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date: 18 October 2019


  • Veronica Doubleday


The tradition of women making music for entertainment at royal courts has been notable in many cultures. Within this tradition the courtesan musician has a long history. Courtesan musicians and/or dancers were virtually institutionalized in many sophisticated art traditions of Asia and North Africa. Musical courtesans also flourished at certain times in Europe, e.g. Moorish Spain and 15th-century Venice, where they were renowned for their exquisite singing. Courtesans tended to arise in opulent conditions where powerful men restricted their own wives and daughters, exploiting the talents of lower-born women (often slaves) for entertainment.

The English term ‘courtesan’ is imprecise. It originally denoted a woman attached to the court, but later acquired negative connotations of sexual immodesty.

Whatever the shades of difference between societies, the courtesan displayed certain features. Good looks and sexual availability were prerequisites of her artistic life. She offered erotic entertainment, but was distinct from a common prostitute. She was unmarried, often a household dependant or slave, and never a social equal with her client. Her particular status was recognized and sometimes highlighted by a distinctive appearance (e.g. the Japanese geisha's make-up, wig and kimono). Within the public domain, she relied on regular payment and gifts: Japanese geishas and Indian ...

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