Defining the Courtesan

Literary Representations
Lorettes and society

Lower Class Prostitutes and the Law
Representations in Les Miserables
Realities of Authority in Paris
Brothels and Streetwalkers

The Privileged Class: Courtesans

Defining the courtesan
Visual representations
Courtesans in reality




We all know the word prostitute but how many people know what a courtesan is? It is not a type of ointment that one rubs over something itchy, that is cortisone and is in no way related. Courtesans were at the top of the prostitutional hierarchy. They were above streetwalkers, prostitutes, madams and lorettes. They were the upper tier and they had very elegant lifestyles.

Courtesans were basically mistresses. They were supported by wealthy men who provided them with anything they could ever want. Many such women lived in a more comfortable way then some of the bourgoisie.

detail of Edouard Manest, Nana, 1877 (12. for source click here) For more information and discussion on this painting click here.


Usually a woman of an upper class household would turn to the world of the courtesan for several different reasons. To begin with, marriage in the nineteenth century was more of a business deal then an act of true love. This idea was abhorrent to some women and so, not wanting to leave the comfort of their lifestyle would simply turn to a life that would allow them to continue on as they had without the confines of a husband. Some women chose the life of a courtesan in order to cultivate their minds which they usually, were they not independent, were meant to keep dormant.

Defining the courtesan basically comes down to this: "a prostitute with a courtly, wealthy, or upper-class clientele." (Courtesy of the Merriam Webster dictionary)


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