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Julie d’Aubigny: The 17th-Century Operatic Swordswoman Who Wreaked Havoc Across France

Discover the legendary wild child of France.

Julie d'Aubigny feature
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While some of the precise facts of Julie d’Aubigny’s short and chaotic life are hard to pin down with certainty, she still stands as an incredible figure of both women’s history and queer legend. Julie had a larger-than-life talent and personality—a presence that was perhaps too big to fit in with the period in which she lived. In fact, after reading about her awe-inspiring exploits, it's hard to imagine she was capable of being contained within any era.

Julie was born in France sometime around 1673. Her father was Gaston d’Aubigny, who worked as the secretary to Count d’Armagnac. While Gaston worked for a well-respected noble in the opulent court of King Louis XIV, he was also prone to the vices of gambling, drinking, and slinking around brothels. Still, as the man in charge of training the King’s pages, he was incredibly proficient at fencing.

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As Gaston’s only child, Julie had an upbringing similar to the young boys around her. She may have learned to read and draw like other respectable young girls, but the area in which she really excelled was fencing. She was a prodigy with a sword and a bit of a scandal in practice. Having spent so much time with the pages her father trained, she developed a preference for dressing in masculine attire.

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The real trouble started when she was fourteen. Julie had taken on a lover—and not just any lover would do. At an age barely past puberty, Julie became the mistress of her father’s boss, the Count of Armagnac himself.

However, Julie’s inherently wild nature was not unknown to her noble lover. Perhaps irritated by or jealous of Julie’s antics, Count d’Armagnac arranged a marriage for the young girl to encourage a more settled behavior. Her husband-to-be was an exceedingly sensible and mild-mannered clerk, Sieur de Maupin. Of course, after their marriage—some say the day immediately following—Julie’s husband was given a tax collection job in Southern France, leaving Julie alone in Paris to continue her affair with the Count.

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Julie would never be the kind of woman to stay in one place for long. Eventually growing tired of her ill-advised affair, Julie cast Count d’Armagnac aside for a roguishly charming fencing master, Sérannes. Sérannes soon got in trouble with the law, pursued by the police for killing a man in an illegal duel. And so, the two of them went on the run.

As the lovers traveled, they made money by giving fencing demonstrations at fairs and bars. Part of Julie’s delightful legend insists that, while dueling with men, she would often taunt them through song. On one surely memorable occasion, Julie was heckled by a man in the crowd who insisted that, as she was so talented with a blade, she could not be a woman. Unbothered, Julie removed her blouse for the incredulous gathering, proving them wrong with a single glance.

Julie d'Aubigny
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When Julie and Sérannes arrived in Marseille, Julie began singing for the opera. At this point, she sang under her maiden name; despite having no formal musical training, she was greatly admired by audiences. One opera attendee in particular took notice—a young woman whose name history fails to remember. As Julie grew increasingly bored in her adventures with Sérannes, she found herself falling for this infatuated woman.

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When the young woman’s family shipped her off to a convent in Avignon to keep her away from the illicit—and reputation-shattering—romance with the opera singer, Julie followed under the guise of a devoted prospective sister. In a stroke of brilliance, Julie devised a plan to escape with her beloved. After digging up the body of an elderly nun who had recently passed away, Julie deposited the corpse in her lover’s bed. She then proceeded to set the bed on fire, hoping to set a scene which implied her lover died in a bizarre accident.

As the two women fled for three months on a peaceful elopement, Parliament tried Julie as a man for her crimes of kidnapping, grave-robbing, and arson. In absentia, Julie was sentenced to death by fire. Julie was, by experts’ best estimation, around seventeen years old at the time.

While Julie was evading the law, it wasn’t long until she grew bored of the woman she performed such wild feats for, abandoning her lover to dive back into more trouble. Upon stumbling into a young noble, Comte d’Albert, Julie was challenged to a duel. The Comte, of course, didn’t realize that Julie was a woman—he also didn’t realize that he would lose. After being stabbed through the shoulder, Louis-Joseph d’Albert Luynes admitted defeat.

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Shortly after, Julie inquired after the young man’s health. After receiving apologies on behalf of the Comte from some of his friends, Julie tracked the man down and helped to tend to his wounds. It should come as no surprise that the two then had a brief stint as lovers. Though Luynes eventually had to re-join the military, he and Julie remained lifelong friends.

Julie d'Aubigny
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As Julie traveled to Rouen, she met an opera singer named Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard. Thus, another affair began, and when Thévenard was offered a position in the Paris Opéra, he stipulated that he would only join if Julie were offered a position as well. After having her former lover Count d’Armagnac convince the King to pardon her for the various crimes she was still at large for, Julie joined the Opéra under the name Mademoiselle Maupin.

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Julie was a star amidst what many considered one of the greatest musical companies in the world. She was featured heavily in the Opéra’s major productions, and sang with a range from soprano to an impressive contralto. She wasn’t one to live too quiet of a life, however, and found adventure and dramatics even at the height of her celebrity.

After one of her fellow singers, tenor Louis Gaulard Duménil, endlessly harassed the women of the Opéra, Julie taught him a lesson with a fierce beating. She fell madly in love with Fanchon Moreau—another singer and the mistress of the Grand Dauphin (the heir to the French throne)—and feeling shattered after Moreau's rejection, Julie made a failed attempt at suicide. She bounced back quickly, although in a way that largely derailed her singing career.

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At a society ball, Julie spent the entirety of the night flirting with a young woman who was flocked with suitors. Three noblemen in particular took issue when they witnessed the two women kiss. The trio of nobles each challenged Julie to a duel, and Julie easily defeated each one. Unfortunately, this once again put her on the wrong side of the law.

Despite the fact that the King once again pardoned Julie for her crimes, she fled quickly to Brussels. Following her lustful pattern, Julie began an affair with the Elector of Bavaria, Maximillian II Emanuel. Emanuel did not seem to have the same amount of affection for Julie’s chaotic nature as her past paramours must have, as he offered her 40,000 francs to leave him alone after she stabbed herself with a real dagger on stage. Refusing his coin, Julie left him in a rage.

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It was in 1703 that Julie met her great love, Marie Louise Thérèse de Senneterre. Marie was regarded by many as the most beautiful woman in France, but she was also wealthy and well-connected. Fortunately for Julie, Marie seemed to be just as beguiled by her, and the women spent the next two years in a romantic bliss. The affair only ended when Marie passed away from a fever.

Julie was inconsolable after her lover’s death. She retired, either to a convent or to the company of her husband, despite the fact that over 15 years had passed since their marriage and separation. She died just a few years later, in 1707. At the time of her death, Julie d’Aubigny would have been between her mid to late thirties. The legacy this incredible and unmatched woman left behind seems to amount to the work of a dozen wild lifetimes.

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons