When we think of French history, our minds usually go to the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte or King Louis XVI. When we think of famous sword fighters we think of men such as the samurai Miyamoto Musashi, or maybe Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges: The Gentleman Fencer. But contrary to what some ignoramuses say, women can fight with swords. One of the most badass examples of that is Julie D’Aubigny, or “La Maupin,” a bisexual, sword-fighting, opera singer.
Perhaps because of her scandalous lifestyle (seen in the way she shunned the conventions expected of women during the 1670s), or because of her speculated nomadic nature, it has been difficult to ascertain how many of the accounts of La Maupin’s life are true. Even her name isn’t agreed upon; some call her Emilie and some refer to her as Madeline. It’s generally agreed that she was born around 1670 to the secretary to King Louis XIV’s Master of Horse, Count d’Armagnac, a member of French nobility.
Her father taught her from a young age how to ride a horse, fence, and dress like a man to avoid being caught doing anything unladylike as a girl. He would spend his days fencing and training Louis XIV’s pages, while at night he reveled in gambling dens and in bars and brothels with his daughter. This is despite the fact that he threatened to kill any man who made a move on her. In 1687, La Maupin actually had an affair with Count d’Armagnac, her father’s employer, and he had her married to Sieur de Maupin of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Through this marriage, she became Madame de Maupin or La Maupin.
While Count d’Armagnac sent her husband to the south of France to take up an administrative position, she continued with her sword fighting classes, exceeding all of the boys in her class in skill. Count d’Armagnac grew frustrated with her uninhibited nature and lost interest in her. In response, she started a relationship with a traveling swordsman, leaving with him to wander France and engage in robbery. She earned her living through performing fencing demonstrations in men’s attire, and she was so skilled it was speculated she actually was a man. To disprove this theory, Julie tore her blouse off at live shows, wooing many of her female audience.
She eventually joined the Paris Opera and starred as Pallas, Athena, Medea, and Dido. When Louis Gaulard Dumesny, one of La Maupin’s fellow singers at the opera, complained about her and her female colleagues, she challenged him to a duel. Not surprisingly, he refused…but La Maupin still beat him with a cane and stole his watch and snuffbox. When asked about his injuries the next day, he lied and claimed he had been jumped by thieves, and so Julie confronted him in front of his friends, claimed she was the one who beat him, and made him kneel and apologize before returning his belongings.
Through her popularity in the opera, she caught the attention of the daughter of a wealthy merchant. The relationship was poorly received by the girl’s parents, so they shipped her off to a monastery to become a nun. However, this didn’t do much to deter La Maupin as she simply enrolled in the convent as a nun herself and continued her relationship with the girl.
Because the affair in the convent would not be tolerated, La Maupin decided to exhume the body of a dead nun, put it in the bed of her lover, and set the place on fire before the two took off together in an attempt to make it seem like they had died in the fire. La Maupin eventually grew bored of her lover though and also found herself facing charges of kidnapping, arson, and body snatching. She was sentenced to death but her connection to Count d’Armagnac got her off.
In 1695, she attended a Versailles ball dressed as a man and kissed a young woman in public, sparking the anger of three of the lady’s suitors. They challenged her to a duel, she fought all three of them and won. When she got caught, she was charged with illegal dueling, but because King Louis XIV was such a fan of her antics and her performance abilities, and because the law applied specifically to men, he pardoned her.
She had another affair with a man named d’Albert Luynes, who started their association with the crude pickup line, “I’ve listened to your chirping, but now tell me of your plumage,” to which she responded by dueling him and stabbing him in the shoulder. He sent her a letter apologizing, and she visited him in the hospital to have sex with him. This led to a friendship that lasted her whole life.
She eventually returned to Paris, where she met and fell in love with Marie Louise Thérèse, Madame la Marquise de Florensac. The relationship lasted for two years until la Marquise died during childbirth. This devastated La Maupin to the point where she quit the opera and joined a convent, for real this time. She died four years later due to unknown causes, somewhere between the ages of 33 and 36.
Julie D’Aubigny was an example of one of the many women throughout history who are often either overlooked or whose story is told through the male lens in a disapproving manner to teach women what they’re not meant to be like. Although she died young, she lived her life exclusively on her terms, loving whoever she damn well wanted.
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!