Whilst Arya Stark in the guise of Cat of the Canals is selling clams and oysters on the Ragman Docks she is asked by the crew of the Brazen Monkey, out of Gulltown, where they might find some “sport” to while away their four day stay. After Arya recommends the mummery on the Ship, eel fights in the Spotted Cellar, duels at the moon pool, and the whores of Happy Port brothel, the youngest sailor asks: “What about them fancy whores the singers sing about?” This prompts howls of laughter from his crewmates, who mock him for thinking he can afford one: “That sort o’ cunt’s for lords and such, not for the likes o’ us.” (FfC Cat of the Canals). Much later in the story, Raff the Sweetling describes the Black Pearl as a “fancy whore” and japes about wanting to share her with his boss (WoW Mercy). Neither Raff nor the Gulltown sailors are very sophisticated, but they undoubtedly voice the general Westerosi view. As they see things, the courtesans are simply extremely expensive prostitutes, not fundamentally different from those that exist in every other port along the Narrow Sea, just fancier. The reader might easily share this perspective and not give the courtesans any further thought. Yet this snap judgment could not be more wrong. The whores of the Narrow Sea and the courtesans of Braavos occupy different social spheres and perform very different roles. The ever ambitious Dareon the Deserter recognizes this distinction when he boasts: “Yesterday I ate herring with the whores, but within the year I’ll be having emperor crab with courtesans” (FfC Cat of the Canals). To get a proper sense of the vast difference between these two occupations we will compare the “whores” of Andal Westeros and the sex slaves of Old Volantis, as they are encountered by members of the Lannister family, with the Braavosi courtesans as glimpsed by Sam Tarly and Arya Stark. We shall examine and contrast the social structures they exist within, their basic characteristics, their respective social positions, and the impact of said positions on the larger society. By this road we shall answer the question of what these two social constructs actually mean: what does it mean to be defined as a whore and what is the significance of being a courtesan.
Before discussing the social position of the “whore” we must discuss the social context within which she exists and which determines her status. Westeros is a poor and underdeveloped country with extremely pronounced inequality in the distribution of its national wealth. The country’s wealth is distributed according to its feudal hierarchy. At the very top are the old blooded High Lords who can trace their lineages far back into the past, if not into mythical times. Below the High Lords are lesser lordly families of diverse status, a professional warrior class of knights and sell swords, and various tradesmen who provide for the lords and warriors. All these classes live off the production of a vast immiserated peasant class and an underemployed urban proletariat. Old Volantis is an extremely wealthy and advanced country with an extremely pronounced inequality in the distribution of its national wealth. Volantene wealth is produced from the labor of a vast slave class that makes up approximately 5/6ths of the total population. The free population is organized into an unequal hierarchy based upon blood status which further benefits the upper class. On the top are the Old Blood families who can trace their ancestry back to Valyaria. They utterly dominate the city’s politics, slave industries, and trade from behind the Black Wall. After them are the citizens, free born Volantenes who may vote if they meet strict property qualifications. Below them are the freedmen, freed slaves who may not vote no matter how much property they own.
In both societies the dominance of the upper class depends upon the strict subordination of the lowly. This means the maintenance of very strict boundaries between the highest and the lowest. A breakdown in these boundaries would mean a breakdown in the upper classes control of the national wealth. In Westeros the economy is dependent upon agricultural and resource extraction, which are operating at their respective limits (or were, before Tywin Lannister decided to burn 1/8th of the country). This means that in Westeros there are no winners without losers, no gain without it coming at someone else’s expense. In Volantis the slave population is highly concentrated around several urban centers and in large landed estates, both conditions were there is constant threat of servile insurrection. Both upper classes are therefore fairly insecure, constantly working to maintain their position at the expense of those below them.
