There are a lot of famous women in the history of France. Marie Antoinette. Joan of Arc. Catherine de Medici. Marie Curie. Coco Chanel. Chances are you’ve probably heard one or two or even all of those names before, as these women are famous throughout the world. However, they are not the only French women with incredible stories. My personal favourite has a story that is less well known, although I’m at a loss as to why. Her short life included illegal duels, kidnapping, and arson. She was a star of the Paris Opera, performing across the country for kings and nobility alike. She also happened to be one of history’s most infamous bisexuals, leaving a trail of brokenhearted lovers in her wake, both men and women. Are you intrigued yet? Good. Let me tell you the incredible story of Julie d’Aubigny, otherwise known as La Maupin.
Julie D’Aubigny was born in 1673 during the reign of King Louis XIV. She was not a member of the French nobility, but she was raised among royalty. Her father, Gaston d’Aubigny, worked as the secretary to the Comte d’Armagnac, a man who held the title of the Keeper of the King’s Stables. When Julie was just nine years old, she and her father moved out to Versailles, where she grew up in the heart of Louis XIV’s extravagant court.
Once at Versailles, Julie’s father was put in charge of training the King’s pages, and he decided that he would educate Julie alongside them. As a result, she became proficient in all manner of courtly education, including reading, writing, drawing, dancing, and singing. More importantly for her later life, it was at this time that she trained to become an expert swordswoman, a skill that would bring her much fame and trouble throughout her life. Moreover, since she was already being raised and educated among boys, Julie decided that she would dress like them as well. She started wearing men’s clothing, even in public, but this didn’t raise as many eyebrows as you would think. You see, the King’s brother at the time was a notorious crossdresser, and therefore the court of Louis XIV had a very laissez-faire attitude when it came to people’s fashion choices.
When she was just 14 years old, Julie began an affair with the Comte d’Armagnac, who was 32 years her senior. He was also, if you remember, her father’s boss. In order to maintain the appearance of respectability, the Comte arranged for Julie to marry a minor noble by the name of Sieur de Maupin, thereby giving her the title of Madame de Maupin. Shortly after their wedding, her husband was dispatched to a position in the south of France, while his wife remained behind in Versailles with the Comte. Wedded bliss it was not, but Julie did use the title of La Maupin for the rest of her life.
With her husband out of the way, Julie quickly grew tired of the Comte. Before long, she dumped him in favour of a new lover named Sérannes, who just so happened to be one of the most prominent swordsmen at court. The two of them enjoyed a passionate love affair, right up until Sérannes killed a man in an illegal duel. With the Chief of Police on their tail, the pair fled to the south of France, where they lived in poverty and travelled from town to town. In order to survive, they earned their keep by showcasing their fencing skills, and Julie would often entertain the crowds with her singing. After only a couple of months, the romance was over. Julie had found a new paramour, but this time her new lover was a woman.
Needless to say, the parents of this young women were less than thrilled that their daughter had taken up with a woman, let alone a woman of La Maupin’s reputation. In order to protect their daughter, they sent her away to a convent in Avignon, convinced that this would save their daughter’s soul. Julie, for her part, wasn’t about to give up so easily. She joined the convent herself, posing as a postulant to gain access. Once inside, Julie stole the body of a recently deceased nun, placed it in the bed of her lover, and set the entire convent on fire. The two women then used the resulting chaos to escape into the night. I swear I’m not making this up.
Their affair lasted for a couple more months before the woman decided to return to her family. Heartbroken, Julie decided to return to Paris, but her journey was interrupted when she ran into the Comte d’Albert. And I do quite literally mean she ran into him, because according to accounts, he was so affronted by their encounter that he immediately challenged her to a duel. Not only did Julie win, but she stabbed him through the shoulder with her sword. The next day she visited him to see how he was recovering. She must have made quite the impression, because she ended up seducing him, and they became lovers for the next several months. They ultimately decided to just be friends, and theirs became a lifelong friendship that began with one running the other through with a sword. Again, I’m not making this up.
