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A courtesan is a person paid and/or supported for the giving of social companionship and intimate liaisons to one or more partners. The word is generally reserved for those who enjoyed the most social status for such services. Although the term has been applied to people from several cultures and historical periods, it is most applicable for those to whom it was first given: the women of Renaissance Europe who held a socially recognized, if not quite socially accepted, position as well-compensated companions.

The role of courtesans should be neither overly romanticized nor offhandedly scorned. On the positive side, they had freedoms that were extremely rare for other women at the time. They were not only financially comfortable (when business was good) but financially independent, with control of their own resources rather than dependency on male relatives. They were very well-educated, compared even to upper-class women, and often held simultaneous careers as performers and artists.

On the negative side, courtesans were, as a means of survival, dependent on upper-class "protectors" to provide them with shelter and support. They were required to provide charming companionship for extended periods, no matter what their own feelings might be at the time. They were also, because of the sexual aspects of their profession, subject to lower social status and religious disapproval. They 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 persecutions of the courtesans, up to and including accusations of witchcraft.

Compare with: prostitute, geisha, escort, tawaif.

Famous courtesans:


  • The Book of the Courtesans, Susan Griffin, Broadway Books

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45