The Marvelous Misadventures of La Maupin

Julie D’Augbiny, otherwise known as La Maupin, was a French opera singer popular during her lifetime for being a source of scandal. Known for her ability with a sword and propensity for cross-dressing, rumors about Julie abound. But who actually was Julie D’Augbiny?

Throughout her prolific career at the Opera, Julie  D’Aubigny played a total of 29 different roles, each one critically acclaimed at the time. She also imported different vocal ranges from Italy to France, leaving a lasting impact on French Opera. (Photo Credit: Se vend à Paris, chez Trouvain, rue St. Jacques, au grand Monarque.. Restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Throughout her prolific career at the Opera, Julie D’Aubigny played a total of 29 different roles, each one critically acclaimed at the time. She also imported different vocal ranges from Italy to France, leaving a lasting impact on French Opera. (Photo Credit: Se vend à Paris, chez Trouvain, rue St. Jacques, au grand Monarque.. Restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Throughout history, the exploits of numerous classical figures often become warped by time. Moments of their lives are forgotten, their works are lost, and the nuances of their existence become subject for debate. This phenomenon is amplified with historical figures who were known to have gone against the standards for society at the time, often being relegated to the very sidelines of historical renown, or even being ignored entirely by later eras.  

Take, for instance, Julie D’Aubigny, a historical figure well known for pushing against the norms of 17th century France. Along with being an opera singer for the Paris Opera, she was a talented swordfighter, known for both her temper and her fondness for donning men’s clothes. The court gossiped about her; newspapers across France (and even a few in Britain) turned a keen eye to her exploits; the French public went wild for any mention of her. She was a bit like a 17th century proto-celebrity, with people across France invested in learning all they could about her daring exploits, no matter how true they were. 

I learned about Julie during a night of obsessive internet scrolling about another long forgotten sapphic legend, Sappho of Lesbos. In between searches on the internet for anything I could find about the poet and looking through youtube mindlessly, I came across a video entitled Julie D’Aubigny- Duelist, Singer, Radical . With nothing better to do, I clicked on it. Upon starting the video, I was promptly inducted into a whole nine minutes and fifty seven seconds of one of the wildest historical tales I’d ever heard, complete with fistfights, arson, and even murder. 

All of this happened while D’Aubigny was fourteen until her untimely death at thirty-five, making her life an incredibly colorful one.But this begged the question: just how much of this was true? To answer that, we first have to look at Julie’s life in full. 

Julie D’Aubigny was born in Paris, France, in either the years 1670 or 1673 — sources on the exact date vary- to Gaston D’Aubigny and an unnamed woman. Her family was middle class and worked for Count D’Armagnac, King Louis XIV’s Master of Horse, in French known as the “Grand Ecuyer.” Considered one the of King’s seven great nobles, his duties were threefold: to attend to the royal stables, watch over the retinue of the king, and to account for funds set aside for royal ceremonies such as coronations. 

D’Aubigny’s early years are shrouded in mystery, including that of her whereabouts. A possible theory surrounding D’Aubigny’s location is that she spent her early childhood at the riding school at the Tuileries Palace, one of the many residences of the kings and queens of France at the time. Considered one of the most beautiful buildings in France, in 1871 it was destroyed by a fire during the brief rule of the Paris Commune, a revolutionary group who held control over Paris from March 18th to May 28th. 

D’Aubigny would soon move to the royal court of Versailles in 1682, spending the rest of her childhood at the Great Stables. D’Aubigny, her father, who was secretary to D’Armagnac, was also an accomplished swordsman, with one of his many duties being to train the court pages. Determined to give his daughter an education equal to that which the pages received, Julia D’Aubigny would train in fencing side by side with them, dressed in men’s clothes. 

While an education in fencing for women wasn’t unheard of at the time, one of the things that made Julie D’Aubigny stand out from the rest was the insistence that she would compete against the men her father trained. She became an accomplished fencer, known as the best amongst the group. It was even rumored that she could both fight and defeat grown men. She also received an education in various academic subjects alongside the court pages. These subjects ranged from traditionally feminine subjects to those considered more masculine, such as the study of natural sciences and mathematics. 

Around the ages of fourteen to fifteen, Julie D’Aubigny became the mistress of her father’s employer, who by that point, had sired about a dozen children. To cover up the affair, he arranged for her to marry Sieur de Maupin, a tax clerk who worked under him. Shortly after the wedding took place, the Count sent him out of Paris on a tax collection mission, with some accounts even claiming he was sent the night after the wedding itself.

