Famous Bis: Julie d’Aubigny

By Siobhan Ball

January 11, 2019



Photo credit: Wikimedia/La Joute Des Mariniers

Opera singer, duelist, and infamous seductress, Julie d’Aubigny (born in 1670, or maybe 1673) would strain suspension of disbelief if she were a fictional character. Fortunately for us, she was not only real but provided excellent bisexual representation all the way back in the seventeenth century.

As the daughter of a fencing master, popular legend has her father dressing her as a boy, teaching her swordplay, card-sharping, and murdering any man she showed interest in. However, given that that last legend is usually held up as an explanation for her relationships with women, and that her father’s boss, the Count of Armagnac, took her as his mistress at the grossly young age of fourteen (when would her father have had the time?), the murdered lovers bit sounds like a classic example of insecure men needing to explain away queer female desire.

Either way, Julie clearly liked the men’s clothing, sword fighting, and gambling as she took those hobbies with her when she left her predatory lord to go on the road.

Julie D’Aubigny lying on a couch smiling with her fencing outfit and sword, looking in front of her.

Having banished the pseudo-husband assigned her by Armagnac, Julie took up with a fencing master, and when he killed a man in a duel and needed to leave the town, she decided to go with him. In their travels, he and Julie supported themselves by giving demonstrations of their swordsmanship. One of their chief draws was the novelty of a woman being able to wield a blade like that, and inevitably they met an audience member who didn’t believe she was one at all.

Julie, a shrewd businesswoman with no patience for the concept of womanly modesty, solved the problem by taking her top off at him. Years later, another young man, Count of Albert, would insult her prowess in the aftermath of her first great heartbreak, and she dealt with that by stabbing him — only for them to end up in bed together the next day.

Apparently, he apologized rather nicely, and she decided she felt a bit sorry about trashing him so thoroughly the day before, and one thing led to another. This mutual apology not only led to them road tripping to Paris together, but he remained a lifelong friend and very useful ally because Julie’s career of mayhem was in no way over.

Image of a drawing known as Mademoiselle Maupin, where a woman is wearing a long victorian dress and has her hair up surrounded by statues.
"Mademoiselle Maupin de l'Opéra" 1700

Ditching her fencing master boyfriend, she joined the Marseille opera, where she proceeded to romance her way through the cast before falling in true, genuine love with a merchant’s daughter. Said merchant and his wife were not happy about the trouser-wearing soprano romancing their daughter and so removed the unfortunate girl to an abbey, confident that this would put an end to the affair with their daughter’s reputation intact. 

What they weren’t counting on is that, unlike an unsuitable male suitor, Julie was perfectly capable of following her girlfriend into the nunnery by taking holy orders herself. This seems like a drastic step, and it’s also quite hard to understand why the nuns didn’t just laugh in her face at the suggestion. Consider though both the historic Catholic delight in "reforming” sexually sinful women through marriage to Christ and that Julie may have been the most extra woman ever to have lived. She was catnip the nuns couldn’t resist, and no one could have imagined what she did next.

It’s possible that Julie had only intended to hang out in the nunnery with her girlfriend for a while, leaving when she got bored, or that she originally had another plan we don’t know about. As it was, when an elderly nun died of natural causes, it was a chance too good to miss. Tucking the nun’s body into her lover’s bed, Julie then set fire to the nunnery, and the two of them made their escape. Unsurprisingly this didn’t actually provide them with the cover they’d hoped for, as when the fire went out, there were two bodies missing, and the nuns had put two and two together about why it was she’d actually been there in the first place.

Julie then became a wanted man, and no, that’s not a typo. The thing that saved her from her sentence of being burned at the stake was the French judiciary’s utter refusal to believe that a woman could possibly have done this — the person they tried in absentia was a young man of similar name and identifying traits who was clearly, nonetheless, a different person. Sadly for Julie, her well-heeled and sheltered young lover couldn’t hack life on the road, and so she returned to the nunnery after only a month of what was probably cold and hungry freedom, leaving Julie to make her way alone again.

Dusting herself off, Julie made for Paris, joining the opera there and resuming her hobby of seducing opera singers. Possessing a commendably low tolerance for workplace sexual harassment and demonstrating that it is indeed possible to tell it apart from honest flirting when a celebrated tenor wouldn’t stop propositioning her friends, she tackled the issue head-on. Meeting the man, one Dumeni, in an alleyway, she challenged him to a duel, and when he pled for mercy instead, she consented to merely subject him to fifty strokes of the cane across his ass. Upon further consideration, she then came back to steal his watch and snuffbox, presenting them as evidence the next day that it was not, in fact, a group of large men who had beaten him.

Eventually, Julie overstepped again and had to leave Paris in a hurry. Dressed as a young nobleman, she brazened her way into a royal ball, danced with all of the women, and eventually kissed one of them in front of everyone. Propriety required the young lady to object, so it’s hard to tell her actual feelings on the matter (though it has to be admitted that this was thoroughly obnoxious behavior on Julie’s part), but three young men feeling emasculated by Julie’s popularity immediately challenged her to a duel. She accepted, defeated them, and took off for Brussels — dueling was prohibited in Paris, and there were too many witnesses this time for her to take any chances.

Image of a drawing of Julie D'Aubigny wielding a fencing sword and outfit, smiling and leaning back.

Upon arriving in Brussels, she immediately became the governor’s mistress and the unofficial Lady of the realm. After a while, however, apparently finding her too much to handle, the elder statesman attempted to pay her off. Finding this wildly insulting, she threw the bag of coins at his face and left for Spain, where she ended up working as a lady’s maid to a deeply unpleasant woman. Eventually, having decided that she’d had enough and that they’d probably forgotten about her transgressions in Paris by now, she quit in style. Rather than handing in her notice, she hung a selection of radishes from the back of her employers' hairstyle before sending her off to a ball. By the time she returned in a rage, Julie was gone.

Back in Paris, Julie once again joined the opera, becoming the prima donna and stabbing a nobleman for repeatedly lying about bedding her friends and colleagues. After several more high-profile affairs, she eventually more or less settled down with Madame la Marquise de Florensac, France’s most beautiful woman, and was blissfully happy for the two years preceding the woman’s death. Heartbroken, Julie would follow the love of her life only a year later.