Courtesan 101


Courtesans of the world

When and where?

How did the role develop?

How did they behave in public?


Courtesan 101 Bibliography

What is a Courtesan?
A courtesan is a woman or sometimes a man, who is masterfully well educated in a wide variety of topics and who is socially engaged with wealthy, powerful, or upper-class men who provide luxuries and status in exchange for companionship. Such companionship could include anything from playing the role of hostess or escort all the way to sexual partner.

But this was not a one sided arrangement. The gentleman who supported the courtesan received as much, or more, from her than she did from him.  “Courtesans are seen to operate at elite levels where leisure and pleasure have been cultivated” (Griffin pg 6). The courtesan was a status symbol and a luxury item that a well bred gentleman, or someone who was trying to live the life of one, simply could not be seen to do without. She was the living embodiment of wealth, status, prestige, and social flair. How she dressed, how she spoke, how she walked, how she danced, how she flirted, all these reflected onto the man she accompanied. The greater her skills and beauty, the greater his intellect, wealth and prowess was perceived to be.

How do they differ from a prostitute?

Many people will tell you that the courtesan is simply a high priced whore. But they are very wrong. To say that a courtesan was a prostitute would be deceptively simple. Prostitutes live in brothels, walk the streets and have a pimp to control or bully them.

Courtesans lived a life of sophisticated elegance. They were remarkably well educated, frequently more so than their clientele and on a surprisingly wide field of study. They lived in splendid homes where they entertained lavishly.

While a prostitute has always been easy to identify as she walks along the road, a courtesan would blend in perfectly with the respectable members of society. She was not garish or trashy; she was sublimely beautiful and cultivated an air of perfect respectability for herself. In Venice during the Renaissance the courtesans were so very well dressed that it became impossible for the men to identify who was a courtesan and who was a virtuous wife and mother. 

Concubine or Courtesan?

Modern myth tells us that concubines were sex slaves just as courtesans were hookers. This is not true.

A concubine is a woman who enters into a civil union similar to marriage with a man of higher social status. She has rights under the law and must be protected and provided for by the husband. Her children are considered legitimate but of lower status than those born to a wife. 

 Just like courtesans, concubines could be male or female. Called either concubator or concubinus, the male concubine could be either a youth or a grown adult.