Free prostitutes live off of and sell their bodies while the bodies of slave prostitutes are used and sold by their owners as property. Despite their lowly status the prostitute and sex slave are believed to fulfil a useful purpose. They sate the dark desires of men by drawing these desires out along with some money. Finite resources are therefore redistributed by satisfying basic and inescapable (as far as the customers are concerned) bodily wants. In the eyes of the aristocracy this makes whores a necessary part of life, a safety valve, and a source of profit, not unlike leeches which can be used to drain bad blood:
“These sinners feed the royal coffers,” the queen said bluntly, “and their pennies help pay the wages of my gold cloaks and build galleys to defend our shores. There is trade to be considered as well. If King’s Landing had no brothels, the ships would go to Duskendale or Gulltown. His High Holiness promised me peace in my streets. Whoring helps to keep that peace. Common men deprived of whores are apt to turn to rape.” (FfC Cersei VIII)
Hence, while the Lannisters make a show of disapproving of brothels and use religious morality as an excuse to tax them, they actually oppose any efforts to close them down or reduce their business. Such would go against their interests. But the same characteristics that make the sex trade useful also make it a threat. It is one thing for the prostitutes of Kings Landing to leech coin and aggression from the populace and trade from the capitals commercial rivals to the ultimate benefit of the Crown and House Lannister or for a member of House Lannister to pay a little money for one. It is another thing entirely for a whore to try to acquire some of House Lannister’s finite power and status as she would normally acquire coin.
This anxiety lies at the heart of why it is shameful for a member of the nobility to be seen with a prostitute in public. When an aristocrat’s relationship with a prostitute, bed warmer, or sex slaves crosses from a private to a public relationship it is evidence that power and status are being transferred from the man to woman in exchange for her companionship. In Westeros this dynamic is exemplified by the rapid ascent of Lord Tytos’s mistress:
In their father’s final years, after their mother’s passing, their sire had taken the comely daughter of a candlemaker as mistress. It was not unknown for a widowed lord to keep a common girl as bedwarmer … but Lord Tytos soon began seating the woman beside him in the hall, showering her with gifts and honors, even asking her views on matters of state. Within a year she was dismissing servants, ordering about his household knights, even speaking for his lordship when he was indisposed. She grew so influential that it was said about Lannisport that any man who wished for his petition to be heard should kneel before her and speak loudly to her lap … for Tytos Lannister’s ear was between his lady’s legs. She had even taken to wearing their mother’s jewels. (DwD Epilogue)
This ability to use a man’s desires and affections to shoot straight to the top is extremely threatening. When Lord Tytos died his mistress was violently stripped of everything she had earned by Tytos’s son, Tywin Lannister. There is a counterpart to Tytos Lannister’s mistress across the water in the figure of “Vogarro’s whore.” Ser Jorah informs Tyrion that when Vogarro took a slave for a lover “[i]t was a great scandal … and a greater scandal when he freed her and took her for his wife” (DwD Tyrion VII). As his wife she took a role in running his commercial empire. When Vogarro died his widow was forced to sell his mansion behind the Black Walls and relocated to the Merchant House. She has felt her social ostracization from the upper class fiercely ever since, knowing despite all her success that she is “no lady, just Vogarro’s whore” (DwD Tyrion VII).
In Andal Westeros to quietly pay a private visit to some whores or make use of a bed warmer is different from maintaining one as a mistress or partner. In Volantis owning a sex slave is a world away from taking a slave as a lover and partner. In these examples of disfavor and taboo are applied to actions that increased the status of the low ranking women in question. Any sexual or romantic involvement with a low class woman that raises her status is cast as indicative of male weakness. When a prostitute or sex slave gains public status from a relationship it is at the expense of the man, whose public status consequently falls due to the scandal of being in the whore’s power.
Tywin Lannister, who spends an absurd amount of time and money keeping his dalliances with prostitutes utterly private (which is to say, utterly secret) merely represents an extreme form of this propriety. Tywin is such a respectable man that almost no one suspects, let alone knows his baser private life. In King’s Landing Tywin’s prostitutes are smuggled in by a special tunnel from Chataya’s and then back (presumably he had a similar system in place at Casterly Rock). The whores gain nothing but the agreed upon monetary payment and remain safely distant until they are needed. There is no risk of any increase in their status whatsoever at the expense of House Lannister. Where they go afterwards, what they do with the money is not important. They go wherever whores go. The whores might speak, but who would believe them? Everyone knows Tywin Lannister is not the sort of man to sleep with whores.
The fundamental reason the Andal and Volantene upper class has drawn this collective line is to prevent lowborn and slave women from rising above their station and dramatically crossing the boundary that separates highborn from lowborn and masters from slaves. This threat to the social order is not imaginary. Shae, Tytos Lannister’s mistress, and “Vogarro’s whore” all offer examples of beautiful, ambitious lowborn women who attempted to move up in the world by trading on their looks and enticing personalities. The end goal for each was to break into upper class society and cease being a member of the lower orders. For them this would mean economic security, a more beautiful life – captured wonderfully in the silks, velvets, and jewels Shae desires to wear to the royal banquet, with its dancing bear and the one hundred doves baked into a pie – and, most crucially, far greater access to political power. Shae failed in every respect, Tytos’s mistress succeeded only for a time, while “Vogarro’s whore” managed to set herself up as the Widow of the Waterfront (and she’s far from done, with not so subtle hints that she sees herself playing a major role in a future emancipated Volantis).
