Aether Salon on Courtesans

(Apologies this was not posted sooner, I had a family emergency come up right after this)

The other week, I had the honor of being asked to present at the Aether Salon, a long running discussion series that had taken place once a month in new Babbage for about five years. Unfortunately I cannot usually attend since the scheduling does not work for me being online often at the time, but presenting was an honor I could not refuse!

As many of you may know, I am a courtesan at Sakura in SL, so the topic presented was Courtesans!

Thanks to Bookworm Heinrichs and Baron Klaus Wulfenbach for the invitation, and to Bookworm for doing the work in this transcript.

Transcripts of all Aether Salons may be found at


AEther Salon: Courtesans! (Edited transript)

Bookworm Hienrichs: Well, then! I think it’s time we got started. *smile* Welcome to another season of the Aether Salon! Believe it or not, this is the 47th edition of the Salon. Who knew, when Viv Trafalgar, Serafina Puchkina, and Jedburgh Dagger started this nearly five years ago, that we’d still be meeting for such stimulating discussions? But thankfully, we’re still going strong, and looking forward to another season. We hope you are, too!

Before we proceed, some housekeeping reminders:
1) To ensure hearability, stand or sit on the patterned carpet.
2) If you do not have a wearable chair and wish one, please contact myself or the Baron.
3) Please remove all lag-feeding whatevers you might be wearing.
4) A tip jar is out for our speaker. Do please show your appreciation!
5) Any tips to help support the establishment will also be welcome – just click on one of the support signs!
6) If you’re not a member of the AEther Salon group, there are signs that will let you sign up. You’ll be most heartily welcome!
7) Edited and unedited transcripts of these proceedings will be posted at aethersalon.blogspot.com.

And now, to introduce our speaker. Miss Lynn Mimistrobell has been a resident and visitor of the various Steamlands for two or three years now. She currently lives in Marakesh Mondrago. She is also a courtesan in the Isle of Sakura, which ties in with her interest in the historical matters of such. (She is also no mean student of classical music, hosting several of her own salons on that subject.) Please join me in welcoming Miss Lynn Mimistrobell!

Lynn Mimistrobell: Hello, everyone, and thank you for inviting me here today. I hope you do not mind my gown, I have attempted to come as a courtesan from one of the heydays of the Courtesan, Renaissance Venice. Erehwon and Lilah have dresses possibly similar to those of a Victorian courtesan, which really would not always be very different than normal upper class,…. unless they decided to be scandalous. So they are not much different than many others here.

Before we begin, I’d like to share a poem, written by one of the foremost courtesans of her day.

We danced our youth in a dreamed of city,
Venice, paradise, proud and pretty,
We lived for love and lust and beauty,
Pleasure then our only duty.
Floating them twixt heaven and Earth
And drank on plenties blessed mirth
We thought ourselves eternal then,
Our glory sealed by God’s own pen.
But paradise, we found is always frail,
Against man’s fear will always fail.
― Veronica Franco

Name them what you will, hetaira, cortigiana, ji, gisaeng, oiran, tawa’if or courtesan. They were seductive, scandalous, sumptuous and glamorous. They inspired thousands of artists through the ages, in painting, sculpture, poetry, music, and theater, and were often artists or performers in their own right. But who were they? If you asked multiple people what a courtesan is, you would get multiple answers. So lets open it up here a moment, and I will ask you. What is your definition of a courtesan?

Nika Thought-werk (robotnika): They were words I can’t say?

Lynn Mimistrobell laughs.

JJ Drinkwater: An artist of the sexual….a well paid one?

ίиđץ (india.canning): I like the notion of artist

Lynn Mimistrobell: Oh, interesting, I have never heard that… I like that juxtaposition.

Daryll Bellecoeur: They were ladies skilled in many arts, often intelligent…also skilled at the sensual and sexual arts. *Blush*

HolyMary Loudwater agrees more with that last definition

JJ Drinkwater: I have no historical or literary warrant for that, it’s merely my impression.

Stereo Nacht: A woman of many talents who is frown upon because servicing the baser instincts of the higher ups?

Lynn Mimistrobell: Very good! Lets see what scholarship has to say. At its most basic, Merriam-Webster says this: a courtesan is a prostitute with a courtly, wealthy, or upper-class clientele.

