Adam Smith in Paris: Le Demimonde

Previously, I described the dramatic transformation in Madame Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni’s attitude toward Adam Smith. (See my post dated 7 October 2021.) But the question remains, Why did she fall for him?

Madame Riccoboni, an accomplished actress and novelist, and Doctor Smith, a travelling tutor and admirer of the stage, were by all accounts avid theater and opera fans, so it is not far-fetched to imagine them attending a play or an opera or a concert together during Smith’s 10-month stay in the City of Light. At the very least, according to one historian (Dawson, 2013, p. 8), “it is very likely Smith took recommendations from Riccoboni as to which theatrical performances to attend.” Perhaps it was this side of Adam Smith, his art-appreciation side, that sparked their connection?

But as I noted in my Oct. 8 post, what is even more fascinating is that these theatrical venues were the center of an elite sexual marketplace: the demimonde. Nina Kushner, a historian who specializes in 18th-century European social and cultural history, has researched both the buyer and seller sides of this elite sex market in her 2013 book Erotic Exchanges: The World of Elite Prostitution in 18th-Century Paris, the cover of which is pictured below. Although Kushner’s book does not contain any reference to Adam Smith, it paints a vivid portrait of many of the famed dames entretenues or “kept women” of French high society.

Kushner’s meticulous research is based on the records of the Paris police, which operated a secret unit to keep track of these underground activities, and the inspectors of this unit, which operated from 1747 to 1771, produced hundreds of dossiers and wrote up thousands of hand-written pages documenting the demimonde. In summary, Kushner found that, although not all theater women were kept mistresses or femmes galantes, many actresses and dancers on the Paris stage earned their living by engaging in long-term sexual and often companionate relationships with men from the financial, political, and social elites, known as le monde.

According to Kushner (p. 31), “It was widely understood that any woman in the Opéra, and to a lesser degree the other theater companies, was a dame entretenue, or at least wanted to be.” These femmes galantes–famous for their talent, glamour, and beauty–were the most highly sought-after women of pleasure in all Europe. As Kushner explains (p. 5), “being on the stage greatly increased [an actress’s or dancer’s] ‘sexual capital,’ the desirability of a mistress and hence the prices she could command for her services.” In addition, police files indicate that the theater district of the French capital was teeming with high-end brothels and places of ill repute. Again, as I mentioned in my previous post, there is no evidence to indicate that Smith partook in any illicit activities while he was overseas, but how could such a keen observer like Smith not have taken any notice of the world around him, including the world of kept women, brothels, etc.?

There is one more aspect of Smith’s stay in Paris that I would like mention. Another source, a private letter by a Dr James Currie, a respected medical doctor in Liverpool, reports that Adam Smith visited the French town of Abbeville. This letter does not explain why Smith went to visit this remote town in northwest France, but Abbeville was the center of one of the greatest injustices in French history: the execution of the Chevalier de La Barre, the last man in Europe to be put to death for the crime of blasphemy. Did Smith visit Abbeville to attend this public execution? I will further explore this conjecture in my next post …

Erotic Exchanges by Nina Kushner | Paperback | Cornell University Press

Works Cited

Deidre Dawson, “Love, Marriage and Virtue: Mary Wollstonecraft and Sophie de Grouchy, Marquise de Condorcet, Respond to The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Adam Smith Review, Vol. 7 (2013), pp. 24–46.

Nina Kushner, Erotic Exchanges: The World of Elite Prostitution in 18th-Century, Cornell University Press (2013).

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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