Newly single once more, Julie soon began an affair with a singer by the name of Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard. At the time, he was auditioning for the Paris Opera, and Julie quickly convinced him to get her an audition as well. The Paris Opera was hesitant at first, but once they heard her sing she was quickly hired. At just 17, La Maupin became an opera singer for one of the world’s most prestigious companies.
There was just one problem. Remember that little incident with the convent? Well, turns out Julie had been tried in absentia as a male for arson, kidnapping, and body snatching. Since she was tried as a man, she had been sentenced to death by fire. With her career on the line, not to mention her life, she appealed to her old lover, the Comte d’Armagnac, who in turn personally petitioned the King for her to be pardoned. The pardon was granted, and La Maupin debuted as the warrior Athena at the Paris Opera in 1690.
For the next several years, Julie became one of the Opera’s biggest stars. In fact, there are reports from audience members at the time that she had the most beautiful voice in the world. Julie quickly became a staple of high society in Paris, and she had many public affairs with her co-stars, both men and women. She also gained quite the reputation for her rough and tumble ways, as she was prone to getting involved in barroom brawls. She even once publicly confronted a fellow actor who was sexually harassing the female members of the company. When he refused to relent, she simply beat him up. Needless to say, her reputation as a wild woman only grew over time, and audiences flocked to the Paris Opera to catch a glimpse of the infamous La Maupin.
Eventually, tales of her exploits reached Versailles, and Julie was invited to a royal ball as the personal guest of Philippe d’Orleans, the aforementioned crossdressing brother of Louis XIV. No wallflower, Julie arrived dressed as a man, and proceeded to dance with many of the women in attendance. When she dared to kiss a famously single noblewoman in full view of the court, no less than three of the women’s suitors challenged Julie to a duel. Astonishingly, Julie simply marched them outside, defeated all three, and returned to the party.
It would have been a fantastic story for the court gossips, except for the fact that duelling was still illegal in France at this time. Not only had Julie broken the law, but she had done so in the King’s court as the guest of the King’s brother. Instead of facing the consequences, Julie abandoned the Paris Opera and fled to Belgium. Never one to stay single for long, she soon took up with Maximillian II Emanuel, the Elector of Bravaria. Their romance was short lived, however, and he tried to pay her off to the tune of 40,000 francs. Reportedly, Julie was so infuriated that she threw his money in his face and returned to Paris. This time, it was Philippe himself who had to convince his brother to pardon her once again. That’s right, La Maupin was personally pardoned by the King not once, but twice!
For the next several years, Julie continued to be a star of the Paris Opera. She performed at the court of Versailles on numerous occasions, and in 1702, she was granted the honour of having an opera written exclusively for her by the composer André Campra. She also continued to have repeated run ins with the law for duels, fist fights, threatening members of the nobility, beating up her landlord, and the terrible crime of wearing pants. There is even a report of her once biting a co-star onstage so hard that she drew blood. Clearly, La Maupin was determined to live up to her reputation.
Perhaps fittingly, it was nothing short of love that ultimately brought an end to Julie’s wild days. During the later years of her career, she fell head over heels in love with the Madame la Marquise de Florensac. This woman was known as the most beautiful woman in France, and the two lovers lived openly with each other for a couple of years. By all accounts, they were madly in love. When La Marquise de Florensac died of a fever in 1705, Julie was inconsolable and fell into a deep depression. She retired from the opera and joined a convent, for real this time, and died there in 1707 at the age of 33.
Whenever I think of Julie d’Aubigny, I can’t help but be inspired. Here was a woman who was bold and brash, and she lived her life openly and completely unapologetically. She didn’t let society or the law dictate her actions, and to live the life that she did in 17th century France is nothing short of astonishing. She may not be the most famous woman in French history, but she is by far my favourite. I can only hope that in the years to come, more people will come to know her incredible story.
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Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.