Julie d’Aubigny – Duelist, Singer, Radical – Extra History

In 1687, a court convicts a young woman of kidnapping, body snatching and arson. They sentence her to burn at the stake. But they convict an empty chair. Julie d’Aubigny, see, never shows up to court. She’s too busy fighting tavern duels and living on the run with her girlfriend. And instead of an execution, She’ll get a starring role at the Paris Opera. Who was this remarkable woman and what was going on in France that allowed her to not just exist openly, but rise in society? Buckle up. Have we got a wild story for you! Julie’s life began in unusual circumstances. She grew up in Versailles, the daughter of a middle-class family who worked for the king. But her father wasn’t just any run-of-the-mill servant or bureaucrat. He was the Secretary to the Comte d’Armagnac: the King’s master of the horse. Basically, that means her father trained court pages and worked for the guy who is responsible for the royal stables and the King’s retinue. The royal stables didn’t just house horses. They were a bustling and critical part of life in Versailles, where over a thousand blacksmiths, servants, servants, saddlers, servants, saddlers, coachmen, servants, saddlers, coachmen, and other employees kept the Royal horses ready for the King’s next trip, hunting party, or war. And Julie lived in this rough-and-tumble environment from the age of nine. There, she studied alongside the court pages who’d go on to serve in Louis XIV’s court. And in doing so she quickly mastered the courtly arts of reading, And in doing so she quickly mastered the courtly arts of reading, horseback riding, And in doing so she quickly mastered the courtly arts of reading, horseback riding, drawing, And in doing so she quickly mastered the courtly arts of reading, horseback riding, drawing, dancing, and especially, swordsmanship. The Comte took her as a mistress when she was 14 and, as was common in the time, Arranged for her to marry a man named Mo Pan to keep up appearances. Shortly after the wedding, the Comte arranged for Monsieur Mo Pan to transfer to a cushy job in the south. But Julie refused to go with her new husband, opting to stay in Paris. That is, until she ditched the Comte d’Armagnac for a fencing master. Not long into their relationship, her new paramour killed a man in an illegal duel and had to flee Versailles. Julie, ever up for an adventure, put on men’s clothes and joined her lover on the run. For the next few months Julie and her fencing master tavern-hopped across France Traveling, Traveling, partying, Traveling, partying and fighting duels. To help finance their lifestyle, she reinvented herself as a sort of traveling-singer-slash-exhibition-duelist, but as they traveled France, Julie began to tire of her sword master and soon ditched him in favor of a girl she’d met on the road. As you can imagine, folks weren’t super comfortable with gay relationships back in 17th century France, especially not when it meant their daughter was carrying on with a disreputable, cross-dressing duelist known for winning fistfights. So the girl’s parents did what most families did with misbehaving daughters: They stashed her in a convent. That, they thought, would solve the problem. Clearly they had no idea who they were dealing with. Julie had a plan. Julie always had a plan.(TM) A very wild, slightly unhinged plan. Step one: take the Holy Orders and enter the convent. Step two: steal a body of a recently deceased nun and stash it in her lover’s bedroom. Step three: Light the room on fire, grab the girl, and disappear into the night. Step 4: Proceed to gallivant across the countryside with her supposedly-dead girlfriend as her new sidekick. Remarkably, the plan worked. At least, for a while. After three months of adventure, Julie’s girlfriend decided she’d had enough and went back home, Shocking her parents by turning up on their doorstep very much alive. Her parents took the case to court and got Julie convicted in absentia; She’d be burned at the stake. If anyone could catch her. That series of events is bonkers even by today’s standards. So what was it about 17th century France that allowed a person like Julie not just to exist, but to thrive? Surprisingly, it had a lot to do with the king: Louis the 14th. King Louis came to the throne at the age of four during a period of aristocratic rebellions protesting royal encroachment on the rights of nobility. As a result Louis spent a lifetime centralizing power in the monarchy and casting himself as a divine right monarch. Part of this project involved using opulence and artistic patronage as a way to communicate his god-given power to the public, the nobility and the church. And that last one was important because while Louis was devoutly religious, he also didn’t