Female Badasses in History: Julie d’Aubigny a.k.a. La Maupin (1670–1707)
Julie d’Aubigny was a 17th century swordswomen and opera star. She is the very image of the swashbuckling romantic cavalier: Adventurous, tall, handsome and surpassing even the finest swordsmen of her day. She also performed as an opera singer on some of the most famous stages of her day and according to the lore surrounding her unusual life even had an affair with a nun.
D’Aubigny was born the daughter of a lower French aristocrat who was the Master of the Horse to King Louis XIV. During her youth her father – following his notion that education was not something reserved for sons – had her trained in reading, writing, riding, dancing, drawing and fencing.
In her youth she began an affair with her father’s employer, the Compte d’Armagnac, who introduced her to the court of King Louis XIV. Due to the scandalous nature of her affair and Julie’s already established habit to often dress in men’s clothing, the Compte decided to marry her to a certain M. Maupin from Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The arranged marriage helped protect their affair but after only one additional year the Compte decided to break off their entanglement and send Julie and her husband to a distant province of France. Julie however decided not to follow her husband to his new post in the province but stay in Paris and do as she pleased. That included frequent altercations with shopkeepers, dueling a considerable number of young aristocrats – and according to legend she never lost – and beginning a new affair with a swordfighting and fencing trainer named Serannes. Serannes and d’Aubigny started giving dueling exhibitions in which d’Aubigny dressed in male clothing but never concealing the fact that she was a women, which added to their growing popularity.
After a string of illegal duels in one of which Serannes killed a man, the pair ran afoul of one of the most powerful men in Paris, the Lieutenant-General of Police, Nicolas-Gabriel de La Reynie, who is commonly regarded as the first modern police man due to him professionalizing the Paris police force. In 1686 the pair was forced to flee Paris for Marseilles with La Reynie hot on their trail in order to escape an impending trial against Serannes. Forced to find means to support them selves in Marseilles d’Aubigny – besides continuing her sword fighting show – also applied for admittance to the musical academy of Marseilles in order to become a trained opera singer.
In the following months d’Aubigny became bored with Serannes and – as she herself put it – with men in general. She began a relationship with a young woman of unknown name. The young woman’s parents were of coursed not very thrilled by this prospect and send her to a convent in Avignon. Determined to be united with her lover d’Aubigny also signed up as a novice at the convent and hatched an escape plan for the pair. D’Aubigny stole the body of a dead nun, placed it in the bed of her lover and set the convent on fire. She and her lover escaped, their relationship did however only last three more months after which the young women returned to her parents. D’Aubigny fled again, this time back to Paris to escape trial in Marseilles where she was tried as a man for kidnapping, body snatching and arson and sentenced to death by fire.
The next couple of years d’Aubigny traveled from Paris to Roue and Bruxelles, earning her living by signing operas and fighting men for money or for show.
In 1702 under the pseudonym La Maupin she returned to Paris with the help of the Compte who nullified her sentence and used her already established reputation as an opera singer to built a career and further reputation as an opera performer in the Paris Opera. She retired in 1705 and died two years later.
There are many more details and anecdotes of La Maupin’s impressive duels, superior fighting and singing skills, scandalous affairs and mind-blowing adventures. It some cases the truthfulness of these stories is doubtful, Julie d’Aubigny’s outstanding role as a women completely defying all expectations and rules placed on her as a 17th century woman by a male and aristocratically dominated society however is not. In 1835 Théophile Gautier, famous French novelist and literary critic, published a fictional account of her life entitled Mademoiselle de Maupin which remains the only fictional work that admits to be based on her. It seems reasonable to assume however that Julie d’Aubigny also was a character foil for many writers at the time who made a male hero out of her.