Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire got his start because of a legendary libertine French courtesan named Ninon de l’Enclos. She was not just a mistress but was a renowned intellectual who hosted salons and gave advice to Louis XIV. Ninon became famous across France for her libertine views and her skills in the art of love.
Ninon had an early head start, becoming a courtesan while she was still a teenager. She was thrown into a convent twice - once by the Queen of France - for her scandalous ways, but no convent could hold Ninon. François Marie Arouet, AKA Voltaire, took after Ninon in important ways: he also rejected France's religious dogmatism and lived with his lover and her husband. Read on to discover lessons Voltaire and others learned from France's most famous courtesan.
Ninon Intentionally 'Ruined' Herself So She Would Never Have To Marry
Anne de l’Enclos was born on November 10, 1620. Her father gave her the nickname Ninon, which she used for the rest of her life. Growing up, Ninon was a tomboy and a child prodigy. Her father was interested in Epicurean philosophy and espoused libertine views, which Anne picked up on. As a young girl, she was celebrated at Parisian salons for her musical performances. When she grew up, she'd be famous for another reason.
Ninon was only 12 when her father was exiled from France in 1632, apparently for fighting a duel over another man's wife. By her teenage years, Ninon had become an established and celebrated courtesan in Paris. She took many famous lovers, such as Gaston de Cligny and the Grand Condé. And, of course, her career as a courtesan was already making waves among the conservative Parisian elite, who were scandalized by her open sexuality.
Ninon Told Women It Was Important To Sleep Around
Ninon saw love not as a spiritual calling, but as a physical instinct that was not linked to reason: "The precise truth is that love is just a blind instinct which one must personally experience in order to appreciate it." She was also a huge proponent of gathering a lot of personal experience.
She also created a three-month rule for herself - she refused to stay with one love for longer than three months. Ninon only broke the rule one time during her life, when she lived with the Marquis de Villarceaux for three years.
At the end of their romance, when she grew tired of the Marquis, Ninon moved back to France. The Marquis was so angry that he followed her in a jealous fury - at which point Ninon cut off all her hair and handed it to him. Rather than "ruining" her beauty, she created a new fashion known as the "Ninon bob."
Ninon Taught Men How to Properly Love a Woman
Her years of experience as a courtesan taught Ninon a lot about the arts of love. When she retired from being a courtesan, Ninon opened an academy where she gave lessons to the sons of the aristocracy - especially on how to please women. The lessons included how to woo a woman, how to end an affair, and how to manage a wife and a mistress.
One of her most important pieces of advice was: "Talk to your woman continually about herself and seldom about yourself."
A Queen Imprisoned Ninon In A Convent, But Another Queen Rescued Her
Some scholars have argued that the arrest was due to jealousy - the Queen's own noble allies were angry that Ninon's intellectual salon had become so popular, leaving no one left over who wanted to attend royal functions. They might also have been angry that Ninon was apparently sleeping with all of the most powerful men in France - her "seductive charms" might have made others hate her.
The Queen sent Ninon an order to withdraw to a convent, but she let l'Enclos choose which one. Ninon's reply shocked France. Instead of picking a convent, she chose the Grands Cordeliers, a monastery exclusively for men that banned women. The Queen apparently cried out "Fie, the nasty thing!" when she learned of Ninon's trick.
Ninon wrote to Queen Christine of Sweden for help, and Queen Christine eventually helped Ninon escape the convent.
She Smuggled Scandalous Writings Out Of Her Convent Prison In Her Underwear
Ninon was forced into the Convent of the Madelonnettes in 1656 on Queen Anne's orders. But Ninon had friends in high places: Queen Christine of Sweden, a patron of philosophy and a friend of Rene Descartes, visited Ninon in prison. Ninon was in the process of writing a pamphlet called "The Coquette Avenged," which scandalously argued that being moral was not contingent on being religious.
Queen Christine used her power to write to Cardinal Mazarin, France's second-most-powerful man behind King Louis XIV. The Queen requested Ninon's release, and the Cardinal immediately agreed. It seems no convent could hold the courtesan-philosopher. When Ninon left the convent, she smuggled out her manuscript by hiding it in her underwear.
Ninon Schooled Men To Treat Women As Equals
In many ways, Ninon de l’Enclos was years ahead of her time. In addition to her libertine views on intimacy, monogamy, and religion, Ninon also promoted gender equality at a time when it wasn't very popular. She argued that men had to treat women as equals and give them respect. In short, that men should treat women as they themselves would like to be treated. Rather than discussing love in terms of male conquest, Ninon schooled men to empathize with women.
Ninon wrote that men must "imagine the battles" their female lovers must endure, "and the embarrassment she must be suffering on account of a lover who is too easily put off by signs of resistance." Men had to treat women as equals, Ninon argued, to truly love them.