want church officials meddling in political affairs. The concept of divine right monarchy itself challenged church authority after all, and helped the King avoid getting undermined by powerful Popes and Cardinals. It made a strange situation where the church and crown were simultaneously partners and rivals for power. And this rivalry played out in the world of artistic patronage. Louis realized that if he underwrote artists that were critical of power structures they would focus their ire on the church instead of the throne. Therefore it was in his best interest to encourage artists who were irreverent, satirical or even scandalous. People, in short, like Julie. And as it happened the newly single Julie wanted to make a career move. She wrote to the Comte d’Armagnac, asking if he could arrange a position for her at the Paris Opera and the count petitioned the king on her behalf. Louis found her story so amusing that he personally pardoned her so she could take the stage. Louis himself had founded the Opera which was a unique combination of a public theater and a Royal Academy for the Arts. Sometimes the king himself even starred in plays including theatrical propaganda designed to direct and influence public opinion. He also loved to dance, and despite ill health performed in ballets extensively throughout his life. The Opera was not just artistically significant, but socially and politically meaningful as well. And Julie wasted no time in making waves there. She debuted as Pallas Athena: the Goddess of War, and quickly became an in-demand Talent. She had an ability to quickly memorize lines and audiences loved her androgynous look and fencing skill! Backstage she fought duels or slept with many of her co-stars regardless of gender and several of her most famous relationships began after crossing swords over a quarrel. In one famous incident she publicly beat an actor for pestering her fellow actresses before a show. It might surprise you to hear that Julie never hid her bisexuality during her years on stage. In fact, she enjoyed a certain amount of royal protection. Although both gay and straight affairs were not uncommon at the time, mainstream public and religious opinions were still vehemently opposed to bisexuality and homosexuality. But there was a caveat. Louis XIV’s own brother was gay and known to be generally effeminate and cross-dress. Therefore louis couldn’t crack down on homosexuality without there being consequences for his brother Meaning it was an unusually lenient time. But that protection wasn’t limitless and eventually Julie pushed things too far even for the king. In 1695 Louie’s brother Philippe invited Julie to a royal ball as his guest. She arrived dressed as a man and danced with women throughout the night. This certainly ruffled some feathers. But the breaking point came when she kissed a desirable single marquise that several gentlemen were courting. Three of those suitors challenged Julie to a duel on the spot. She walked outside and Defeated. Them. All. One after another, And then went back to the party. Turn down for WHAT?! But this wasn’t some amusing tavern brawl. It was a crime during a royal event. Louis was not happy; Honor duels were illegal They allowed individuals to take matters into their own hands rather than defer to the king’s law. In fact, he’d steadily increased the penalty for them over the course of his reign. Unlike her previous crime against the church, This crime was against the king, the same king who extended her patronage and protection. Julie fled to Brussels. While waiting for things to calm down, she had an affair with a German prince, y’know Just to pass the time? and returned to Paris a year later to take a permanent position in the Opera. She tried to settle down, even reuniting with her husband. Yeah, remember him? Her troublemaking days were hardly behind her, but she wouldn’t be burning down any more convents During those last years she sang for the royal court many times and in 1702, she reached the height of her career, performing an opera written specifically for her. But steady predictable life never agreed with Julie. After a few years of domestic bliss and a few fistfights, Julie eventually fell head over heels in love with la Marquise de Florensac When the Marquise died in 1705, Julie slipped into deep grief, Retired from opera, and joined a convent, for real this time She died there at the age of thirty-three. Julie’s short and wild life reveals a lot about the world she lived in. While she was a force to be reckoned with, she also took advantage of shifting political and cultural norms in France, carving out a space where she could live as her authentic self. No one before or since was quite like Julie d’Aubigny.

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