Lynn Mimistrobell gasps and holds her hand to her mouth! “I said the “p” word!

For many people today that is as far as it goes; and some will simply stop after the word prostitute and forgo the very important second half of the definition. And truly, isn’t this definition also that of a high-class escort? In fact, many may consider those two terms – high-class escort and courtesan – interchangeable. However, I believe that this definition misses the nuances and focus of what a courtesan truly is. So before going any further, lets discuss the main differences as I see them between an escort and a courtesan.

An escort generally focuses on the sexual exchange between her and her client. The main focus, no matter what else is involved, is physical intimacy. Of course, there may be other factors involved, and her personality is important should she want to have repeat customers. However, while sometimes the relationship may eventually evolve outside the bedroom, for the most part escorting is primarily about sex.

Now, there is no denying that a courtesan will also engage in physical intimacy with her patron, but the relationship will be long-term, though not necessarily monogamous. A courtesan will be extremely well-educated and will engage in all manner of conversation with her patrons, and offer her opinions on any subject. She is witty, sharp, imaginative, charming, present in the moment, and usually trained in one or more of the fine arts, often acting, dancing or music.

And please notice the words I used, clients vs. patrons; an escort will have clients who will pay her, while a true courtesan will have patrons who support her. There is a distinct difference. Therefore, I believe that the longer definition of a courtesan from the knowledgerush.com encyclopedia is a bit better. 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. But even this does not really explain the full meaning, to me.

I think that what I prefer is the way that the Courtesan’s Arts Cross Cultural Project puts it. Courtesanship is the social phenomena whereby women engage in relatively exclusive exchanges of artistic graces, elevated conversation, and sexual favors with male patrons.

Any thoughts so far?

Stereo Nacht: Well, apart from the social frown, they must be some very powerful ladies!

Myrtil Igaly: Can there be male courtesans?

Stereo Nacht: Ah, I was about to ask the same, Miss Igaly! 🙂

JJ Drinkwater: They would be called gigolos…or boy-toys, I think

ίиđץ (india.canning): much is about the need the courtesan fills for the elite

Solace Fairlady: a gigolo is simply an escort

Lynn Mimistrobell: Well…. thats a good question. Not everyone may agree with me, but.. in MY opinion only, it is rare… because of the societal conditions ripe for a courtesan. Which is a wonderful segue…

Each culture, society and time has their own distinct variations of the courtesan, with certain things more emphasized than others, but the above is a fairly good generic definition. However, you can see some of these variations are neatly shown by the words used in various cultures to denote the courtesan. There is the original French courtisane, ‘mistress of royalty’; Italian cortigiana, a female courtier; the Greek hetaera, a companion or friend; and the Chinese ji, the singing girl. Overall we see the Courtesan – the intelligent companion, the artist, the lover of royalty or those of high social class.

But one thing to remember is that even with this in mind, historically the definition of a courtesan has always been blurry, because of the tangled web of double standards in regards to sex and money, gender and class. For example, neither Agnes Sorel (mistress of Charles VII) nor Alice Keppel (mistress to the Prince of Wales) are commonly considered courtesans even though their patrons supported them financially. Neither of them took money from other patrons so that could be why – except that these same facts applied to Madame de Pompadour (mistress of Louis XV) who is considered a prime example of a courtesan. Could it be because she came from a lower social class than the others? Who knows? The point is that there really is no hard and fast definition; perhaps it is simply a concept.I really don’t know. Though you will see the first two sometimes listed as courtesans.. its all very fluid.

Courtesans are not present in every culture, but they have appeared in many specific times and cultures from pre-colonial India, ancient Greece, imperial China, Renaissance Italy, Edo Japan and Victorian France and England.

Yes, Rose?

薔薇 Rose (holymary.loudwater): what’s the difference between a courtesan and what we call ‘grisettes’, young women just seeking for a male protector ?

Lynn Mimistrobell: The grisette took any man, they were closer to common prostitutes. If I remember correctly, a grisette could become a lorette, of higher status, and then a courtesan… Such as Marie duPlessis, highlighted above… and in the next picture as well.

