Julie d'Aubigny Was a Bisexual 17th-Century Operatic Swordfighter

You probably haven't heard of Julie d'Aubigny, and even once you hear about her, it's hard to believe she's real. She was a bisexual 17th-century opera singer, a sword fighter who won a steady stream of duels, and a lady who was not afraid to take her shirt off in public. That might sound like a Tamora Pierce heroine, but make no mistake — Julie was real.

It All Started at Versailles

d'Aubigny was born in France in roughly 1673. Her father worked in the king's court, and she grew up in the less-glamorous corners of Louis XIV's Versailles; she allegedly lived in the stables for a while. By 14, she had become her father's boss's mistress. (The past: Not a great time for women!) She lived with him until she got bored, at which point she ran away with her fencing instructor. That love affair burned out quickly, but her love of fencing lasted her whole lifetime.

That might sound gender-bending, think again. Kelly Gardiner, who wrote a heavily-researched novel based on d'Aubigny's life, explained to NPR: "There was this entire tradition of women warriors in France at that time - quite celebrated - and they had fought. They had worn men's clothes and they were celebrated, like Joan of Arc had been many years before, and perhaps that was the tradition that she fitted into."

Though of course, d'Aubigny was too much of a star to truly fit into any tradition. She wasn't just a female warrior — she was also an opera singer. She fell in with the Marsailles Opera seemingly by accident, and swiftly became star; she had an incredible memory for music, and a stage name (of course): La Maupin. After exploring more talents and lovers than most people do in 100 years, she died at 33, allegedly of a broken heart — though we doubt a modern doctor would back up that diagnosis.

Her Greatest Hits

If you need inspiration for your bucket list, here are some of d'Aubigny's most delightful and salacious achievements

  1. She and a boyfriend used to put on public fencing shows at fairs and taverns. At one of these, a man expressed doubt she was really a woman; she was too good with her sword, he said. To prove him wrong, she took off her shirt right then and there.
  2. No one knows her exact birthday — that's how furtively she snuck onto this earth.
  3. Once, she posed as postulant to break a female lover out of a convent in Avignon (using the dead body of a nun as a prop in the scheme). In the process, she and her lover set the convent on fire.
  4. Another time, she went to a ball dressed in men's clothes — a la Katharine Hepburn, though Hepburn came later. She saw a beautiful woman there, and kissed her. Three men, offended, challenged her to duel. She accepted each challenge, and beat them all.

Gardiner said it best: "She's like an Olympic gold medalist combined with Lady Gaga." We agree.

To read more about this 17th-century Mother Monster, read Kelly Gardiner's historical novel "Goddess." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Curiosity Staff April 24, 2018

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