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Posts Tagged ‘archeofeminism’

I have naturally good looks and skin, but I strongly think I need to refine them for my husband.  In my country we don’t have as much variety of expensive beauty products as you do in the United States, so I was wondering if you could drop some tips on how to take care of oneself finely, like a courtesan did.  It would help a lot.

Like you, most of my beauty is natural; my good skin, healthy color, and other features are all mine without having to do anything other than stay healthy and clean.  I get plenty of sleep, avoid chaotic schedules whenever possible, eat a varied diet in small enough portions that I don’t put on weight, and wash my face and body with gentle products that don’t dry out my skin.  I have never smoked, used drugs or drank more than a minimal amount of alcohol (and that only on rare occasions), and I’ve never subjected my hair to harsh chemicals in order to change its color or texture.  And in fact, now that I’m aging I find myself at a bit of a loss, because I never really learned many beauty tips; for the first time I’m seeing grey hairs and dark circles, and though I don’t have any crows’ feet or smile lines yet I suppose it’s inevitable that they will eventually appear.  So, I’m only now beginning to think about some aspects of self-care that others have been dealing with since their teens, and that means I’m not really a very good source of beauty advice.  However, two months ago I asked my readers for new makeup suggestions and the response was excellent; I’m therefore going to “crowdsource” this question as well.  Readers, what beauty secrets are you willing to share?  Try to keep brand names out if you can, so the tips will apply in every part of the world.

(Have a question of your own?  Please consult this page to see if I’ve answered it in a previous column, and if not just click here to ask me via email.)

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There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.  –  The Gospel of Philip

Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, long considered to be either a prostitute or “reformed” prostitute and therefore the subject of special devotion by many Catholic (and Orthodox, and Anglican, and Lutheran) whores.  As I have explained before, there is no canonical evidence for this; the idea seems to date to a sermon  delivered in 591 by Pope Gregory the Great, in which she was identified as a repentant harlot (possibly by identification with the “adulterous woman” whom Jesus rescues from being stoned in the 8th chapter of John).  But the four canonical Gospels are not the only ones:

…among those used by Gnostic congregations (and subsequently excluded from the canon) were four more Gospels:  Thomas, Philip, Mary and Judas, all but the last of which assign a much more prominent role to Mary Magdalene than the four canonical ones; indeed, the Gospel of Mary is actually attributed to her.  These Gospels refer to Mary as Jesus’ “companion” and describe him as loving her more than his other disciples and often kissing her on the mouth…the Gospel of Mary identifies her as the unnamed “disciple Jesus loved” mentioned so often in John…

Pope Gregory may well have been aware of these gospels, and perhaps intentionally conflated the Magdalene with the adulteress as a way of smearing her in a time of increasingly-patriarchal Church practices and increasingly-prudish Church attitudes toward sex.  It is possible that one of the reasons Mary the Harlot caught on so quickly as a mythic figure was that she built upon and supplanted the clearly sexual (though not specifically professional) portrayal in the Gnostic gospels, oral traditions of which could well have survived their suppression two centuries before Gregory’s sermon.  I might even point out that she could well be viewed as a Christianized Venus, just as the Blessed Mother is a Christianized mother-goddess and Jesus himself a Christian solar deity.  The actual biographical facts of the lives of the human beings upon whom the mythic figures are based is of no more importance than whether Buddha could actually perform miracles, King Arthur pulled a sword from a stone or Mohammed flew into heaven on a winged horse; as in the case of Saint Nicholas (the official patron saint of whores), the mythology which has developed around the historical Mary Magdalene has a life of its own independent of the mundane facts.  The process of apotheosis creates a new being separate and distinct from the long-dead person whose name he or she shares, and that being inhabits the irrational realm of faith rather than the rational one of fact.

Simply put, Mary Magdalene the symbol is an entity wholly distinct from Mary Magdalene the first-century Jewish woman, and whether the latter was a whore, wife or mere follower to Yeshua bar Yosef is immaterial to the power of that symbol.  For centuries, the name “Magdalene” has been synonymous with “prostitute” in Christendom; when in the 13th century the idea arose for the first time that whores were “fallen” women in need of “rescue”, the asylums established for the purpose were called “Magdalene homes”.  Though few of these institutions survived the Black Death, the movement was revived in the mid-18th century and the number of such places multiplied with the rise of the “white slavery” myth a century later; though they again died out in most places in the early 20th century, they continued on in Ireland until 1996.  In various parts of the British Isles, the term “Magdalene” became “Maggie”, and applied either to whores in general (in England) or ones confined to Magdalene laundries (in Ireland).  The working girls in a number of folk songs are named “Maggie”, and of course Stephen Crane gave us Maggie:  A Girl of the Streets; some of y’all have probably guessed that I chose the name “Maggie” for a reason, and perhaps noticed that the name “Maggie McNeill” has a similar cadence to “Mary Magdalene”.

