AskDefine | Define courtesan

Dictionary Definition

courtesan n : a woman who cohabits with an important man [syn: concubine, doxy, odalisque, paramour]

User Contributed Dictionary



From French courtisane, from Italian cortigiana, feminine of cortigiano ‘courtier’, from corte ‘court’.


  • /ˈkɔ:tɪzæn/


  1. a prostitute, especially one with high-status or wealthy clients

Extensive Definition

A courtesan in mid-16th century usage referred to a mistress and/or as a trained artisan of dance and singing, especially one associated with wealthy, powerful, or upper-class men who provided luxuries and status in exchange for her companionship. 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.


Essentially, there were two types of courtesans. In one category was a type of courtesan known (in Italy) as the cortigiana onesta, or the honest courtesan, who was cast as an intellectual. In the other was the cortigiana di lume, a lower class of courtesan. Although the latter was still considered better than an average working-girl, the former was the sort most often romanticized and treated more-or-less equal to women of royalty. It is with this type of courtesan that the art of "courtisanerie" is best associated.
The cortigiane oneste were usually well-educated and worldly (sometimes even more so than the average upper-class woman), and often held simultaneous careers as performers or artists. They were typically chosen on the basis of their "breeding"—social and conversational skills, intelligence, common-sense, and companionship—as well as their physical attributes. It was usually their wit and personality that set them apart from regular women. They were not prostitutes in the sense that sex was not one of their obligations, but unlike the average prostitute, sex constituted only a facet of the courtesan's array of services. For example, they were expected to be well-dressed and ready to engage in a variety of topics ranging from art to music to politics.
In some cases, courtesans were from well-to-do backgrounds, and were even married – but to husbands lower on the social ladder than their clients. In these cases, their relationships with those of high social status had the potential to improve their spouses' status – and so, more often than not, the husband was aware of his wife's profession and dealings.


Prior to the Victorian era, courtesans were sometimes limited in their apparel by various sumptuary laws and were restricted in where they could appear at social functions. Periods of overt religious piety in a city would often lead to persecution of the courtesans, up to and including accusations of witchcraft. In many cases prior to the 18th century, women leading the life of a courtesan in a royal court, with romantic relationships with kings, achieved wealth and status, but eventually it would lead to many of them being executed following very public trials that often left them appearing to have been evil, or power-hungry, when in fact they more often than not were nothing more than a lover and mistress to the king.
Very often, courtesans would betray one another in acts of political intrigue in attempts to climb into higher positions of power within royal courts. There are many cases throughout history where one courtesan would attempt (sometimes successfully) to supplant the mistress to a king or emperor. This was typically preceded by her discrediting the ruler's companion, often by divulging secrets that could lead to her rival being cast aside and replaced by her. However, this was a delicate process, and if a courtesan of lower status attempted to replace a courtesan who wielded a substantial amount of power within the court, it would often result in the lower courtesan being exiled from the royal court, or married off to a lesser noble in an arranged marriage, or even murdered. There are also many examples of courtesans who took advantage of their involvement with powerful individuals, which usually ended in their downfall

Career length

In later centuries, from the mid-18th century on, courtesans would often find themselves cast aside by their benefactors, but the days of public execution or imprisonment based on their promiscuous lifestyle were over. There are many examples of courtesans who, by remaining discreet and respectful to their benefactors, were able to extend their careers into or past middle age and retire financially secure. By the late 19th century, and for a brief period in the early 20th century, courtesans had reached a level of being socially accepted in many circles and settings, often even to the extent of becoming a friend and confidant to the wife of their benefactor.
More often than not, a woman serving as a courtesan would last in that field only as long as she could prove herself useful to her companion, or companions. This, of course, excludes those who served as courtesans but who were already married into high society. When referring to those who made their service as a courtesan as their main source of income, success was based solely on financial management and longevity. Many climbed through the ranks of royalty, serving as mistress to lesser nobles first, eventually reaching the role of mistress to a king, or prince. Others were able to obtain a position on that high level early on, but few lasted for any length of time, and there was nowhere to go but down after serving a prince or king.
Pietro Aretino, a Renaissance writer, wrote a series of dialogues (Capricciosi ragionamenti) in which a mother teaches her daughter what options were available to women and how to be an effective courtesan. Emile Zola wrote the book Nana about a courtesan in nineteenth century France.

In modern times

While the old model of the courtesan royal still exists, it is somewhat rare. With the fall of most monarchies and the rise of democratic societies, the role of the courtesan changed. In government, they have acted as spies such as was alleged with Mata Hari. Courtesans are not necessarily kept for the purpose of companionship or sexual pleasure.

Famous courtesans

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.

17th century and before

18th and 19th centuries

In fiction

  • Inara Serra, a 26th century Alliance companion in Joss Whedon's TV series Firefly.
  • The Woman of the Camilias was a novel about a courtesan by French author Alexandre Dumas, fils that was turned into the opera La Traviata by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. In the opera, the courtesan's name is "Violetta". "La Traviata" in Italian translates "The Wayward One".
  • Satine played by Nicole Kidman, an actress/courtesan who falls in love with a penniless poet/writer played by Ewan McGregor, in the movie Moulin Rouge!.
  • Phèdre nó Delaunay, the premier courtesan of Terre D'Ange in Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy novels
  • The movie Dangerous Beauty, starring Catherine McCormack, tells the story of Veronica Franco, a Venetian courtesan.
  • Nana, in Emile Zola's famous novel of 1880 should count as a courtesan
  • In Sarah Dunant's In the Company of the Courtesan, Fiammetta Bianchini, a renowned courtesan of Rome, and her sharp-witted dwarf rise to success among the intrigue and secrets of Renaissance Venice.
  • In John Cleland's Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, Fanny goes from poor orphaned country girl to wealthy skilled courtesan eventually finding her one true love and retiring to marriage. Her history is told in the first person through several letters to friends detailing her life as a courtesan.
  • Gigi is a 1944 novel by the French writer Colette about a wealthy cultured man of fashion who discovers he is in love with a young Parisian girl being groomed for a career as a grande cocotte'' and eventually marries her.


  • Griffin, Susan. The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.
  • Hickman, Katie. Courtesans: Money, Sex, and Fame in the Nineteenth Century. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
  • Lawnes, Lynne. Lives of the Courtesans: Portraits of the Renaissance. New York: Rizzoli, 1987.
  • Rounding, Virginia. Grandes Horizontales: The Lives and Legends of Four Nineteenth-Century Courtesans. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

External links

courtesan in Danish: Kurtisane
courtesan in Finnish: Kurtisaani
courtesan in French: Courtisan
courtesan in Italian: Cortigiana
courtesan in Dutch: Courtisane
courtesan in Norwegian: Kurtisane
courtesan in Russian: Куртизанка
courtesan in Simple English: Courtesan
courtesan in Swedish: Kurtisan

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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