From then, the Count and Julie D’Aubigny would continue on with their relationship, but not for long, as Julie D’Aubigny became smitten with a new beau, an assistant fencing instructor by the name of Séranne. She would soon split from the Count and join Séranne in traveling the French countryside. There is some scholarly contention with this fact of her life, the first of many to come. Namely, what caused Julie D’Aubigny and Séranne to flee Paris? Was it simply the couple’s eagerness to be rid of the Count, or something else? Tales from the time indicate that pressures from the law may have encouraged the couple’s flight: namely, Séranne’s murder charge. 

Sometime in between meeting Julie D’Aubigny and fleeing Paris with her, Séranne had either challenged or been challenged to a duel by an unnamed man. Dueling was considered a prerogative of the aristocracy at the time, an agreed upon way to work out frustrations and quarrels. However, underneath the reign of Louis XIV, dueling was becoming generally unfavorable, as it was considered to trample upon the King’s authority. Throughout his reign, Louis XIV did everything he could to phase dueling out of French culture, even declaring it illegal in 1697. 

After killing his opponent, Sérrane was prepared to flee Paris, and the adventurous Julie D’Aubigny decided to hop on for the ride. Chased by the Lieutenant General of Police, Nicolas Gabriel de La Reynie, the two made their way across the French countryside, performing songs, dances, as well as mock duels. Interestingly, Julie D’Aubigny presented as a man throughout these performances. According to one entertaining tale from this time period, a man began to heckle Julie D’Aubigny with disbelief over her being a woman, on account of both her presentation and ability with a sword. She promptly took off her shirt, stunning the crowd into silence. 

While there are historical records of trans men throughout history, Julie seems to eschew such labeling; despite often wearing, as well as feeling comfortable in men’s clothing, she was loud about addressing herself as a woman. In seventeenth century France, which viewed gender and sexuality as irrevocably tied, Julie would have been considered a woman far closer to being masculine than what was generally considered tolerable.
(Photo Credit: Aubrey Beardsley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Julie D’Aubigny would leave Sérrane, growing tired of the constant travel. Settling down in Marseilles, she pondered on what to do next. Separated from both father and husband, her ability to support herself was tenuous. In 17th century France, it was expected for a woman to stay with her family and contribute to the household. Career options that allowed women to support themselves independent of their fathers and/or husbands were limited, and were often considered undesirable.Yet, Julie D’Aubigny would not be deterred. She would gravitate to one profession in particular that would allow her to embrace her flair for the dramatic: acting.  

Julie D’Aubigny was known for having a rather lovely voice, despite being untrained in singing. She sought out an audition with Pierre Gaultier, the director of the Marseilles opera, and her combination of attractiveness, knack for music, and powerful voice enabled her to land a few roles in the opera before quickly becoming its new breakout star. 

Julie D’Aubigny was considered a mezzo, which for a professional singer was rather unusual during this time period as most singers — at least the ones professionally trained — were all sopranos, a much higher pitch than at what Julie D’Aubigny normally sang at. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, however, she is listed as a soprano, meaning that it’s very possible that she would have been singing in roles meant for sopranos. Considering her relative inexperience with music, it’s a marvel at how she was able to rapidly adjust to this new role she was relegated to in the Opera. She would later go on to become one of the Opera’s first contraltos, the lowest voice range for women. 

Julie D’Aubigny sang in both tragedies and comedies, and was known for being a natural actor. Her first ever role was in December in the year she was recruited. Billed as “Mademoiselle Maupin,” she first appeared on stage as Pallas Athena in the opera Hermione and Cadmus, a musical tragedy by Jean-Baptiste Lully surrounding the doomed love story of Cadmus, King of Thebes, and Hermione, the daughter of Venus and Mars. This breakout role popularized her name throughout Paris, jumpstarting her career. From there, she would play a magician in Henri Desmarets Didon, before subbing in for a fellow actress, Madame Desmatins, in the opera Armide, once again by Lully. Opera legend has it that D’Aubigny had transpotted the role down a tone for this performance. 

The first recorded instance of a role being written for Julie D’Aubigny is Clorinde in the opera Tancrede by Andre Campra. This is also the first recorded instance of Julie D’Aubigny being listed as a Contralto, underneath her stage name La Maupin. She would go on to carry out various other roles written for her from 1702 to 1705, before performing her last role in Michel de Le Barre’s La Vénitienne as Isabel,  the lover of one of the main characters, Octave. This is also a performance in which she crossdresses in, namely in the Third Act of the Opera to thwart the plans of Octave. 

As an Opera singer, Julie D’Aubigny had no shortage of admirers. One of whom was a young woman who became enamored with Julie. Julie returned her affection, and the two embarked on an affair. Despite living in a time where attitudes on sexuality were slowly changing, same sex relationships were still frowned upon. When the girl’s parents found out, they promptly sent her off to a convent, hoping to separate her from Julie D’Aubigny . Julie D’Aubigny however, would have none of this, and set off on a mission to get her back. 