So even though I well understand that Mary Magdalene may not have “really” been a member of my profession, I also understand the difference between fact and truth.  The sacred whore may have largely ceased to exist in the mundane world of matter, but she still exists in the human unconscious.  And in the West, it has pleased her for a number of centuries now to work under the stage name Mary Magdalene.

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The word career is a divisive word. It’s a word that divides the normal life from business or professional life.  –  Grace Paley

A couple of months ago I saw an article on a study which found that members of couples can probably tell when their partners are faking orgasm; it bore the provocative title “Your Partner Knows When You’re Faking”.  My immediate reaction?  “I’m a professional, Honey; maybe yours know, but mine don’t.”  But that little joke set off a train of thought:  isn’t it likely that one of the reasons so many women are anti-whore is that they’re intimidated by our superior sexual skills?  To be sure, not every whore is a virtuoso in the bedroom; some get by on looks alone, or cater to unusual fetishes, or have incredible charm, and some just excel at marketing.  But by and large, the average professional has both a greater range of skills and is better at each than the average amateur.  Part of the reason is that we get a lot more practice, and part is necessity:  except as noted above, we have to be better at it because our livelihoods depend on it.

I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial here; the sexual proficiency of harlots is not really in dispute.  Male commenters on this blog have often  praised the abilities of their favorites, and our prowess underlies the myths depicting us as enchantresses, succubae and vampires.  Insecure men fear that we will control them thus, and insecure women fear that we will steal their husbands (presumably to add to our collections); the whole “pimp” and “sex slave” mythology derives from the need to deny the legendary sexual powers of whores by pretending that we’re the pathetic, powerless victims of men.  Nor are those women with enough sense to know that hookers really aren’t interested in their husbands wholly immune; many of them find the very idea that other women are better in bed than they are somewhat upsetting.  Remember, society defines a woman by her sexuality to a far greater degree than it does a man: she is assigned to either the “Madonna” or “whore” category based upon it; selling sex is called “selling herself”, as though sex constituted her entire being; and sexual violation is supposed to utterly destroy her soul and irremediably pollute her body.  Nor is it only traditional “patriarchal” thought which elevates female sexuality thus; neofeminists are simultaneously obsessed with it and defined by their rejection of it.  So it’s not surprising that many women would be intimidated by the knowledge that others are better in the sack than they are; on some level, they see whores as better women than they are, and must reject that painful concept by imagining us as the exact opposite.

Don't try this at homeOf course, this is all a load of nonsense.  Sexual ability is a skill, no more or less valuable than many others; it isn’t magical, earth-shaking or ego-defining.  Some people have a natural talent for it, and others don’t; some take the time to develop it, and others don’t; some earn their bread by it, and others don’t.  Yes, I’m better at sex than most women; I’m also an above-average cook and (so I’m told) an excellent writer.  My business skills, however, are below par; my housekeeping skills are mediocre at best and my musical ability is practically nonexistent.  The fact that I possess the talents necessary to succeed as a professional sexual partner does not make me a better woman than someone who lacks those talents, but neither does it make me a worse one; each of us has her role to play, and society would have a lot fewer problems if each of us concentrated on her own rather than attempting to perform, critique or manage everyone else’s.

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If you’ve just started reading my blog since last summer, you may be unfamiliar with Aella the Amazon; if so, this story will make little sense to you unless you first read “A Decent Boldness“, “A Haughty Spirit” and “Glorious Gifts“, in that order.

Wise to resolve, and patient to perform.  –  Homer, Odyssey (IV, 372)

To My Dearest Friend Phaedra, May Tethys Protect and Enrich Thee:

I pray this letter finds thee well, and that thou wilt forgive my poor grammar and worse penmanship.  I have written it in Tarshi because it is of the utmost importance that its contents are kept a secret between us, and I know that no one in my country and few in thine can read it.  My people already believe me to have become somewhat erratic due to my years spent in Man’s World, and I fear if they knew what I was planning I might not escape as easily as I did that unpleasantness about the spring festival six years ago.

youth with cattleThou wilt remember that I conceived by the wealthy Scythian who gifted me with the beautiful kine, and bore a healthy son; thou wilt also remember that by the ancient pact between their people and ours, sons go to live with their fathers while we keep the daughters.  Most of my people see a son as no more than bad luck, a necessary but unfortunate side effect of the lottery which might also produce a daughter.  But somehow I could not be quite so unconcerned; even in the three months between his birth and the Spring Festival I had become very attached to him, and though I spoke it not aloud I gave him a secret name in my heart, Asterios.  I suppose my Aunt Laomache is right, and I have been contaminated by outlandish ideas; I’ve known so many good men, both in Tartessos and during the months I spent at thy mother’s in Knossos, that I can no longer think of them merely as a necessary evil (no matter how bad most of them may be).  Furthermore, his father Niall and I have mated every year since at the festival, and he always makes me a present of more kine; I thus see my son (whom his father named Hemek) every spring, and again on the occasions when our clans have met for trading after harvest, and every day (or so I fancy) in the faces of the two daughters I have borne since, who strongly resemble their brother.

So though it is not considered proper among my people to care about the fates of sons, the heart cannot be commanded by mortal woman.  I know not why I feel such a powerful concern for his health and happiness, but feel it I do, and I have come to the conclusion that it is wrong to deny him the advantages his sisters will have.  The Scythians are great warriors and horsemen, but they are not civilized like we Amazons; they spend most of the year roaming the steppes, living in tents and grazing their herds hither and yon.  They have no writing and little in the way of art, and even their music and poetry are crude.  So though my son is already strong and skilled for his five years, I want more for him than to be a mere herdsman.  If wandering be the way of his father’s people, so be it, but let him wander among the cities of the West rather than the endless seas of grass in the East.  Let him go forth and learn about all the wonders of the world as I have, and come home a wealthy, important and learned man, perhaps one able to bring culture to his noble but naïve race.

I have spoken to Niall about this, and we are in agreement; he is very impressed with the knowledge I gained in my travels, and he would like his son to have similar learning.  If it meet with thy approval, we will send Hemek to thee two springs hence with the same captain who bears this letter; in the years I have known him I have found him to be an honorable man, and I believe I can trust him to deliver the boy safely into thy keeping in Knossos.  I also know thou hast important kin who can secure the necessary seals and papers to doubly insure that he not be abused or sold into slavery before he reaches thy house.  I charge thee to love him as thou lovest me, and to rear and educate him alongside thine own son; once I receive confirmation of his safe passage I will also pay the same captain to carry thee a sum of gold sufficient to pay whatever sum his teachers demand, and a like sum every year until his education should be complete.

Though I am a loyal Amazon and love my family and my mother country, I am no longer the pigheaded provincial I was when we met so long ago; I have learned that there are many ways for men and women to relate to one another, and have grown wise enough to understand that our ways are not necessarily the best.  Legend says our first queen established our laws so that we would never be dominated by men, and while I saw the kind of society she wished to avoid in several of the places we visited, in Crete I saw men and women living together as equals.  Perhaps thy people are morally superior to all others, yet I know them to be just as mortal; I therefore assume this to be the result of superior teaching and wiser laws.  That is the other reason I wish my son to be educated there; perhaps he can bring that wisdom back to his father’s people, and his mother’s people can in turn learn from them.  I do not believe that even a son of mine can create a new Golden Age singlehandedly, nor that such a thing is even possible.  But if change is to happen it has to start somewhere, and who better to start it than one of Amazon blood?

With Sincere Love and Gratitude, Thine Own True Friend Always

Aella sealed letter

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Molli Desi is one of the small number of Devadasi (sacred prostitutes of India) still remaining; she and Rani Desi, a Nagarvadhu (high priestess) now live in London and are active on Twitter, which is how I got to know them.  A few years ago Molli was trapped in one of the rescue industry’s many “rescue centers”, but eventually escaped; I asked if she would share the story on my blog and she graciously consented to do so.

