Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Courtesans

Famous Courtesan, Author and Philosopher Tulia d’Aragona

Warning: this article deals with issues of sex.

In the battle for survival and power, people use their available resources to make the connections they need and get the things that they want. Among many of the tools used to secure their fortunes: sex.

Most people want it. Even the most pious paladin might find his daily devotionals interrupted by the thought of naked skin or a fleeting kiss. Many can provide it. But what are the strings attached? And how is it presented?

Courtesans have been a class of women that have existed throughout history. Unlike prostitutes, people expected more than sex from them. They were known for their intelligence, trusted for their advice, well versed in the arts and set the trends for fashion. In societies that usually relegated women to the home and commanded lives of simple modesty, hetaerae, geisha and naditu were allowed to own property, earn money and show off their art and skill. The hetaera Thais supposedly encouraged Alexander the Great to burn down Persepolis. Theodora, wife of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian encouraged him to fight back during the Nika revolts, securing his reign of the Holy Roman Empire. Courtesans in Europe originally were entrusted with secrets that normal servants were forbidden to hear. Geishas opened tea houses and spawned industry with their need for elaborate wigs, kimonos and other gear. Not defined by their ability to provide children and keep a home, these women flourished in the arts and politics and added to the culture of their times. And unlike prostitutes, courtesans were able to pick and choose whom they shared their beds with, their influence going beyond closed doors.


These women were born into many walks of life and forged their own paths. Some of the women started out as part of the elite and decided to forego the title of wife. Some women showed promise in their youth and were given better than typical educations, aiding them in attaining reputation and trust. Others started out as actresses and were sponsored by a string of lovers, passed around from arm to arm. Some courtesans eventually married; for some this meant marrying a man of a lower social status than their clients. For others this meant retiring completely.

Of course this station is not all beer and skittles. With power comes jealousy and people trying to usurp the position of others, with slander, oneuppance or even murder. Behind closed doors, secrets are revealed and deals made. Adding to this the social class of courtesan could go from being fashionable and respected to scorned, relegated to sex work only or accused of being practitioners of dark magic. As different religions, philosophies and cultures sweep through regions, gender roles and sex are often affected. And just because something is generally accepted or lauded by one social class doesn’t mean that others approve. Some cultures relegated the courtesan to a third-class citizen, basically owned by the state but still highly skilled entertainers that were sent all over the country to dance and play music on behalf of the government. In addition, once women reach middle age they were generally expected to bow out.

Still, the idea of the woman who can provide both intellectual as well as physical companionship has permeated history. Away from the duties of family  and obligations to the hearth and home, women were able to break the rules and make their own. Beyond being fetishized by people today, they influenced emperors and politicians, inspired artists and poets and had their say when women were supposed to be quiet.

For DMs
*Courtesans and their various cultural permutations could be an addition to a campaign big on political maneuvering, intrigue and where the players are mature enough to deal with issues of gender, sex and power.
*Perhaps only certain cultures/races in a region have courtesans which are misinterpreted by outsiders (as the geisha of Japan were seen as only sex workers by Westerners in Japan).
*How does the religious establishment view the courtesans? How the various religions view sex? View the roles of women? View the roles of men?
*Courtesans must be trained. Who trains them? Is there a guild? A school? Are they all self-taught? Is there a licensing system? Who takes care of their health?
*Sex begets children. What happens to the children of courtesans? How do the families feel about their daughters taking up this line of work?
*What political factions are in power and which are in favor of this line of work? *What do the courtesans do with their power and money? Do they work behind the scenes or perform public works (like the hetaera Phryne who offered to pay to rebuild the walls around Thebes)?
*Is there a ‘uniform’ that sets them apart from other women?
*Sex is free but a night with a courtesan can run up a pretty bill. How do courtesans affect the local economy? If they pay taxes, would the local establishment be as willing to enforce laws against them?
*What are the laws against abusing courtesans? How is their safety handled? Or do the courtesans take it into their own hands?

Plot Hooks
*A new regime has taken over and wants to regulate the pleasure houses and courtesans. The PCs must enforce these laws.
*An influx of foreigners bring their culture that has courtesans as one of the components. As the foreigners try to assimilate to the dominant culture, what happens to this class of women? How do the local women react? The PCs are sent to investigate the culture and report back to whoever has commissioned them to perform the survey.
*A group of courtesans have been receiving ominous threats from an unknown source. They’re hoping to find out where the threat is coming from and have protection for their group to prevent these terrible threats from coming to fruition.
*A courtesan’s child is supposedly the child of a well known official. The PCs must transport the child somewhere for safe keeping. In order to keep the mission from arousing suspicion, a group of children are sent with them in the guise of a group of orphans being taken to an orphanage (usually a religious establishment). The PCs must get the children to the orphanage safely while keeping the real identity of the child in question a secret. Who wants the child cloistered away and to what end? And who wants to find it?
*An assassin is supposedly hiding out in the city. Intelligence reports that he has connections to one of the local pleasure houses. The PCs must infiltrate and find out what they can before it is too late.