As mentioned earlier, there are large differences in theses societies and the courtesan’s role in them, but there are also a number of societal and economic similarities in those where ‘courtesanship’ has flourished. These similarities include:

1. A highly stratified society marked by social oppression but undergoing modernization;

2. New forms of mercantilism;

3. New, if limited, forms of social mobility;

4. An increased emphasis on culture and art; and

5. Marriage conventions which separate love and sexual passion from the institution of matrimony. Generally wives (and women in general) will not be well-educated, and will be expected to be chaste, modest and demur. Marriage was for financial gain or for lineage purposes. A very blunt term I have heard used to describe a courtesan is that she was ‘reproductively irrelevant.’

In this environment, the courtesan is always ‘kept’ at the social level where leisure and pleasure are cultivated and, although often of a lower social class than her patrons, is often indistinguishable from those women born into higher classes. In fact, she often will ‘assume upper class styles and privileges in a performance that crosses and blurs class lines.’

I am concentrating primarily in this discussion on the western culture, particularly in two of the three most notorious eras and places for courtesans, Renaissance Venice and Victorian Paris (the third probably being Ancient Greece).

Going on, a western courtesan could come from anywhere. The most common throughout history:

• A relatively highborn woman who had fallen due to some scandal or other; a ‘ruined’ woman;

• A woman from a well-to-do background, possibly even married—but to husbands lower on the social ladder than their patrons. 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;

• A woman from lower classes who ‘worked her way up’ from common prostitute who was noticed by a more well to do client, and worked hard to educate and better herself (common in both the Renaissance and Victorian eras); and

• A daughter of a courtesan who was trained by her mother, who got her started and procured her first patrons (common in the Renaissance).

As mentioned before, Marie duPlessis is an example of the third, and our dear Veronica Franco is an example of the last.

Courtesans in these eras also were known for blurring gender lines, to a point. She had freedoms that were extremely rare for other women at the time. She could be both financially comfortable (when business was good) and financially independent, with control of her own resources. She could, within reason, choose her own patrons and had in some sense to be wooed and courted. She was very well-educated compared even to upper-class women, and often held a simultaneous careers as a performer or artist. Also, there are well established traditions in various cultures of the courtesans also blurring gender lines in clothing and sometimes implicit or explicit androgyny – short hair, male clothing, etc. even in Renaissance Italy.

Additionally, the courtesan will often be found at the marginal edges of power, where her close relationship with those in power can sometimes slide in and out of agency, control and influence. She will take wealth and status from her patron, but at the same time she will enhance her patron’s status.

But let’s not paint too rosy a picture. The rigid class and gender hierarchies that allow her to flourish because she successfully challenges them, also ultimately denies her full access to privilege. She was always balanced on the knife edge of disaster, financially and personally. The blurring or breaching of gender roles often caused a backlash from both men and women, resulting in vilification and sometimes violence. Therefore, while the courtesan had freedoms and resources not available to other women of her time, she was also, as a means of survival, dependent on upper-class “protectors” to provide her with shelter and support.

These patrons could turn on her in an instant and she would have little to no other true protection or recourse. She was required to provide charming companionship for extended periods, no matter what her own feelings might be at the time. She was also, because of the sexual aspects of her profession, subject to disrespect and religious disapproval. She was sometimes limited in her apparel by various sumptuary laws and could be restricted in where she 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.

I will skip some of the more specific references I had for both Paris and Venice, but one last connection.. In each city there were clear and strong connections between artists and courtesans, where both groups existed in a half-world between the respected part of society and the working class; from the Venetian salons to the Parisian demi-monde. Also in each city, the courtesans were opulent in their jewelry, and often were the leaders in fashion. They were meant to be seen and talked about and, at least in the Victorian era, drummed up controversy and business by making conspicuous appearances at the opera and other society functions, and generally expected (and got) fabulous sums in cash and gifts in return for their attentions.

Before we finish, I think it is easy to see why true courtesans are fairly non-existent in today’s western societies. The relatively ‘egalitarian’ society and less restrictive gender roles today do not promote the role of such a woman, and she has been essentially replaced by the fashionable, high-class escort. You can also see the compromises that need to be made in Second Life for those attempting to live the life as a SL courtesan, though there are some that do try to offer more than the typical second life escort. And I do believe the role play applications can be much fun. Lastly, I have a notecard of some (in)famous courtesans, if you wish. Some of whom are pictured above….

