him to spice up the pleasures of bed with those of conversation and sometimes even to have a living room. Their ambition is to integrate the elite of society (sometimes by a beautiful marriage) but the places are expensive! The majority of them fall back into poverty or classic prostitution.
In India, courtesans are professional singers and dancers. They are essential figures of princely and aristocratic entertainment. In the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana (treatise on desire and erotic pleasures) music and dance are the prerequisites for pleasure. Eroticism erected as a first art is based on mastery of the body but also on sixty-four other talents, including metrics and knowledge of the dictionary! The condition of these refined women, in the cultural, social and religious context of India is very different from that of their Western counterparts because their profession is transmitted from mother to daughter.
The prohibitions of the church
During the High Middle Ages, the emperors of the East and the West converted to Christianity, (in particular Justinien and later Charlemagne) tried to eradicate prostitution through edicts, measures and fines, exile against pimps. The church strives to bring back the great sinners in its fold, inciting them to the confinement in cell or in the convent. But despite some famous cases of repentant women, the drift of Christian morality confirmed the impotence of the church to repress these errors, especially since vice is rife even within the papacy!
The scourge of prostitution spreads in all circles, leading Christian rulers to tolerate it as a necessary evil (Saint Louis authorizes prostitutes to follow armies in the crusades).
It was in the 19th century that the courtesans conquered their “letters of nobility” and reigned over a society which still has aristocracy from birth as a model, but which is mostly made up of a bourgeois elite born of the revolution. From the July monarchy, these ladies hit the headlines with their worldly prowess and their scandalous way of life.
La Païva is the most rowdy and forms with Marie Duplessis and Céleste Modagor a flamboyant trio announcing the golden age of large casseroles with light manners of the Second Empire. A debauchery of luxury, an unprecedented display, vertiginous climbs and spectacular falls spread to the four corners of Europe by the explosion of the press and thanks to the prodigious development of photography develop. And what about literature! The novelists of the XIXth century -Honoré de Balzac with '' Splendeurs et Misères des courtesanes '', Alexandre Dumas fils '' La Dame aux Camélias '', Emile Zola with '' Nana '', to name but a few, reflect by their writings the mores of the time as much as they denounce them.
In the Belle Epoque, the Belle Otero, Liane de Pougy, Emilienne d'Alençon (as well as Lola Montès and Cora Pearl at the beginning of the century) shine in the firmament of the “haute Bicherie” displaying pseudonyms with snoring particles sometimes bordering on ridiculousness .
Marion de Lorme and Ninon de Lenclos are the only 17th century courtesans whose names have been retained by posterity. They are among the rare cases of this kind to claim complete freedom by refusing to marry but, apart from this particularity, everything separates them: their background, their fortune, their education, their ambition, their career.
Yet in the nineteenth century, they are inseparable in the Memoirs of men of letters and musicians because they represent for them (with Aspasie, Phriné and Laïs, other unforgettable figures of courtesans) inexhaustible sources of inspiration and undisputed references of 'a gallantry raised in major art. These fates of women, so characteristic of the classical era, oscillate between dignity and license, immorality and devotion.
The influence of courtesans
Just as famous, dozens of other courtesans could have been mentioned. but some held a prominent place in French society of their time, thanks to the imprint they left there, the fantasies they aroused, the writings and the artistic works they inspired, or that 'they themselves have created their influence on manners, more especially on relations between men and women. As such, can we speak of cultural evolution and sexual freedom?
These great courtesans, horizontals, cocottes and other lionesses embodied, between model and counter-model, the rejection of hierarchies and prejudices, insolence, extravagance and financial autonomy. Far from representing only an unbridled eroticism or a collective feminism, they have, each in their own way, invented another way of being "all the same" in the world, in the feminine, to radiate there and sometimes also to renounce it. ....
- '' Les Grandes Courtisanes '', by Joëlle Chevé. First Histoire edition, November 2012.
- The little story of courtesans, by Marc Lemonier. Jourdan editions, 2018.