Alternative title: Romance in L’Ancien Regime: Adultery, Kept Women, and “le demimonde”
It is said the French invented the art of romantic love as early as the 12th century. (See, e.g., Yalom, 2012; see also Yalom, 2018, ch. 4.) Regardless of the truth of this legend, Adam Smith was still only 40 years old when he first set sail for France in early 1764, so was Adam Smith’s heart–Adam Smith the man–immune from the amorous charms of the French?
Officially, Catholicism was the state religion of France during Adam Smith’s visit. Moreover, “The monarchy condemned various forms of nonprocreative and extramarital sexual activity … that violated the precepts of the church, undermined the stability of the family, and disturbed the public order of the kingdom” (Merrick, 1990, p. 69), but at the same time, Louis XV–the French King of France at the time of Adam Smith’s visit to France–himself kept many mistresses, including the notorious Madame de Pompadour, who died in 1765, during the second year of Adam Smith’s visit to France! A popular legend at the time even describes a royal harem of royal petites maitresses, young women recruited by Madame de Pompadour for the King’s pleasure. (See, e.g., Antoine, 1989, p. 841.) Furthermore, this legend circulated widely in pamphlets with lurid illustrations, and even made its way into some later biographies of the King. (Ibid.)
One remarkable source of this aristocratic double standard–chastity and sexual purity for the poor; romance and sexual liberation for the nobility and the nascent bourgeoisie–are the secret records of the Parisian police or Archives de la Prefecture de Police Paris. (See generally Nina Kushner, 2014; see also Andrew Israel Ross, 2017.) In summary, one of the very first police forces in the Western world emerged in 18th-century Paris, and one of its units was devoted to the demimonde, the exclusive fantasy world of elite prostitution. (This early vice unit operated from 1747 to 1771.) The police inspectors of this Parisian proto-vice squad kept detailed records of the activities of Paris’s high-end sex workers or “kept mistresses.” (The policing of low-end street prostitutes and brothels was the province of other police personnel. See generally Kushner.)
In short, although I am not accusing Adam Smith of keeping a mistress during his sojourn in France, I am asserting that he was in elite aristocratic circles during his travels, that some of the great men he met and interacted with during his travels were the kind of men who would have kept mistresses or who would have had a more “liberal” (in the classical sense of that term) attitude toward love and sex.
(FYI: Here is a link to the full paper.)