OK… any questions?

Emilly Orr: As I’ve been given to understand, geisha were trained in the arts first, oiran in the expectation of sexual gratifications, and their attire symbolized this distinctly. Is this accurate?

Lynn Mimistrobell: That is the way I understand it, Miss Orr, and a lot of that has become very traditionalistic.

Emilly Orr: Ah. So the culture of the oiran came first.

Lynn Mimistrobell: The one I have highlighted is Cora Pearl, who has an interesting story on the card. And Marie inspired Camille, La Traviata, etc.

Pamela Faerye: Well done, Lynn. I had a question, but SL did not want me to ask it apparently. 🙂

Lynn Mimistrobell: Awww, you can ask!

Pamela Faerye laughs … You are very kind. I’d just wondered about courtesans in old age. Did they save up their earnings and retire to the country or find other clients who ‘appreciated’ older women?

Lynn Mimistrobell: Well….. thats a good one. Some died fairly broke….some actually married a patron and were titled…. some retired… but probably many more unknown ones faced trials and violence. Veronica Franco faces the Inquisition, and died relatively broke, as did Cora. Marie died so young, which adds to her legend.

Pamela Faerye: Ouch. So it did not end well at all for most. Let’s hope they lived it up fully when they could.

Bookworm Hienrichs: Thank you all for coming! Next month is our anniversary, so join us for a special discussion!

Baron Klaus Wulfenbach (klauswulfenbach.outlander): We will want your input on Your Salon.

[Notecard from Lynn Mimistrobell]

I have put together a notecard of just a few of the most (in)famous courtesans in the west:

Ancient Greece (the hetaera)

o Aspasia, mistress to Perciles, she was known for her ability as a conversationalist and adviser rather than merely an object of physical beauty. According to Plutarch, their house became an intellectual center in Athens, attracting the most prominent writers and thinkers, including the philosopher Socrates. She was once put on trial in Athens.

Aspasia appears in the philosophical writings of Plato, Xenophon, Aeschines Socraticus and Antisthenes. Some scholars argue that Plato was impressed by her intelligence and wit and based his character Diotima in the Symposium on her.

o Phryne, who inspired statues by Praxiteles and paintings by Appelles; Also read up on the anecdotes on her trial, where she was acquitted when her defender opened her clothes to show her breasts to the jury.

Phyrne before the Areopagus

Phyrne before the Areopagus

• Ancient Rome and early Byzanyium

o Theodora, mistress and later wife and Empress of Justinian. Possibly the most influential female co-ruler in western history, her rebuke to Justinian and his counselors in the midst of the Nika riots may have changed history.

15th century France and England (the French courtisane)

o Diane de Poitiers, mistress to Henry II of France, subject of paintings by François Clouet and a statue by Jean Goujon.

Diane de Poitiers

Diane de Poitiers

Diane de_Poitiers as Diana

Diane de_Poitiers as Diana

o Mary Boleyn, mistress of King Henry VIII of England and (allegedly) lover of King Francis I of France

• Renaissance Venice, one of the most notorious periods of the cortigiana onesta

o Veronica Franco, one of the most extraordinary courtesans ever, she was the daughter of a courtesan. She was involved in the salons of Domenico Vernier, and was a poet in her own right – and a champion of women, before her time. The movie Dangerous Beauty is loosely based on her life. She was yet another famous courtesan put on trial, this time the Inquisition.

Veronica Franco

Veronica Franco

19th century Paris

o Cora Pearl, known for her extravagant outfits (and non outfits), makeup and hair dyed in bright colors, she scandalized Paris in the Second Empire period by appearing on stage in next to nothing, and by being brought on a dessert platter (with strategically placed sweets) to several of her patrons.

Cora Pearl

Cora Pearl

o Marie du Plessis, lover of Alexandre Dumas fils and Franz Lizst, her portrait was painted by Eduard Vienot. She was the inspiration for Dumas’ book and play The Lady of the Camellias (and the English play Camillle), and the Verdi’s opera La Traviata. She died of consumption at age 24.

Marie Duplessis

Marie Duplessis

Marie du Plessis at the Opera

Marie du Plessis at the Opera

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