The word courtesan often evokes provocative and often sexual imagery when heard, but this is not always what it has meant throughout history. Often social and political climbers, courtesans were nearly always members of court, though their wealth and status level often motivated them for further advancement through the act of becoming a courtesan. In order to obtain either a stable income if they were on the less wealthy side or to gain more status and influence social or politically, courtesans were passed from benefactor to benefactor in order to gain their means to an end. Often times, if a courtesan was not wealthy, but held a place in court, she would accept this profession as a stable income or to obtain better status for their spouse (if married), or both. Although, if the courtesan chose benefactors, yet not as a means of income (ie., she was already wealthy), then her means to an end would be to obtain a better status for either herself or her husband.
In the latter arrangement in which the courtesan had embarked upon this profession for means of a stable income, she was often treated less as an equal than a courtesan who was seeking only social or political advancement. Whereas the former ran the risk of ending up in the streets as a common prostitute if she dissatisfied her benefactors due to her financial vulnerability, the latter often made arrangements with benefactors as a strict business agreement and would encounter fewer troubles given her financial security.
Whatever their status of wealth, courtesans all usually had a common basis in that they were artists, performers, or had a particularly witty personality that set them apart from others. They were usually well-educated and cultured, often times more so than many other upper-class women. They were well-versed in the art of conversation, companionship, appealing in appearance, and usually from an appropriate background either by status or wealth. While it’s true that sex was often one of their obligations as a courtesan, it was only a small part of what the profession entailed. In fact, by the early 1900′s, courtesans were seen as more socially acceptable in wealthier societal circles.
- Madame de Pompadour
- Cora Pearl
- Su XiaoXiao
- Marie Duplessis
- Yang GuiFei
- Clara Ward
- Mata Hari
- Mary Boleyn
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