Although aimed at a certain type of woman, the specter of the seductive, boundary crossing, gold digging prostitute is a patriarchal weapon that can be used against all women, regardless of class or occupation. Any lowborn or slave woman who catches the fancy of a higher ranking man may be safely labeled a whore regardless of whether she actually practices prostitution or even consented to sex as a means of escaping responsibility. And as Queen Cersei and Lady Margaery’s storylines indicate, this label can easily be applied to any high born woman who is perceived to have stepped beyond her proper sphere. To cut the little queen down, Cersei portrays Margaery as presiding over a private court of debauched lust. After the Faith seizes Cersei, her uncle Kevan hangs her out to dry and forces her to undertake the walk of shame. He does this not because of the High Sparrow but because he considers Cersei “a vain, foolish, greedy woman” who must be put in her place (DwD Epilogue). Princess Daenerys is on the receiving end of this as well when the Yunkish envoys to Volantis portray her as insatiable succubae:
“They say her lust cannot be sated, that she mates with men, women, eunuchs, even dogs and children, and woe betide the lover who fails to satisfy her. She gives her body to men to take their souls in thrall.” (DwD Tyrion VI)
The whore is an archetype that privileges masculine power and casts female power holders as fundamentally illegitimate, as thieves who prey on men and steal their wills and from this theft are able to help themselves to that which shouldn’t be theirs.
A whore’s natural state is nakedness, as everything beyond her body has been given to her by enthralled men. When Tywin expelled his late father’s mistress he had her stripped of her jewels and clothes and for 14 days had her paraded her through the streets naked “like a common whore” and by this display “confess to every man she met that she was a thief and a harlot” (DwD Epilogue, FfC Cersei I). It is as if Tywin sought to say ‘this is all she is and will ever be, for she is nothing but a whore.’ Being so stripped and paraded “spelled the end of her power” and marked her return to her proper place (DwD Epilogue). With Tyrion’s lowborn wife Tysha (who is not a prostitute but labeled one regardless for overstepping herself) Tywin’s demonstration is more savage and explicit:
“After Jaime had made his confession, to drive home the lesson, Lord Tywin brought my wife in and gave her to his guards. They paid her fair enough. A silver for each man, how many whores command that high a price? He sat me down in the corner of the barracks and bade me watch, and at the end she had so many silvers the coins were slipping through her fingers and rolling on the floor, she… Lord Tywin had me go last. And he gave me a gold coin to pay her, because I was a Lannister, and worth more.” (GoT Tyrion VI)
It is Tyrion who is worth the coin, not “the whore”; a whore is a social nullity that men satisfy themselves with and then cast money into proportionate to their status, nothing more. The lesson delivered to both Tyrion and Tysha, Tysha, “the whore,” is sent off somewhere without a second thought.
“Did you have her killed?”
His father pursed his lips. “There was no reason for that, she’d learned her place… and had been well paid for her day’s work, I seem to recall. I suppose the steward sent her on her way. I never thought to inquire.” (SoS Tyrion XI)
Why should he have? That would have gone against the whole point of the lesson he had tried to hammer into Tyrion. We don’t know what ultimately happened to Tytos’s mistress either. If Shae believed Tywin’s bed was a means to gain something of what Tyrion could not give her, or something of what Cersei promised but refused, if she was not simply desperate to stay on the good side of a dangerous ruler, then she was sadly mistaken in her hopes. More than likely Tywin planned to give her a personal lesson in the permanence of her place. He would satisfy his desires in the preservation of the proper social order. To him she is a whore, a nothing, and would always be such. She would be well paid though, as Tysha was. The head of House Lannister is worth quite a lot.