For PCs
*How do the PCs feel about courtesans? About sex? About women?
*A PC could be a courtesan. Suitable for a character that uses charm and diplomacy rather than their muscles (though there are martial arts suitable for the courtesan).
*A courtesan as a friend could be a boon indeed. They roll deep in secrets as well as money.

My favorite character from the Joss Whedon show ‘Firefly’ is Inara Serra, a Companion in the Firefly universe. Intelligent, beautiful, a savvy business woman and kind, Inara would be a great inspiration for a character in a campaign. Don’t forget, she’s decent with explosives and handy with a bow and arrow!

What say you?

 

12 thoughts on “Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Courtesans

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  1. Good article. Courtesans fill an interesting societal role and provide a wealth of interesting roleplaying opportunities.

    Inara is an excellent example of how such a character can be used in a campaign.

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    1. I really love Inara as a character. Saffron in addition has someone who has had ‘training’ but is a vigilante would also be a great rogue type character.

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  2. Excellent post.

    I am about to start a session where the lone PC arrives in the big city known for its culture, intellectuals, philosophers and admiration of beauty. Your article, combined with the information about courtesans in the new Zobeck Gazetteer, has given me lots of inspiration.

    Extra points for the ‘For GMs’, ‘Plot Hooks’ and ‘For PCs’ sections. I was already pumped by the time I got to those bits, but they are the icing on the cake and are ripe with story potential.

    This post is exactly what I needed 🙂 Thanks!

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    1. Thanks for your kind words! Yeah, it’s my goal to give a little fodder and spell it out a bit for anyone just looking for a quick tips. I’m so glad you dug my article!

      Happy campaigning! I’d be interested in hearing how it all plays out. 🙂

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  3. I’d recommend the 2011 version of “The Three Musketeers” for an example of how a courtesan can be an action heroine.

    The plot points are quite welcome! Nice article.

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    1. I’ll check the movie out. Milla Jovovich is in it. If the premise of the movie was her tap dancing while drinking Sunny Delight, I would watch it.

      That being said, definitely interested in seeing the application. Glad you dug the article!

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  4. For an interesting place using these ideas, look at the Brothel of Slating Intellectual Lusts in the computer game Planescape:Torment. It’s a very interesting example of applying these ideas to games. It’s run by a “fallen succubus” to provide conversation, games and other mental stimulation. For those who haven’t played the game, you can get a version compatible with modern computers at gog.com.

    It would be interesting to look at the idea of courtesans in a society that is more open to gender and orientation equality. For one, I’m sure that if Firefly had had the full life it deserved, we would have seen some male companions.

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    1. I know in the episode ‘Heart of Gold’ there are male employees at the brothel. And Inara did cater to a female client. I seem to recall various crew members having different reactions to this. Must rewatch Firefrly soon.

      I wonder if the need for courtesans would flourish in a society where power is split more equally between genders. The establishment of the courtesan seemed to do better and be more respected when there is the notion that home life is not the source for pleasure or intellectual stimulation. Families are established out of a sense of duty. Wives and husbands don’t feel threatened by the relationships with courtesans because they’re not supposed to. Which is also something worth exploring.

      Also, I think Planescapes is one of my favorite settings.

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  5. Well in games and fiction we can posit cultures that may not have evolved naturally. In reality courtesans were the product of a society that 1) greatly limited the freedom of women 2) most marriages were based on social and economic power instead of any true affection or connection and 3) there was a strong class system with limited mobility. This lead to all sorts of power dynamics between the parties. Most courtesans were entirely dependent on their patron. If the patron rejected them, they would either find a lower-status patron or end up on the street. A very few courtesans were desried enough to have different patrons compete for them and thus had some power of their own. Some of these lost his power as they aged, others managed to work their networks to maintain some sort of status after they were less desired.

    Firefly did play with this a bit, giving companions a high status on their own (presumably tied to their houses). And yet, we saw hints of a power difference between them and “respectible wives”. Then again, we mostly saw the frontier worlds and only a few episodes dealing with Alliance civilization. They did hint at a few gender issues, but I’m sure that they would have explored these areas deeply if the show had had a full lifespan.

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    1. Yeah. Firefly…

      Are you reading the comic? I haven’t picked it up and I wonder if they go into some of this. All we know of the companions is what we glean from Inara (and Saffron and Nandi to a lesser extent).

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  6. Great article! I can using a lot of these hooks for more urban-oriented games as well as easing a group of dedicated hack-and-slashers into doing so heavier roleplaying.

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