Throughout history, there have been many kinds of great people. Great thinkers, strategists, artists, all worthy of celebration, but my favourite kind of historical figure is the kind who was just plain cool. And you can’t get much cooler than La Maupin. Star of the Paris opera, duellist, lover, queer icon – this girl could do it all.
La Maupin was born Julie d’Aubigny in 1673. Her father taught the royal pages (attendants to knights and noblemen), so Julie attended lessons with them. As a result, she had an excellent education, especially for a girl at the time, and proved to be particularly skilled in sword fighting. As a young woman, she was already known for her wildness and fiery temper. There are several accounts of her assaulting shopkeepers and getting into fights with noblemen. Julie became the mistress of her father’s boss, the Count of Armagnac (to make things even grosser, she was 14 at the time). To hide their affair, Julie was married, although her new husband was immediately sent off to a job in the south of France, while Julie and the Count stayed in Paris. Some have claimed that Julie’s husband was sent away the day after the wedding.
The original wild child
It wasn’t long before Julie grew tired of the Count, and she soon became involved with a fencing master called Séranne. He was skilled in fencing, but it’s said that Julie was already better than him, despite her young age. Together they fought in many illegal duels, which led to them having to skip town when the police came after Séranne for allegedly killing a man. As they fled to Marseille, the pair earned money by putting on fencing shows and singing at taverns. Julie would dress in men’s clothes, but this wasn’t to hide her gender – instead she found men’s clothes more flattering on her, as well as more practical for swordfighting than a bulky dress. In fact, on one occasion a heckler accused her of actually being a boy. She responded by ripping open her shirt and revealing her chest to the audience, so that they could come to their own conclusion about her gender.
La Maupin gets a girlfriend (and the death penalty)
Once Julie arrived in Marseille, she decided that being an expert fencer and general badass wasn’t enough. She began taking lessons to nurture her natural talent for singing, beginning her career at the Marseille opera and attracting many admirers. One of these admirers would lead to one of her wildest and most famous adventures. Having ditched Séranne, Julie decided that she was done with men, and to make a change and find a girlfriend. As luck would have it, Julie had caught the eye of the daughter of a merchant, and the two began a relationship. Understandably (for the time), the girl’s father was horrified and sent her to a convent. Not to be deterred, Julie enrolled herself in the same convent so that the two could be together. Nunnery life soon got too boring for Julie and her lover, so the pair hatched a ridiculous and daring plan to escape. In the dead of night, they stole the body of a nun who had recently died from the crypt, tucked it into the girl’s bed, and set the nunnery on fire. And you thought Julie’s life couldn’t get any crazier. After 3 months on the run together, the girl sheepishly returned to her family, and a trial was held for Julie’s crimes, although she was still on the run and wasn’t there to receive her sentence. Julie was sentenced to death for kidnapping, body snatching, and arson. Interestingly, in her condemnation, she is referred to as Mr. d’Aubigny. This may have been to hide the scandal of the relationship between Julie and her lover.
That time when La Maupin stabbed a man, then had sex with him
Now that she was a wanted woman, La Maupin chose to go back to Paris, where she had friends who could hopefully help her out. On her way, she had another of her most well-known encounters. One night in a tavern, Julie was singing for money, as she had done many times before. This time, there was a young man in the audience who decided to try a pick-up line on her (“Tell me, oh pretty bird, I’ve listened to your chirping, but now tell me of your plumage?”). Julie was not impressed, and in classic La Maupin fashion, drew her sword. She managed to not only beat him but also two of his mates in a fight, which ended when she ran her sword clean through the shoulder of the man who had insulted her – he could turn his head and see her sword’s point behind him. Feeling a bit bad about turning him into a human kebab, Julie went to apologise to the man the next day. The two got on so well that they started a passionate love affair, Julie nursed him back to health, and they had either a lifelong friendship or romance, depending on which account you choose to believe. Unfortunately, the pair couldn’t stay together for long, as Julie had ambitions in Paris.
Julie had managed to keep a low profile so far, partly because the sordid (aka gay) business with the nunnery hadn’t been widely publicised. Still, Julie had aspirations of continuing her opera career. While on the run, she had met an ageing actor and musician named Marechal. He taught her for a short time, telling her: “If you wanted, you could be the best singer in Paris in five years.” La Maupin wanted to prove Marechal right, but this wouldn’t be possible while she was still a wanted criminal. Luckily for her, she knew someone who could help her: her old flame, the Count of Armagnac, who worked for the King of France. The Count agreed to talk to the King, who is said to have found her adventures hilarious, and he agreed to pardon her. So, to recap: running away from home, burning down a nunnery, and being pardoned by the King – and all before her 21st birthday!
La Maupin causes trouble in Paris
Now free to pursue her singing career, Julie was quickly accepted into the Paris opera. This may have partly been because she had a former lover already working at the opera to put in a good word for her. Still, La Maupin was extremely popular. She was famous for her lovely voice, good looks, and excellent acting skills. This is when she started going by La Maupin, which was the custom for married women at the time.
Despite having a full-time job, Julie still found the time to get up to mischief. She would often moonlight as a duellist, was still in the habit of wearing men’s clothes, and still had her signature quick temper, of which one of her co-workers ended up on the receiving end. Duménil was a fellow actor in the Paris opera who was known for his stupidity, massive ego, and tendency to chat up the women at the opera (the more things change, the more they stay the same). One day Duménil went too far, so Julie decided to teach him a lesson. Later that night she waited for Duménil outside the theatre and – surprise – challenged him to a duel. As Julie was dressed as a nobleman, Duménil didn’t recognise her and refused. This didn’t stop her from beating him up anyway, stealing his watch and snuffbox. The next day at the opera, Duménil told everyone a dramatic story of three robbers assaulting and stealing from him. “You liar and coward!” Julie shouted, throwing the watch and snuffbox at him. “It was I alone who thrashed you; here is your miserable property to prove it.”
La Maupin receives a royal pardon for the second time, because why not?
One night, La Maupin was at a ball hosted by the king, when a pretty young lady caught her eye. The pair had several dances together, much to the annoyance of three of the woman’s suitors. As usual, Julie took things a bit too far when she passionately kissed the young woman in front of a crowd of scandalised guests, which led to the three men surrounding the couple. La Maupin challenged the three men to a fight and kicked them to the kerb – she either outright killed them or just injured them. Either way, this was a bad move, as duelling was very much illegal in France. For the second time, however, and sealing La Maupin’s bid for the Jammiest Sod in History award, the King found the whole thing hilarious and let her go. After all, the law forbade men from duelling but said nothing about women.
Maybe almost getting the death penalty on two separate occasions was a bit much for La Maupin, because she simmered down a bit after this. She brought her husband – remember him? – back to Paris and it is said that they were very happy together until his death. According to some accounts, Julie became a nun in the last years of her life, although given her previous opinions on nunneries I am inclined to doubt that. La Maupin died in 1707 at the age of 33, having lived a life that was short but definitely not boring.
La Maupin was the subject of gossip and tall tales both during and after her life, and there is a lot that has been said about her that is not entirely true, although I have tried to keep to facts as much as is possible here. A word of advice: if I have begun a statement with “it is said…”, take it with a pinch of salt! Some narratives of Julie’s life take the tone of a cautionary tale, as she lived outrageously and died young. I look to La Maupin as someone who wasn’t afraid to be herself, even though that was (and often still is) especially hard for women and queer people.