This is why Tywin judges Tyrion so unworthy of being the heir to House Lannister and categorically disinherits him (as opposed to simply stating he still considers Jaime his heir and leaving it at that). Tyrion did not learn his lesson about whores. While serving as Acting Hand he again pursues the interests of “a whore,” Alayaya, at the expense of his House. Tyrion should not have cared what Cersei did with Alayaya, she’s just a whore. Compounding this shameful behavior are the threats made against Tywin’s grandson, Tommen, in order to protect her from rape by the Kettleblacks. Everything about this incident represents Lord Tywin darkest fears, with Tyrion’s infatuation for a whore threatening to come at the physical expense of his flesh and blood: “To save a whore’s virtue, you threatened your own House, your own kin?” (SoS Tyrion I). Hence the full meaning of Lord Tywin’s “neither gods nor men shall ever compel me to let you turn Casterly Rock into your whorehouse” (SoS Tyrion I). Tywin disinherits Tyrion because he believes Tyrion will bring House Lannister low, let its reputation and strength be leeched away, let its family members be subordinated to low ranking women, raise these women up at House Lannisters expense. Tyrion’s proven ability and cunning only increase the danger he poses as lord as they would only facilitate his destroying of Casterly Rock from the inside.
As horrible as they are, Lord Tywin sees his actions as purely pragmatic and defensive. When not profiting off, disciplining, or using “whores” his attitude is one of neutral neglect. The success and happiness or exploitation and misery of a “whore” who remains in her proper place is a matter of complete indifference to him. Therefore even the most powerful and controlling lord in Andal Westeros has conceded to the whore a degree of personal autonomy, albeit at the cost of a total lack of concern for her welfare.
Amongst the Old Blood masters of Volantis there is no such ideological concession in their determination to keep the sex slave in her place. This can be seen in the face tattoos that identify the sex slave, tear drops placed just below the right eye. Consider the sheer frankness of this symbol. Most slave tattoos are straightforward identifiers: motley for a fool, stripes for a tiger soldier, wheels for a cart driver, and flies for a dung sweeper. Compared to these boring signifers of this or that job the prostitute’s tattoos are uniquely poetic. They are perpetually weeping through these tattoos, which say they are perpetually weeping on the inside but never actually weeping as real tears would displease the customers. Their tears say that misery is their lot in life, everyone accepts it as their lot in life, and it is supposed to be their lot in life. They weep because they are trapped in this lowly state and it will never have a happy ending. For the men who rent or own them the terrible inner lives of the sex slaves are not worth caring about; only their bodies matter and these have been acquired via their misery. The more expensive girls no doubt put on a pleasing performance, but this is blatantly false and not really necessary, only a detail a customer might find desirable, no different from height and weight and hair color. The feeble straw haired sex slave Tyrion rapes in Selhorys shows only two emotions, numb apathy and terror, but he uses her twice. The sex slave’s exploitation is total and for those who cannot escape will go on even after they are “old as sin and twice as ugly” (DwD Tyrion VI). When the Widow cut away her tears she was cutting away this imposed identity of abuse and hopelessness.
Leaving Westeros and Volantis for Braavos to contemplate courtesan is like stepping foot on another planet. The city is a rich and dynamic entrepôt with far less unequal distribution of national wealth then is found in Westeros and Volantis. This is reflected in the higher standard of living enjoyed by the city’s lower orders, from the clean water brought in the “sweet water” aqueduct to the colorful (hence costly) clothing worn by its night dwelling bravos. Between the working and lumpen classes and the aristocracy there is a large bourgeoisie of merchants, captains, craftsmen, and lawyers. Whereas the position of the Westerosi and Volantene upper class rests on the exploitation of lower class labor, the Braavosi elite have built their wealth entirely through trade and finance. This elite is several centuries old but, like most Braavosi, ultimately springs from the blood of refugees, criminals, and escaped slaves rather than some mythical ancestor or a long gone imperial elite. Whereas the Westeros and Volantis are insecure, Braavos is confident. This confidence stems from the ever expanding Braavosi role in the world system, testified by the reach of the purple sailed Braavosi ships (from the Shivering to the Narrow Sea) and power of the Iron Bank (capable of engineering a credit crisis throughout all of Westeros). With this expanding role has come increasing prosperity, which for the moment is enjoyed (albeit very unequally) by all classes, and increased opportunities for upward mobility. This has led to the creation of a broad consumer economy, with luxury goods manufactured and marketed for people outside the elite. Within Braavos there is no fear of revolution, nor do winners necessitate losers. All these factors are responsible for the rise of the courtesan.
