The vice unit, which operated from 1747 to 1771, turned out thousands of hand-written pages detailing what these dames entretenues did. Being kept in the 18th century was not a profession in the modern sense of the term, but it was a job. What was sold was standardized: sex, company, the pretense of affection, and usually the illusion that the patron was the center of the mistress’s world. Kept women had oral contracts with their patrons, which stipulated how much the mistress would be paid each month, and whether the patron would set his mistress up in an apartment, buy her new furnishings, pay her bills, and give her gifts. The mistress’ duties were not delineated but rather were “understood,” leaving a great deal of room for misunderstanding.
In following kept women about Paris, the police, much like the authors of the Urban Institute report, were interested in every aspect of these women’s professional and personal lives, from their entry into sex work to the intimate details of their relationships with their patrons. They gathered biographical and financial data on the men who hired kept women—princes, peers of the realm, army officers, financiers, and their sons, a veritable “who’s who” of high society, or le monde. Assembling all of this information required cultivating extensive spy networks. Making it intelligible required certain bureaucratic developments: These inspectors perfected the genre of the report and the information management system of the dossier. These forms of “police writing,” as one scholar has described them, had been emerging for a while. But they took a giant leap forward at midcentury, with the work of several Paris police inspectors, including Inspector Jean-Baptiste Meusnier, the officer in charge of this vice unit from its inception until 1759. Meusnier and his successor also had clear literary talent; the reports are extremely well written, replete with irony, clever turns of phrase, and even narrative tension—at times, they read like novels.
Here is an example. In 1752, Inspector Meusnier wrote a report about a woman named Demoiselle Blanchefort. It was the first of at least 20 that came to make up her file, covering more than a decade of her life in elite sex work. The first report was a sort of back history, which the inspector tried to assemble on most of his subjects. It explained how the subject under surveillance came to be an elite prostitute. Blanchefort, Meusnier wrote, was the daughter of a surgeon in Angers, a city in western France. Surgeon in this period was not yet a high-status profession. It was closer to the artisan than the professional, still linked in popular thinking with barber—the red and white strips of the barber’s pole represented the blood and bandages once associated with the trade. Blanchefort, like most kept women, was from the lower middle of the social spectrum. The inspector did not seem to know her real name, or how or why she came to Paris, but he was able to trace her once she became an elite sex worker at the brothel of Madam Carlier, where she took the name “Victoire.” Victoire was not a virgin, claimed Meusnier. Brothels were not supposed to take virgins as workers, though they often did and with police cognizance. The report, as with most reports, justified why it was permissible, in the state’s eyes, for Blanchefort to be a prostitute. Her virginity gone, she was “ruined,” theoretically unfit for marriage.
A clearer motive lies both in the larger police mission in this period and in understanding the importance of the demimonde, this particular sex market, to elite male society in the 18th century. The Paris police was rapidly changing in the middle of the 18th century, driven both by the needs of the police themselves in their effort to control and administer a city that was increasing in size and sophistication and by royal demands that the Paris police serve as sort of a domestic intelligence agency. Paris was the kingdom’s capital and, at a half-million souls, by far its biggest city. It could be unstable and dangerous. Its proximity to Versailles, the seat of the monarchy that King Louis XIV deliberately built some 13 miles away, having been traumatized by political revolution and uprisings in the city during his youth, made the capital’s stability and obedience even more important. Crucial to that control was information.
From its very inception in the mid-17th century, the Paris police (which took decades to actually become an integrated functioning institution) was concerned about particular groups of people considered innately dangerous to the realm. These included Protestants, foreigners, and Jews, those whose allegiances to the French Catholic state were suspect. They also included the gens sans aveu (people who have not sworn allegiance or people without papers), such as beggars, vagrants, and street prostitutes, individuals who posed a threat not only by their disruptive presence in the street but by their position in society. Everyone in early modern France was supposed to belong to a social unit such as a family, a household, or a guild, for example. Each unit theoretically occupied a niche in a larger social hierarchy. This system ensured each person was under what 18th-century political thinkers considered to be the “natural oversight” of their superiors, a hierarchy at the top of which sat the king. Being outside this system was highly problematic to the state because such a person was beyond social and political systems of control. For the police, controlling these populations meant keeping track of them, which in turn required developing the capacity to spy and manage information.
With every decade, the police brought more groups and more types of activities under surveillance. By the 1720s, for example, agents stationed in cafés wrote down overheard conversations, in part to satisfy a monarchy increasingly concerned with public opinion. By the 1730s, the police had a fairly sophisticated operation to track and arrest men who had sex with other men in public. By the late 1740s, however, police surveillance had extended beyond those subjects, like writers or homosexual men, whose threat to the existing political and social order was clear. In principle and largely in practice, it extended to anyone outside the social hierarchy and to any group that met behind closed doors. Contemporaries were convinced spies were everywhere, an impression the police actively fostered. The last lieutenant general before the Revolution boasted in his memoirs that if five people stood on a street corner in the capital, three of them “belonged to him.”