Molli DesiI wish to give special thanks to the Nagarvadhu for helping me with this article, which is a translation from an account written in my mother language.  In this short a space I cannot tell the whole truth about all rescue projects, but I think I can expose how structurally and institutionally dangerous most rescue centres are in much of South Asia.  Furthermore, I will suggest that many donors from the West deliberately ignore these risks to detained women and girls so as to pursue their self-serving agendas.  I do not use the terms women and girls lightly; women and girls are often conflated by the NGOs, so that women of 23+ or married women of 16 will be referred to as girls; female identity in India is far more complex than any simple consideration of age.

It seems so strange to me that organisations that condemn the excesses of closed brothels will in turn exercise the same powers over those they claim to rescue; of course most girls are not rescued from closed brothels, but rather are taken from domestic labour or other sex work environments such as bars, clubs or rooms.  After “rescue” they are detained in facilities (sometimes called orphanages, shelter homes or rehab centres) where sexual and other abuse is commonplace; these detention centres are supposed to be inspected by the Government, but there is very little accountability so they foster and encourage a culture of impunity among the organisations that run them.  I wish to share my story because I think it very important that people understand the motivations and practices of these organizations; my experience is not unusual, and was a direct consequence the power that “rescuers” exercise over detained women and girls.  I have changed names and some details so as to protect myself and others.

I do not know my date of birth; I do know I was taken from the arms of a dying woman who told the people around her my name just before she died.  One man claimed to be my uncle and wanted to take me away, but one Devadasi lady knew he was really a miscreant and refused to let him take me.  Eventually I was taken to a nice orphanage, and while I was growing up there I was told that my mother and father were migrant workers who had been killed in a bus crash, so no one could trace my real extended family.  In India this made me a social outcast, but my time in the orphanage was a happy one.  I had many “sisters”, was successful at school and had a talent for classical dance and singing; however, I was also aware that was socially suspect and that I would not be considered suitable for marriage by most “respectable” families because I was an orphan.

In India, marriage is the institution in which patriarchal power is reproduced, and its implementation and policing is delegated to older women; married women in particular support marriage, as it is the means by which they exercise male-delegated power over their son’s wives.  It was common practice for the sons of respectable families to target orphan teen girls when they went to college and to have affairs with these girls with promises of marriage.  Once the boy graduated, his family would arrange a marriage to a respectable girl and the orphan girl would be disowned.  Such young women would then only be able to make a marriage to a low-caste man, and then only with a promise of dowry; if the dowry was considered insufficient the husband and his family might even torture the wife, and sometimes kill her.  Orphan girls fully understand that we need to find alternatives to marriage if we want to escape such subjugation.  Some girls focus on getting skills or higher education; others develop dancing or even gymnastics.  Others do sex work rather than marry or take dangerous work in a garment factory or domestic service.  However, in India an unmarried woman is not considered fully human, so anyone who refuses to marry is considered a dangerous rebel.

As I got older, I began to spend time with a small group of girls and young women who sold sex in various residential hotels; I was attracted to them because they worked as a group and lived a freer life, coming and going as they pleased.  Two of my good friends from the orphanage worked with these women, and when we were not at school and they were not working we would arrange outings and gatherings.  Because they worked as a group they could negotiate with the owners of the residential hotels for better rooms to meet their clients and for less cost.  If any residential hotel owner caused a serious problem or assaulted any member of the group, they would set fire to his rubbish bins or his car and send a note to say next time they would burn the hotel.  They had money that could use for clothes and telephones but mostly they saved their money in the bank for when they would rent their own apartment.  If men eve teased them in the street they would shout back and even throw stones at them, whereas most girls would run away.    I admired their self-assurance, but I did not do sex work myself at this time because I did not feel confident enough.

sex workers detained in raidOne evening before Ramadan I was visiting my two girl-friends at a residential hotel where they working when suddenly there was a commotion from the lobby.  One friend looked out of the door and then closed and quickly locked the door; she told us the police were in the hotel. We were all terrified because the police will often rape women and take their money.  The police went from door to door shouting for everyone to come out; we could hear the screams of the women and girls.  I hid one of our phones and most of the money in a condom inside my vagina; it was very painful but I knew we would lose it all if I didn’t.  We then went outside into the hall, where two policemen shouted at us to come into the reception area; eventually there were about twelve women and girls surrounded by more than twenty police and NGO workers (only two of them were women).  A police sergeant made us line up and he took everyone’s phone and money, except for what I had hidden; if he asked a question and didn’t like the answer he got, he would hit the woman in the face.  After a few minutes the police inspector left, and the NGO workers said all young women and girls would have to go with them for safe custody; only women who could prove they were over 20 or had a magistrate permission certificate to be a prostitute could stay.  Eventually the NGO workers took me, my two friends and another young woman; we were chosen because we were the smallest and the police said they knew the other women were well known prostitutes who were definitely over 18.  The police then took the women who were allowed to stay, and in exchange for sex they could have their telephones back.