The biggest difference between a whore and a courtesan is that the courtesan is a public figure. This means they are selling very different things. Andal and Volantene whores sell their bodies whilst the Braavosi courtesans live off and sell their celebrity (their fame, prominence, renown, popularity) more then they sell their bodies. With courtesan-celebrities the relationship is supposed to be a public one, for public association with a celebrity raises or bolsters one’s own status. A purely private sexual encounter with a celebrity isn’t a sexual encounter with a celebrity but a sexual encounter with a person who happens to be a celebrity. With celebrity publicity is the whole point. Celebrity is a public performance put on for the whole community and distinct from their private identities. Sleeping with wealthy men is the least of what the courtesans do. Men hire prostitutes to satisfy private desires; men convince celebrities to visit or accompany them in order to be seen as a certain kind of man.
The means by which the courtesans travel to liaisons is the very opposite of discretion and obviously designed to attract attention:
As she pushed her barrow along the canals, Cat would sometimes glimpse one of them floating by, on her way to an evening with some lover. Every courtesan had her own barge, and servants to pole her to her trysts. (FfC Cat of the Canals)
Trysts with courtesans are fairly public affairs, highly visible to onlookers and easily followed by gossipmongers. Whenever a courtesan visits someone the whole city would know about it the next day. Each courtesan maintains a very distinct and simple public persona, with their own trappings, retinue, and themes:
The Poetess always had a book to hand, the Moonshadow wore only white and silver, and the Merling Queen was never seen without her Mermaids, four young maidens in the blush of their first flowering who held her train and did her hair. Each courtesan was more beautiful than the last. Even the Veiled Lady was beautiful, though only those she took as lovers ever saw her face. (FfC Cat of the Canals)
Each courtesan is essentially playing a character for the benefit of the entire city.
As celebrities courtesans are greatly esteemed and given a considerable amount of public deference: “Brusco had made it plain to [Arya] that she was never to speak to a courtesan unless she was spoken to first” (FfC, Cat of the Canals). This is the sort of respect that is normally the domain of the aristocracy.
The courtesan’s celebrity makes her an important critic in the cultural life of Braavos. She helps determine which venues and entertainers are worth patronizing. Mummers desperately seek to make a favorable impression on her:
The King of the Mummers ignored the brief commotion. He was still talking, telling the mummers how magnificent they must be. Besides the Westerosi envoy, there would be keyholders in the crowd this evening, and famous courtesans as well. He did not intend for them to leave with a poor opinion of the Gate. (WoW Mercy)
Izembaro’s language indicates that the opinions of high ranking officials and famous courtesans are equally crucial to the Gate’s reputation and prospects. The word or gesture of a courtesan can be even more important to the career of singer.
[Dareon] was trying to write a song about one courtesan, a woman called the Moonshadow who had heard him singing beside the Moon Pool and rewarded him with a kiss. “You should have asked her for silver,” Sam had said. “It’s coin we need, not kisses.” But the singer only smiled. “Some kisses are worth more than yellow gold, Slayer.” (FfC Sam III)
Dareon is not waxing romantic; a courtesan’s kiss really is worth more than gold. Dareon is now a singer who the Moonshadow favored with a kiss, essentially a very positive review and recommendation. This is especially valuable given the fact that he’s a recently arrived and a stranger to the city. A courtesan’s kiss can open doors. Later the Nightingale attends one of his performances, another very favorable gesture. Dareon’s belief that he could make it big in Braavos was probably accurate.
In a wealthy city wherever there is publicity there are bountiful opportunities for commercialization and the courtesans are no exception. The gossip and songs about courtesans revolve around their individual beauty. A crucial component of any woman’s beauty is what she wears; talk about a courtesan’s wardrobe would follow her wherever she went. The luxury manufactures of Braavos take full advantage of this:
The courtesans of Braavos were famed across the world. Singers sang of them, goldsmiths and jewelers showered them with gifts, craftsmen begged for the honor of their custom, merchant princes paid royal ransoms to have them on their arms at balls and feasts and mummer shows, and bravos slew each other in their names. (FfC Cat of the Canals)
The courtesans are modeling these gifts of jewelry and clothing. What they wear is specially made haute couture. It sets the prevailing fashions and advertises the quality and sophistication of the leading craft shops. We see the courtesan-as-model in action when the Black Pearl accompanies Ser Harys Swyft to the Gate:
She was so lovely that the lamps seemed to burn brighter when she passed. She had dressed in a low-cut gown of pale yellow silk, startling against the light brown of her skin. Her black hair was bound up in a net of spun gold, and a jet-and-gold necklace brushed against the top of her full breasts. (WoW Mercy)
That dress of yellow silk, the spun gold hairnet, the jet-and-gold necklace, each was made by somebody. Looking upon her, men and women from across the social spectrum, even foreign visitors, might yearn to possess her dress and jewelry, with the result that the craftsmen who made them will see a boost to their business. One also imagines the Poetess gets an income from authors and booksellers in exchange for the valuable endorsements and advertising that comes when she is seen reading their books. This influence on the reputation of businesses and the buying habits of consumers has given the courtesans a fairly significant amount of commercial power.