Taking the oath of a nun to gain access to the convent, Julie D’Aubigny began to put her plan into action. A short time after she entered the convent, an elder nun died. After the body had been buried, Julie D’Aubigny excavated the corpse, and set it in her lover’s cell, before setting fire to the convent. The two escaped by morning, and went on the run for three months. The girl, whether she was tired of being on the run or was forced to leave, was sent back to her parents. The French Parliament sentenced Julie to death in absentia, as she was currently unaccounted for, having resumed her former lifestyle of journeying through the countryside. 

The case itself is a fascinating one, with one part of it sticking out: changing Julie’s name to Sieur de Maupin, on account of wanting to hide the affair between the two women. It’s of questionable authenticity; even in a significantly more homophobic time period, it’s rather unlikely that a consensual same sex relationship would have been more scandalous than a cross dressing swordswoman burning down a nun’s convent, as well as desecrating a nuns dead body. 

Julie D’Aubigny ’s story continues on, as she meets a new lover, the Comte D’Albert, who challenges her to a duel as he believes she is male. She accepts, and promptly beats him to an inch of his life. After nursing him back to health, the two pair up, either becoming close friends or embarking on a whirlwind romance, with sources differing on the relationship between the two. Regardless, the pair seemed to have stayed friends long after this liaison, and would send each other frequent letters. 

After D’Albert, Julie D’Aubigny traveled with a man named Gabriel-Vincent Thevenard back to Paris after taking music lessons with a retired teacher. Penning a letter to D’Armagnac, she asked for him to help her obtain a pardon for her crimes, to which he agreed to. Upon receiving her pardon from the King of France, Julie D’Aubigny joined the Paris Opera with Thevenard, donning the name of La Maupin.

One memorable tale from this time period concerns a spat she had with a fellow singer by the name of Dumenil — a tenor, he was well known for harassing the women of the Opera. After allegedly becoming aggressive towards a friend of Julie D’Aubigny ’s, she fought and beat him. In order to save face, the next day, when questioned about how he’d gotten so injured, he stated that he’d been accosted by three men who’d robbed him. 

Julie D’Aubigny, enraged by this slight against her, threw down the valuables she’d stolen from him and declared she was his attacker. This began a lifelong hatred of Dumenil towards Julie D’Aubigny, which would resurface later on. 

Julie D’Aubigny’s star continued to rise throughout her career, no doubt aided by the scandal that followed her throughout her life. She attended a ball held by King Louis’s brother, Phillipe I, Duke of Orleans, who was also rumored to have relationships with men as well as cross-dressers. This was considered an open secret by the Court at the time — as were most queer relationships among nobility throughout this time period — while it wasn’t exactly uncommon for different modes of gender and sexuality to be expressed, it also wasn’t something one could yell out proudly from the rooftops either. 

Upon attending the ball in mens clothes, Julie D’Aubigny found herself once again facing down danger as she flirted with one of the women at the ball, upsetting three men who promptly challenged her to a duel. To no one’s surprise, she beat them handily, though that was not where the problem lay. The problem lay in the fact that she had done this in front of King Louis himself, who, as previously established, wasn’t all too fond of dueling. She fled to Bavaria, where she became the mistress to the elector of Bavaria, who upon finding her too much to handle, paid her 40,000 francs to leave him alone. Throwing the money at his feet in a huff, she stormed off to Madrid, becoming the maid to the Countess Marino, and according to sources compiled about her, Julie D’Aubigny hated every moment of it. She hated it so much, in fact, that she purposely placed radishes in the Countess’s hair instead of her hair clips in order to embarrass her. Needless to say, this particular gig didn’t last long, and she found herself back in Paris soon afterwards. 

Upon being once again pardoned for her crimes, Julie D’Aubigny remained a popular fixture at the Opera, performing for the Court and importing the Contralto voice from Italy to the French Opera scene. Soon, she would meet a woman who is often regarded as the love of her life, the Madame la Marquise de Florensac. The two lived together, in quiet bliss, before Florensac tragically died in 1705 due to the flu. Distraught, Julie D’Aubigny briefly reunited with Sieur Maupin, before going on to retire to a nun’s convent, dying at the young age of thirty-three years old. 

After I had heard all of this, I was moved. A queer woman, who had lived a rich life in a time where most people of her caliber would have been relegated to the sidelines, was such an intriguing proposition to me. Yet, the longer I looked into it, the more I realized that a fair portion of Julie’s life is simply not real. 

Most of Julie’s life that we know of comes from writings from the aristocracy of the time period, written down in memoirs and encyclopedias. While today, memoirs and encyclopedias are held as mostly true, reliable works, in seventeenth century France they were anything but. They were made to allow the wealthy a chance to air out grievances and share the latest gossip. And what better gossip to share than one of a cross dressing, sword fighting, queer opera singer, who came from rather humble origins? 