We told the NGO workers that I was not a prostitute, but was only visiting my friends; also, a police officer said that I did not look like a prostitute because I was wearing blue jeans and not Salwaar Kameez like the others.  However, the NGO workers said I was at risk of being trafficked by my friends, so I must go to “safe custody”.  There were five NGO workers; they took photographs of us (it’s not unknown for TV journalists to be invited to watch these “rescues”) and then took us outside to their minibus.  I tried to run away in the street, but one NGO woman grabbed my long hair and slammed me into the side of the minibus.  A crowd gathered as I was fighting back and during the chaos the other young woman managed to run away, but the NGO woman was much bigger than me so eventually my friends and I were pushed into the minibus.  All the way to detention the woman hit me and called me very bad names.

In tomorrow’s conclusion, Molli describes the rescue center and tells how she eventually escaped.

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HRH The Prince of Wales:  I’ve spent enough on you to build a battleship!
Lillie Langtry:  And you’ve spent enough in me to float one.

Lillie Langtry (1878)Once the “prostitute” was defined into existence as the lowest of the low in the late 19th century, it became necessary for those who were emotionally invested in the concept to police the dividing line between whores and all other women.  If it was possible for a “fallen woman” to not only raise herself by her own efforts, but to do so without repenting her whoredom, she obviously was not someone any woman could look down upon; since the whole purpose of the definition was to provide such an exemplar, famous harlots became an embarrassment to the prohibitionists.  Such women’s harlotry therefore had to be ignored, rationalized or even denied so as to maintain the fiction that we are all monsters, criminals, victims or whatever other role the individual fanatic’s belief-system requires.  In the past few decades especially, whores who achieve fame and/or accomplishment that transcends their whoredom are routinely co-opted by prohibitionists, and most popular biographies either leave out the fact that they made a living on their backs or else sanitize it with words like “mistress” or “lover” in order to pretend that the arrangement was established for romantic reasons rather than economic ones.  And if a professional achieves greater and more lasting fame in some other career after her hooking days, the general practice nowadays is to omit her earlier means of support entirely.

Emilie Charlotte Le Breton was born on October 13, 1853, the only daughter of Rev. William Corbet Le Breton (Dean of Jersey) and his wife Emilie; though she had six brothers, only two survived childhood.  Emilie was a high-spirited girl who inherited her mother’s looks and her father’s temperament; he had numerous affairs and eventually resigned his post in disgrace several years after his daughter had left the island.  Being the only girl also contributed to her personality: she learned to handle males from a very early age, and was educated by her brothers’ tutor because she was far too rambunctious for a governess.  At the wedding of her brother William in autumn of 1873 she met the Irish landowner Edward Langtry, the 30-year-old widower of the bride’s older sister; Emilie was taken with his charm and apparent affluence and he dazzled her with (chaperoned) cruises on his yacht.  They were married on March 6th, 1874, and he bought her a stately home in Jersey and a flat in London; unfortunately, Langtry was not as wealthy as he appeared to be, and her family’s dislike for him was so intense that when her beloved younger brother Reggie died in the spring of 1877, she hadn’t seen him in years.

After the funeral Emilie fell into a deep depression, and in an effort to cheer her Lord Ranelagh got her an invitation to a salon held by Lady Sebright and attended by a number of famous artists and literary figures.  Because she was still in mourning, she wore a simple black dress without jewelry and isolated herself in a quiet corner of the suite; but because she was both beautiful and charming this had the opposite effect of the one she was looking for.  She attracted the attention of a number of artists at the salon, among them Frank Miles (who had previously seen her at the theater and was very taken with her); Miles made several sketches that evening and raved about her beauty to everyone he knew.  By the end of the week the Langtrys were overwhelmed by invitations, Miles’ sketches had been sold and every photographer and painter in London wanted Emilie to model for him; the most famous of these portraits was A Jersey Lily by Millais, which not only spread her fame but gave her the nickname by which she would be known ever after:  Lillie.