Courtesans have multiple sources of income, gifts from admirers and merchants, advertising commissions, payments for public companionship, and payments for trysts. This income is quite substantial, if vaguely estimated. Companionship is worth “a royal ransom.” A tryst with a courtesan is casually estimated to be the price of a small carrack. Paying the price of a young courtesan’s maidenhead will “beggar” a great lord. A lot of this money no doubt goes back into living a courtesan-celebrity lifestyle and supporting any family they might have, but surely not all of it. This opens up the possibility of a fifth source of income: investment. Braavos is a city of moneylenders, merchant companies, and banks that operate across the world and the courtesans move in the circle of its wealthiest and most powerful players. It would make sense for the courtesans to save and invest some of their earnings in expectation of their coming retirement. Hypothetically, the Daughter of the Dusk (to pick a random courtesan) might be helping to finance some of those purple sailed ships currently on their way to and from the Jade Sea. Or she might have used it to acquire property and become a land lady or land speculator. Or she might have placed her money with the Iron Bank, which in turn invested it in Iron Throne debt.
Naturally the most beautiful courtesan would have the most popularity and the most to offer her clients. Which courtesan is considered the most beautiful seems constantly in flux. At the time of A Feast for Crows the Nightingale appears to be either the most fashionable name in Ragman’s Harbor or the most fashionable name in the night, period. Arya warns Sam Tarly that “If they ask who is the most beautiful woman in the world, say the Nightingale or else they’ll challenge you” (FfC Sam III). This courtesan’s popularity is not some momentary caprice of the bravos. In A Dance With Dragons Arya informs us of a Ragman tavern called the Foghouse which is “always crowded with polemen off the serpent boats, arguing about gods and courtesans and whether or not the Sealord was a fool” (DwD The Blind Girl). Debate about the status of courtesans is just as much a part of daily life as arguments over religion and politics. If anything it is more important as men are willing to risk their lives and kill each other over the honor of a courtesan as opposed to their religious and political differences. Perhaps one of the social functions of the courtesan is to provide young bravos with a non-political, non-sectarian excuse for engaging in violence against one another. If one bravo kills another because he considers his god funny then there might be retaliation from his coreligionists. If a bravo kills another because he is a follower of, say, Torone instead of Pranelis this could result in all sorts of problems. Either duel could unnecessarily disturb the city’s social peace. The question of which courtesan is the most beautiful is so important because it is so trivial that there need never be any fear of it escalating into something larger. It belongs strictly to the world of the night. And when it comes time for an official choosing, “when the knives come out,” the aristocracy has a host of experienced killers to draw their street fighters from.
Celebrity requires remaining in the public eye and ear. This requires constant performance and advertising. As it is the public that judges the beauty of the courtesans the favor of the public has to be actively courted. When the Moonshadow favors Dareon with a kiss it is not an act of charity or simple emotion; the singers praise is one of the main medium’s through which word spreads. The Moonshadow judged Dareon a good singer and was likely hoping this little token of favor would prompt him to lend his voice to praising her beauty. Songs of her “golden kisses, silvery hair, and red, red lips” would be most helpful to her reputation in Braavos and abroad (FfC Sam III). Likewise, when the Nightingale condescends to visit the House of Seven Lamps in Ragman’s Harbor it is to hear the up and coming Dareon sing. Her visit serves a double purpose however of playing to the public. The Seven Lamps is one of the better Ragman establishments, fragrant with incense, but it is still Ragman and therefore far from the standards of the best Braavosi establishments located around the Purple Harbor and the Moon Pool. No doubt the owner, clientele, and performers appreciate the Nightingale’s visit, which would all translate into favorable publicity. The Black Pearl buys some cockles from Cat of the Canals and pays ten times their price in silver (FfC Cat of the Canals). A very nice gesture and definitely one that Cat would talk about. It’s unlikely that this was a onetime thing. More likely it was the expression of a certain noblesse oblige that famous courtesans like the Black Pearl feel they must maintain, for honor and for reputation, one that goes hand in hand with visiting lesser establishments like the House of Seven Lamps.
