The Elite Prostitutes of 18th-century Paris—and the Detectives Who Watched Their Every Move

Then, again.
April 15 2014 11:37 PM

The Case of the Closely Watched Courtesans

The French police obsessively tracked the kept women of 18th-century Paris. Why?

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Meusnier goes on: At Carlier’s, Blanchefort met an army officer who pulled her out of the brothel to set her up as his mistress. This was a common practice; customers often met their future mistresses at these establishments. To take Blanchefort, the army officer had to pay all of her debts, which could be significant. Debt was one way the madams bound sex workers to them, compelling them to stay in the brothels to work. Some workers arrived with debt the madams assumed. Others borrowed money from the madams to pay for their food and clothing and particularly for medical care, the cost of which could easily exceed a prostitute’s earnings.

According to Meusnier, Blanchefort had some sort of venereal infection. The army officer had her see his company surgeon, and Meusnier reports that the couple was “happy.” But within a few months, the officer had to leave town, ending the relationship when he did. Emphasizing the transactional nature of these affairs, many patrons would not pay for a mistress they could not visit. To make ends meet, Blanchefort eventually went back to work in a brothel, this time that of the infamous Justine Paris, whose elite establishment was visited by Casanova and described in his memoirs. Before being fully established as kept women, many elite prostitutes returned to brothels between patrons. Blanchefort was reinfected yet still landed a new patron, this time the son of a financier. He paid what Meusnier called “her ransom” and set her up in an apartment. At this point, Victoire took the name Blanchefort. She was 17 years old.  

"Portrait de Mademoiselle Rosalie Duthé," oil on canvas, 1792.
Portrait of courtesan Rosalie Duthé, circa 1792.

Painting by Henri-Pierre Danloux. Image courtesty of Karlsruhe State Art Gallery/Creative Commons

After a two-year break, Meusnier returned to the dossier of Demoiselle Blanchefort. Her fortunes had changed, greatly. She now called herself Varenne (the constant name changes are one of the challenges facing the police, and scholars trying to reconstruct this world centuries later). In two short paragraphs, Meusnier caught his files up to date. Varenne had had a number of wealthy patrons and the cumulative result of their benefaction was her “perfectly furnished” apartment in the Marais section of Paris. The term “perfectly furnished” indicated that Varenne had made it in the demimonde. She possessed not only furniture of necessity such as a bed and table, but also those of display and various objects d’art. The furniture would have been of the best quality, stylish and expensive. Kept women were obsessed with furnishings. As the historian Kathryn Norberg argues, their possessions distinguished these sex workers from streetwalkers, by defining a home and suggesting permanence. Given their extraordinary cost, furnishings were also a form of capital acquisition and functioned as status symbols. Varenne’s furnishings (as well as her jewelry and clothes) represented the value other elite men placed on her services, making her a more expensive commodity in the subculture of the demimonde. This sort of financial mobility and wealth acquisition was unheard of for women from such backgrounds. Had Varenne stayed in Angers, the most she could have expected was to marry a man in her father’s profession, or one who had a similar social status.

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Over the next eight years, Meusnier and his successor, Inspector Louis Marais, charted Varenne’s career. Marais’ final report, dated Feb. 26, 1762 found Varenne, after a decade of sex work, now in possession of significant wealth for someone of her background and on the verge of marrying her boyfriend, who was an army officer and a noble. She was stealing from her patron to pay for the nuptials. Did the marriage go through? The inspectors hoped it would not, fearing the social destruction of the officer. If it had, it would have represented a significant jump in social status for Varenne. But the real question is why did the police even care about the marriage, Varenne’s furniture, her love life, and her virginity?

The question only becomes more vexing when you consider what the police were supposed to be doing in the 18th century. The police at the time were responsible for all that was necessary for “the good regulation of a city.” By the time of the Revolution, the Paris police regulated the city’s markets; ensured the honesty of its merchants; lit, cleaned, and made safe the city’s streets; fought its fires; ran its prisons; solved its crimes; kept its wayward elements in order; and made sure its abandoned babies were cared for. They were also charged with spying on and suppressing subversive elements in the population and making sure the city was provisioned with all that it needed, even in times of dearth, because not doing so increased the very great risk of riot. In the 18th century, the lieutenant general, the officer in charge of the police, was mayor, city manager, and top cop. Police interest in the demimonde certainly fell within their larger charge. But with so few men and so much to do, a great deal of which concerned the political stability of the city and the safety of its inhabitants, why did the police devote such considerable resources to following kept women around and writing down what they did, when these women were neither criminals nor considered subversive?

Disappointingly, the archives have failed to provide a definitive answer, and none of the more logical explanations have stood up to scrutiny. It is unlikely that the dossiers were used for judicial purposes as being kept was not illegal. Kept women were never arrested for selling sex. Patron blackmail, another possibility, seems unlikely. It assumes patrons wanted their affairs hidden. Some did. For many others, however, mistress-keeping was a display of status and hence required publicity. Another theory is that the police may have watched these women so that they could prevent the depletion of those family fortunes made vulnerable by infatuated sons of the wealthy and powerful. But while Meusnier and Marais were well aware of who was bankrupting whom, the inspectors intervened only when they were asked to do so, which happened less than a handful of times.

A final and enduring theory is that the reports were meant as bedtime reading for King Louis XV and his mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour, who had been the protector of the police lieutenant general most responsible for establishing the unit in the first place. According to this theory, the reports were meant to enliven the reputedly jaded, enervated royal sex life. But the biggest strike against this theory is the reports themselves. They contained so many third-party references to the king, and related so many incidents at which he was present, that it is unlikely these documents were intended as a royal read. If anything was destined for the king, it was probably the Anecdotes Galantes—a newssheet of sexual gossip of le monde—which the unit began to produce only occasionally beginning in 1764. Each issue was but a few pages in length, hardly an efficient use of a sophisticated surveillance unit. So the question remains—why did Meusnier and Marais care about Varenne?

Portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour, circa 1750-1758.
Portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour, circa 1750-1758.

Image courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland/Creative Commons

A clearer motive lies both in the larger police mission in this period and in understanding the importance of the demimonde, this particular sex market, to elite male society in the 18th century. The Paris police was rapidly changing in the middle of the 18th century, driven both by the needs of the police themselves in their effort to control and administer a city that was increasing in size and sophistication and by royal demands that the Paris police serve as sort of a domestic intelligence agency. Paris was the kingdom’s capital and, at a half-million souls, by far its biggest city. It could be unstable and dangerous. Its proximity to Versailles, the seat of the monarchy that King Louis XIV deliberately built some 13 miles away, having been traumatized by political revolution and uprisings in the city during his youth, made the capital’s stability and obedience even more important. Crucial to that control was information.