Within weeks, she had come to the attention of the Prince of Wales, who asked to be seated next to her at a dinner party on May 24, 1877 and was soon spending legendary amounts of money on her; since this allowed a far more lavish lifestyle than he would otherwise have had, Langtry was content to go away on fishing trips while his wife entertained her royal patron.  Though His Highness was a noted womanizer, he became totally infatuated with Lillie and even built a house (now Langtry Manor Hotel) for them to tryst in; she became the closest thing to an official mistress as was possible in that time and place, and was even accepted by the Prince’s wife, Princess Alexandra (Queen Victoria, on the other hand, was said to have treated her rather coldly).  The relationship continued for two years, during which Lillie made many important friends; chief among them was Oscar Wilde, who later helped her launch the career for which she is known today.  And though it ended when Sarah Bernhardt captured the Prince’s eye in June of 1879, they parted on good terms and he later helped her on a number of occasions.

Lillie immediately became involved with the Earl of Shrewsbury, but that arrangement broke up the following January once rumors of divorce began to circulate and creditors started to hound her husband.  By April she had attracted another royal patron, Prince Louis of Battenberg, and when she found herself pregnant in June she told him that he was the father; however, she was also carrying on a romantic affair with Arthur Clarence Jones at the same time, so it’s possible that the child was his.  By this point the Langtrys were truly estranged; Edward went off on an extended fishing trip, leaving Lillie to deal with the bill collectors (which she did in October of 1880 by selling off many of the expensive gifts Prince Albert had given her).  She at first tried to hide the pregnancy by renting a cottage in Jersey, but soon realized a small community was the worst place to be; she then appealed to “Bertie” for help and he gave her some money and had her taken to Paris, where she and Jones lived until she gave birth to her daughter Jeanne Marie on March 8, 1881.

By autumn she had deposited the child in her own mother’s care and returned to London, where Wilde suggested she should take up acting.  He connected her to Henrietta Labouchere, a retired actress turned acting coach, and after one amateur production in November she was hired for a part in She Stoops to Conquer; though the critics were divided in their opinions, she had lost none of her charisma and the ever-supportive Prince of Wales made a point of attending several of her performances in order to draw attention to them.  Her popularity attracted enough investment to form her own company only a few months later, and she toured the UK for the rest of the year before landing a deal for an American tour in October – less than a year after she had started acting.  She was an even bigger hit in the US than she had been at home, and her box office receipts broke all previous records.  Nor had she entirely given up her previous career:  she found a new patron in the person of Freddie Gebhard, a multi-millionaire who bought her a townhouse in New York and a private railway carriage built to her specifications.  She eventually became a US citizen and divorced Edward Langtry in 1887, but though she and Gebhard remained together until 1891 they never married. He bought her a whole stable of thoroughbred horses, and she enjoyed modest success racing them; she also bought a vineyard and winery in California in 1888, and though she sold it in 1906 it still bears the name Langtry Farms.  She also sold endorsements for soap and cosmetics, becoming one of the first celebrities to do so.

In 1899, she married Hugo Gerald de Bathe, who became Lord de Bathe in 1907.  Though he was 19 years her junior, the relationship does not appear to have been the typical love match between an aging courtesan and a young lover, but rather a marriage of convenience contracted to get money for him and a title for her; when they retired to Monaco in 1917 he lived half an hour away in Nice, and they only saw each other on social occasions.  She continued acting right up until her retirement, at which time she also sold all of her horses and racing interests.  During her last decade her closest companion was Mathilde Peate, the widow of her butler; she had been estranged from her daughter since 1899, after Jeanne Marie’s fiancé had explained the truth about her parentage (which had been kept from her for eighteen years).  In the winter of 1929 Lillie contracted bronchitis and later influenza, dying on February 12th at the age of 75; she left her entire fortune to her daughter, grandchildren and Mrs. Peate, and nothing at all to her husband.  She was buried in the churchyard of St. Savior’s Parish on Jersey, near the rectory in which she had grown up; though she had left early and wandered far in her eventful life, the Jersey Lily eventually returned to the soil of her beloved home, which her heart had never really left.