The courtesan is a social positive. Whereas in Westeros the whore only acquires value by draining it from others, in Braavos value flows out of the courtesan to those she recognizes and deems worthy of it. Whether it’s an outfit, a party, or a person the courtesan applies her beauty, her poise, her charm, her sophistication, and her intelligence to provide something new, something it could never have had without her, something intangible but very real, an aura. Whatever or whoever she graces it with becomes more worthy of attention and admiration. Every famous courtesan would have her own aura, each one singular and unique. Of course this ability is not limitless and requires a certain quality or value before the courtesan enters the scene. The Otharys are already important, Dareon is already a good singer, the dress of yellow silk is already expensive and well made. The lamps must first be lit before they can burn more brightly. An unlit lamp will do nothing, or worse, obscure the courtesan’s glamour with darkness and shadows (hence why it is so important for her to be a discerning judge and critic). Nor is this flow of value one way. The value of that which is blessed in turn enhances the courtesan. Being with the Otharys signifies or reinforces that a courtesan is famous, Dareon’s songs enhance the Moonshadow and Nightingale’s fame, and the dress of yellow silk helps the Black Pearl look even more beautiful. For many Braavosi the magic of the courtesans must seem more real than most gods.
Critical power, commercial power, and power over the imagination naturally open up avenues for accessing political power. The courtesan’s highly sought after presence at balls, feasts, and mummer shows indicates political influence, access to important information, and maybe even an established but informal role in Braavosi politics. Their influence over the bravos and singers has political implications of a much different sort. Come the next choosing, “when the knives come out,” some of those admiring performers and duelists might come in handy and if a courtesan were to endorse one candidate over another… Still, access to power and influence with power is not the same as actually possessing it. The courtesan’s political role is strictly supporting, like her presence at a ball or theater in the arms of a man. All the offices and hence all final decision making power remains in the hands of upper class men. However, in a merchant republic enough money can make a woman a powerful force in her own right, regardless of her standing with the city government. This can be readily seen in Volantis’ Widow of the Waterfront, who from her post in the Merchant House withholds or dispenses favor to gift bearing supplicants as regally as any queen. Given the Braavosi courtesans would suffer none of the Widow’s social stigma, such a transition would be much easier for them to accomplish. With this in mind, Bellegere Otherys bears careful watching. The beneficiary of five generations of courtesianship and capital accumulation, she is certainly very rich. This wealth could easily buy actual power. When combined with the status she receives as a famous courtesan this would make her very formidable indeed.
Courtesanship is immensely beneficial to individual women, but the impact of the courtesan on Braavosi society is more mixed. Given the common activity the courtesans share with the lowest dockside whore, their high position raises the position of all Braavosi sex workers. The courtesans legitimizes the act of selling one’s body, so while a dockside whore is still low-class, it’s not because she sells her body but to whom and for how much she sells her body that she’s low-class. If prostitutes are still not considered respectable, they or their daughters or granddaughters can potentially become respectable. There is no strict, highly policed line keeping them from entering upper class society. An Otharys would not attend a ball with a prostitute because any prostitute who attends a ball with an Otharys would have ceased to be a lowly prostitute. She would now be a courtesan or something close to one (between the prostitutes of the Ragman’s harbor and the “famous” titled courtesans we theorize an intermediate class of escorts, call girls and lesser courtesans around the Purple Harbor and Moon Pool). The courtesans create a sense of opportunity and hope. Whilst blind, one of the brothels Arya stays at is the Satin Palace, which is filled with “pretty young girls who dreamed of being courtesans” (DwD The Blind Girl). This leads us to the dark side of the courtesan. The dreams they create and the images they project disappoint and confine as they inspire.
How a girl becomes a courtesan isn’t gone into in any great detail, but it appears at least some are apprenticed by the leading courtesans. Candidates might be selected by the courtesan herself solely the basis of their beauty, as the Merling Queen selects her teenage mermaids. No doubt this is what many poor Braavosi girls dream of. Some of the courtesan titles and their “characters” might be passed on from the current holder to a handpicked successor once the reigning courtesan has become too old to continue playing the part. If such is case then every generation would have its Poetess, its Nightingale, its Merling Queen and Moonshadow, secular deities for a worldly city of many faiths.