Most images of Julie D’Aubigny were made decades after her death. This painting by Jean Beraud most commonly associated with her is actually one of French swordswoman Marguerita Sylvia, who was, like Julie, an actress and singer.
(Photo Credit: Jean Béraud, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

I spoke with Camille Rogers, an Opera singer and historian at the University of Toronto, about the hardships of researching Julie’s life. One such hardship regarded extricating Julie D’Aubigny ’s undeniable queerness from the inflated gossip surrounding her at the time. During this time, queerness would have been something strange for the Court to have encountered, and when they heard about Julie D’Aubigny ’s romantic life, it likely would have become a subject of frequent gossip and rumors.

According to Camille, one such example of these rumors is the story about Julie D’Aubigny burning down the nun’s convent. “It’s […] exactly the kind of sensational story that gossip writers would make up to discredit someone they didn’t like, and similar stories show up around the same time about totally separate people, making it more likely to be a popular urban legend.” These rumors were likely to have spiraled into making Julie D’Aubigny out to be a figure of pure controversy at the Court, spread by enemies and parroted by those looking for an interesting tidbit for their day. 

This sentiment is also parroted by historian Kaz Rowe in their video about Julie D’Aubigny . Compiling decades of research, they concluded that the tale itself is most likely to have been a farce. While it may have been true that Julie D’Aubigny may have had a partner sent to a nun’s convent, the story itself is more than likely to have been falsified by Dumenil, the tenor Julie attacked, as a tale designed to further destroy her reputation.

Another factor that aids in the struggle of gaining accurate information on Julie D’Aubigny is the lack of resources that we can use to inquire into her. Most sources often used for reference were made several years after her life, with one that’s been credited to have the greatest impact on contemporary images of Julie D’Aubigny, Theophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, is only very, very loosely based on the life of Julie. Nevertheless, this book has held enormous sway over how Julie D’Aubigny is thought of in the modern day. 

“There seems to be an element of self-censorship with Julie D’Aubigny,” Rogers said during our conversation. “ It’s likely she could have threatened those writing about her not to publish specific sources, explaining the lack of primary sources we have to study her life.” 

Coupled with 300 years of turmoil in France’s history, and a host of enemies — many of whom were published writers — it’s the perfect recipe for centuries of misinformation spread about Julie D’Aubigny. Often, she is accused of having murdered multiple men throughout her lifetime; upon review, these turn out to be unlikely. 

Literature about Julie D’Aubigny, both during her lifetime and after, all hold a certain lens of fetishism to them, as well as anxieties at large about sapphic relationships. Take, for example, the comments by a contemporary biographer from the time of Julie D’Aubigny ’s death, whom Kelly Gardiner quotes towards the end of her article The Real Life of Julie D’Aubigny. The contemporary biographer wrote, “[she was] destroyed by an inclination to do evil in the sight of her God and a fixed intention not to,” after which, he claims, “her body was cast upon the rubbish heap.”

Julie D’Aubignys life, with all its complexities and nuances, however exaggerated they may have been, ultimately both angered and scared the men who wrote about her. Her life of misbehavior defied all the rules set in place at the time, causing her name to be dragged through the mud time and time again. Yet, without these deeds, Julie D’Aubigny may never have been heard about at all, doomed to be forgotten in the annals of history. 

During my conversation with Rogers, an interesting point brought up was how Julie D’Aubigny’s queerness harmed, yet also enhanced her reputation. Her queerness functioned as a double edged sword; her obvious gender non-conformity made her a subject of interest in France, with conversation generated around her every action, real or not. Yet, without this nonconformity, it’s very likely that Julie’s story might not have been remembered at all. Julie D’Aubigny’s life, as mysterious as it is, is known to us today because of all the controversy she generated throughout her life, not despite it.

Unfortunately, while there was a lack of interest in Julie D’Aubigny throughout the past, new eyes are being turned to her life, attempting to fit together pieces and gain new perspectives on who she was. With the resurgence of interest towards Julie D’Aubigny, creative minds have sought to retell her story in their own words. There are books, musicals, and even dissertations (in musical form, no less), featuring her.    

It’s as the saying goes: well-behaved women seldom make history. Or, in the words of Julie D’Augbiny herself, “I am made for perils, as well as for tenderness.” 

Most of Julie D’Aubigny’s life that we know of comes from writings from the aristocracy of the time period, written down in memoirs and encyclopedias. While today, memoirs and encyclopedias are held as mostly true, reliable works, in seventeenth century France they were anything but. They were made to allow the wealthy a chance to air out grievances and share the latest gossip. And what better gossip to share than one of a cross dressing, sword fighting, queer opera singer, who came from rather humble origins?