Elite prostitutes in 18th-century Paris, and the detectives who watched their every move.

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

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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From its very inception in the mid-17th century, the Paris police (which took decades to actually become an integrated functioning institution) was concerned about particular groups of people considered innately dangerous to the realm. These included Protestants, foreigners, and Jews, those whose allegiances to the French Catholic state were suspect. They also included the gens sans aveu (people who have not sworn allegiance or people without papers), such as beggars, vagrants, and street prostitutes, individuals who posed a threat not only by their disruptive presence in the street but by their position in society. Everyone in early modern France was supposed to belong to a social unit such as a family, a household, or a guild, for example. Each unit theoretically occupied a niche in a larger social hierarchy. This system ensured each person was under what 18th-century political thinkers considered to be the “natural oversight” of their superiors, a hierarchy at the top of which sat the king. Being outside this system was highly problematic to the state because such a person was beyond social and political systems of control. For the police, controlling these populations meant keeping track of them, which in turn required developing the capacity to spy and manage information.

With every decade, the police brought more groups and more types of activities under surveillance. By the 1720s, for example, agents stationed in cafés wrote down overheard conversations, in part to satisfy a monarchy increasingly concerned with public opinion. By the 1730s, the police had a fairly sophisticated operation to track and arrest men who had sex with other men in public. By the late 1740s, however, police surveillance had extended beyond those subjects, like writers or homosexual men, whose threat to the existing political and social order was clear. In principle and largely in practice, it extended to anyone outside the social hierarchy and to any group that met behind closed doors. Contemporaries were convinced spies were everywhere, an impression the police actively fostered. The last lieutenant general before the Revolution boasted in his memoirs that if five people stood on a street corner in the capital, three of them “belonged to him.”

Eighteenth-century Parisians overstated the extent of surveillance, perhaps because they did not really understand its purpose. By the late 1740s, the police were no longer collecting information in order to investigate criminals or even to anticipate problems. As French police scholar Vincent Milliot argues, by spying on Parisians, the police were literally incorporating them, putting those outside the hierarchy into a special group—the spied upon—for which the police provided oversight. More generally, however, the police were gathering information just to gather information, endeavoring to make the city visible to its government. Intelligence gathering had it own momentum.

So what of kept women? If they were hurling epithets against the king, plotting sedition, consorting with enemies of the state, and secretly converting to Protestantism, the police never indicated. They were not a threat to men who hired them, even socially. Rather, like the gens sans aveu, the police kept track of them as part of the effort to provide oversight to a group that naturally had none. Kept women were largely outside the concatenation of corporations that defined 18th-century France. Few were married and hence were not under the “governance” of husbands. Those living with families often dominated them, as heads of household and hence were not supervised by fathers, as was considered natural. They were free to leave their patrons and often did. They were not bound by the workshop and hence the master.


But the contents of the police files suggest a second reason why Varenne was interesting to the them, why they expended so much energy collecting so many details on her life, and why Meusnier wanted to be assured Varenne was not a virgin when she walked through the door of Carlier’s brothel. The demimonde was an important part of elite culture. The inspectors exposed the workings of this community to their superiors, but they also provided the community with a loose sort of governance. Their goal wasn’t to shut it down, but to make sure that the buying and selling of mistresses occurred within police view and that buyers and sellers did not scandalize the rest of Parisian society. The inspectors set limits on acceptable behavior. They determined, very generally, who could be a professional mistress. They decided which elite brothels could operate and where. The latitude allowed to the tolerated madams was remarkable. The inspectors permitted them to sell children, girls as young as 12, as long as they were made aware of the transactions, even as such sales were considered both criminal and reprehensible.

As for mistresses and their patrons, the police watched and scribbled, scribbled and watched. Occasionally they mediated between patron and mistress or mistress and someone in her community who wished her gone, like the local priest. Occasionally they stepped in to stop a patron from spending himself into ruin or to arrest a kept woman for something unrelated to being a mistress. But mostly they just observed.

What the state and the police wanted to make visible was a commercial sexual economy, which, if not quite underground, was not easily seen. And so for more than two decades the inspectors investigated this economy, cultivating huge networks of informers. They wrote reports, day after day in long hand, meticulously checking their facts, editing and re-editing, tightly focused on the same sorts of questions that continue to interest us today: from the motivations and experiences of sex workers, to the flow of money, to the institutions that shaped their world and the culture that set its unofficial rules. 

So what became of Varenne? Surely the police documented her fate somewhere, but those reports have disappeared, and with them the conclusion to her story. This leaves us to speculate as to her fate. For all the power kept women could gain through their work, their status was always precarious. As they aged, many had no choice but to continue selling sex, even as their declining desirability forced them from the boudoir on to the street. But given her rise from the brothels to a well-appointed Parisian apartment, we can surmise that Varenne was a savvy operator. Perhaps she used her considerable wealth to marry her noble boyfriend or to set up a business, as some kept women did when they retired from sex work. We do not know for sure. We can only hope. 

Nina Kushner is an associate professor at Clark University.