Another possible way is for a girl to be selected by a courtesan at the recommendation of a powerful figure. The Kindly Man offers Arya a life as a courtesan as if it were already prepared and simply waiting for her:
Or would you sooner be a courtesan, and have songs sung of your beauty? Speak the word, and we will send you to the Black Pearl or the Daughter of the Dusk. You will sleep on rose petals and wear silken skirts that rustle when you walk, and great lords will beggar themselves for your maiden’s blood. (FfC Arya II)
Which makes us wonder how many times the Faceless Men have done this… The Kindly Man tells us “only a few of His servants have been women,” but girls like Arya come to them nonetheless (FfC Arya II). How many courtesans have been dropouts from the House of Black and White? Do they stay in touch with their former teachers and benefactors? We know little of the networks of influence and information that surround the Faceless Men and this provides something of a hint.
Family inheritance offers a third possibility. At least one courtesan got her position by being born into it. The current Black Pearl is the direct descendent of a line of courtesans stretching back four generations to the daughter of the pirate queen Bellegere Otherys and (then) Prince Aegon the Unworthy. Of course, Bellegere Otherys own mother was a Princess of the Summer Islands, where “those who are skilled at giving pleasure are greatly esteemed” for the honor they pay the gods (CoK Tyrion III). As all gods are honored in Braavos the Otherys family could have easily kept the Summer faith. This would also help make sense of why the no doubt wealthy women of the Otherys family have remained courtesans instead of cashing out into general aristocracy. The continuous mother to daughter inheritance of the Otherys line might therefore be fairly unique.
All in all, courtesans do not just appear. Like most other professions they are chosen and educated while young (Arya is ten to eleven and the Mermaid is thirteen). For any girl the window of opportunity is therefore rather small.
Among those fortunate few who attain the notice of a courtesan success is not guaranteed. This is highlighted in an exchange between Arya and the Kindly Man:
“The Merling Queen has chosen a new Mermaid to take the place of the one that drowned. She is the daughter of a Prestayn serving maid, thirteen and penniless, but lovely.”
“So are they all, at the beginning,” said the priest, “but you cannot know that she is lovely unless you have seen her with your own eyes, and you have none.” (DwD The Blind Girl)
So the Mermaids are all thirteen, penniless, and beautiful at the beginning…and at the end? Their youth and beauty will inevitably fade with age or cease with death, but what of their poverty? Will they no longer be penniless as well? The Mermaid who drowned indicates that this is not guaranteed except in the sense that one who meets Him of Many Faces no longer needs money. The courtesans offer a captivating image of rags to riches, but the reality is much harsher.
For most women courtesans present a standard of beauty that is largely unattainable. Only a few select girls can ever have the looks, talent, training, and luck to actually reach such heights. For the girls at the Satin Palace and every other Braavosi brothel fascination, yearning, and disappointment would be the general rule. This is true for men as well, most of whom do not have the means to enjoy a courtesan’s company as the rich and connected do or the skill at blade and song to attract her momentary blessing. For those who cannot attain the real thing there is only imitation. With the Sailor’s Wife, who only beds men who marry her and who is known to pray for the return of a long lost husband, we have a prostitute with a public persona and gimmick that could easily have been used by a courtesan. It is possible that the Sailor’s Wife is consciously imitating the courtesans to attract more customers. The other whores take her story of woe at face value, but this could easily be a long perfected invention or an exaggeration which she continues to affect in order to bring in customers. Arya’s time as Cat of the Canals and the Blind Girl demonstrate how easy it is to assume a new, partly artificial identity. Why should she be the only one?
The courtesan’s identity is also constructed largely around the desires and needs of men: the merchant princes who want her on their arms, the merchant craftsmen who want her to sell their wares, the singers who write songs about them, and the professional bravos who duel over which is more beautiful. The courtesan’s persona is a positive one but not wholly their own, being built with and limited by the marketplace and male desire. There should be no illusions about what that means. She must please them all to some degree. This means adherence to an exacting world of externally imposed standards. It means a careful balancing act between the fashion vanguard and conventional ideals of feminine beauty and behavior. It means a perpetually supporting role in the arms or interests of powerful men. A rise or fall in the public imagination might have to do with the most superficial criteria. The courtesan’s aura comes at a familiar price.