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Impenetrable in their dissimulation, cruel in their vengeance, tenacious in their purposes, unscrupulous as to their methods, animated by profound and hidden hatred for the tyranny of man…  –  Denis Diderot, “On Women”

As I have written on numerous occasions, the fallacious notion of the prostitute as a specific type of woman, with characteristics that set her apart from all other women, is a relatively recent one.  Prior to the mid-19th century it was widely understood that transactional sex was a normal female behavior, one that any woman might engage in under the proper circumstances.  This is not to say that it was accepted and condoned; far from it.  But nobody imagined that a woman was entirely defined by the act, either, nor embraced the foolish fantasy that only women of a certain background or experience made the choice.  I have also often pointed out that women are far more pragmatic than men like to believe; many if not most of us, even those from relatively sheltered lives, are perfectly capable of trading sex for money or other advantages should the need arise.

Jeanne de ClissonCase in point Jeanne-Louise de Belleville, Dame de Montaigu, born in 1300 to the powerful Breton nobleman Maurice IV of Belleville-Montaigu and his wife Létice de Parthenay.  She was married off at the age of 12 to a 19-year-old nobleman named Geoffrey de Châteaubriant and bore him two children.  Geoffrey died young in 1326, and four years later she married Olivier III de Clisson, bearing him five children.  But while her first marriage seems to have been a typical one, the second one was unusually passionate for a 14th-century noble couple.  The two were extremely close, and Jeanne was very devoted to him…so devoted, in fact, that what would have been the easy and unremarkable life of a wealthy French noblewoman became remarkable indeed after her husband was executed for treason in 1343.

It happened like this:  in the early part of the Hundred Years War, there were two rival claimants for the title of Duke of Brittany; Charles de Blois was favored by the French and John de Montfort by the English.  Olivier was on the French side, but after he lost Vannes to the English in 1342, de Blois complained that Olivier had not fought enthusiastically enough, and accused him of having defected to the English.  Olivier responded, predictably enough, by defecting to the English, but was captured by French forces and beheaded by order of King Philip VI on August 2nd, 1343; in a particularly barbaric touch, his severed head was then displayed on a pole at Nantes.  Jeanne was devastated by his death and furious at the King and de Blois, and swore revenge on both.  But while a lesser woman might’ve been content with cursing them from afar, spreading rumors or bribing someone to poison the royal wine, Jeanne was no ordinary woman.  She promptly sold off all of the Clisson lands the King had not seized, purchased the three best warships she could find, and had them painted black and rigged with sails dyed blood-red.  To raise money for a crew and to win allies from amongst the other Breton noblemen (who were none too fond of the French to start with), she sold her favors to them and charmed them into swearing to support her.  Keep in mind she was 43 years old at the time, had borne seven children and presumably had only been to bed with two men before this; she must have had a powerful charisma.

But that charisma, however great, paled beside her hatred.  From 1343-1356 the “Lioness of Brittany” mercilessly hunted and pillaged every French ship she could find, slaughtering the crews except for one or two who would be released on shore to tell the King who it was that had done the deed.  At the Battle of Crécy (1346), she helped to secure an English victory by bringing in supplies on her ships.  And after King Philip died in 1350, Jeanne only got worse; apparently enraged at his having escaped her wrath by fleeing into Hades, she began specifically hunting down ships owned by French nobles, and whenever she caught one she would personally behead him with an axe and have his body thrown into the sea, despite the fact that she could’ve made tremendous profit by ransoming them.  Were this a Hollywood movie, she would have eventually caught up with Charles de Blois and given him his comeuppance, but real life is rarely so neat; de Blois not only outlived the Lioness by five years,Château de Clisson but was also made a saint (though the canonization was annulled by the next pope on request from the English-supported Duke John V of Brittany, whose side had eventually won).  By the time she was 56 Jeanne’s thirst for vengeance was apparently slaked at last; she retired from piracy, married Sir Walter Bentley (who had personally fought de Blois) and settled in Hennebont, France, where she died in 1359.  Her son, Olivier Jr, earned the sobriquet “The Butcher” for his fierceness in war; he obviously inherited that from his mother, whose ghost is supposed to haunt the ruins of the old Château de Clisson (which was destroyed during the French Revolution).

Jeanne de Clisson was neither poor nor disadvantaged; neither sexually abused as a child nor mistreated by a husband; and neither homeless nor addicted to any drug.  Perhaps it could be said that she was emotionally disturbed by the loss of her beloved husband, but if so it was a very lucid kind of madness:  Jeanne knew exactly what she was doing, and chose to sell sex as a means toward that end.  And though most whores have far more mundane goals than the death of a king and the downfall of an entire country, our choices are every bit as pragmatic – and often as temporary – as hers.

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