julie d'aubigny

Did I reveal too much about Julie d’Aubigny in the title? No, I don’t believe I did.

I stumbled onto this woman last week when I was researching Hot Stuff Guys Used to Do, of which, obviously, the number one thing is dueling. Dueling was huge for . . . really all of history, right up until the Civil War, when people realized that young people getting killed for no real reason was actually not so great after all. I don’t know how much they focus on this in Lincoln, because I have not seen the movie, but I’m sure dueling receives its own 20 minutes, right?  However, I digress! For a while the activity was so accepted that  dueling was considered almost essential to a man’s character. I really like this quote, in particular, from a 19th century Irishman:

“A duel was indeed considered a necessary part of a young man’s education . . .When men had a glowing ambition to excel in all manner of feats and exercises they naturally conceived that manslaughter, in an honest way (that is, not knowing which would be slaughtered), was the most chivalrous and gentlemanly of all their accomplishments. No young fellow could finish his education till he had exchanged shots with some of his acquaintances. The first two qualifications always asked as to a young man’s respectability and qualifications, particularly when he proposed for a lady wife, were ‘What family is he of? And ‘Did he ever blaze?’ ”

blazing saddles duel

Like in Blazing Saddles, but with less comedy and musical numbers.

So, men were just blazing left and right for hundreds of years. It was, as I have already established, just one of the hot things that guys did. But what about the ladies? Who were the lady duelists? And what were they doing it in? I am asking you that last question because a not safe for work photograph is coming right at you!

Ladies not only dueled, they dueled topless.

female duelists

Like so!

You can see as much from this cool picture showing a duel between, apparently, a very feisty Princess Pauline Metternich and the Countess Kielmannsegg, Baroness Lubinska in 1892. Those in-the-know decided that women should remove their tops during a duel ” to avoid infection in the event that a sword pushed clothing into the wound it caused.” That’s not really great logic – if that were great logic, the Olympics today would be much more exciting – but, okay. In any event, the two women dueled topless and this happened:

“At the dueling ground on the fateful day, all formalities were carried out to the letter including an attempt at and refusal of reconciliation. The ladies engaged and, after a few trifling feints and thrusts, a wild slash from the princess brought about a light flow of blood from the countess’ nose. Seeing the injury she caused, the shocked princess, in a stereotypical feminine gesture, threw both hands up to her cheeks. Just then, the countess lunged and pierced the princess through her right forearm. The sight of the ensuing blood caused the respective seconds to faint. The footmen and coachmen, who had been ordered to stand some distance away with their backs toward the action, heard the cries and ran toward the women to render aid. Baroness Lubinska, however, decided the male servants had more salacious motives and attacked them with her umbrella, shouting, “Avert your eyes, avert your eyes — you lustful wretches!”

Most people forgot what the women were dueling over, but I did not! They were dueling over: flower arrangements. They disagreed on the kinds of flowers that should be used at an upcoming musical exhibition they were hosting.

Reader question: What kind of flowers do you think those were? I think Pauline probably wanted carnations, because carnations sort of suck.

That important question aside, I think they were so engrossed in preparing for their musical exhibition that they forgot they were living in the Victorian era where being a lady who was bare breasted and fighting with another lady was not regarded as the normal stuff of reality television as it is today. But remember that Princess Pauline was a rival of Empress Sisi’s, and the Empress was always saying mean stuff about her, like ““She wears two inches of red powder on her lips and is dressed in material from countries that are far away even though she is too flat”.

This was certainly a good way for her to prove that she was not too flat.

Now – on to our lady featured duelist.

Julie was born in 1670 to Gaston d’Aubigny. Gaston was the secretary to Louis de Lorraine-Guise, Comte d’Armagnac, the Master of the Horse for King Louis XIV. Now, that sounds like a silly title, like a weird Furries thing, but it actually meant being one of the chief officers in France at the time, given that you were not only in charge of the King’s stables but also the funds used for ceremonial court duties. So it was a big deal.

Julie grew up learning how to fence, as well as more ladylike pursuits like reading and drawing and dancing. This reminds me of how, on Game of Thrones, Arya constantly refers to her fencing lessons as “dance lessons” which I suppose they are, kind of, in a way that is not accurate at all. A researcher, Jim Burrows, explains that Julie had “been educated in a very masculine way. Certainly, she often dressed as a man and when she did so could be mistaken for one. She also seemed to have at least as much an eye for members of her own sex as for men. Her skill with the sword, either in exhibition or duels fought in earnest, seems to have been exceptional.”


In any event, Julie became the Comte d’Armagnac’s mistress. This isn’t important, except for the fact that he introduced her to the French court. She then married a Sieur de Maupin, who soon received a promotion and went off to the south of France. Julie decided to stay in Paris. Of course she did.

It is a weird quirk of mine that I always seem to admire women who leave men for love of a city. It is probably because one of my favorite lines from any show, ever, comes from Company, which is about young single New Yorkers in a time before Sex and the City. In one scene, a woman recounts a story about her first husband, who one day came home and said, “Great news, honey! I’ve been promoted! We’re moving to Chicago.” And she replied, “I was only 21. I was very young. But I was not so young that I did not know my own address. And I knew it was not in Chicago.”

I love that.

If someone said she was leaving their husband because he kissed another lady at a party, or she felt no attraction to him anymore, or he clipped his toenails in bed relentlessly, I would probably say “You should try to work it out.” But if she told me, “He wanted to move to Duluth,” I would pat her reassuringly and say, “Of course you left. What else could you have done?”

So. Of course Julie stayed in Paris. Naturally. And she continued to mingle with court society, which is probably why we have cool records of her activities. Which, by the way, are about to get weird.

Julie starting having an affair with a fencing master named Serannes, who was on the lam from the law for engaging in illegal duels. I don’t know how illegal duels work, exactly, although there was a dueling code that specified how duels should be fought (with a second to make sure everyone is acting in an honorable fashion, with the challenged person allowed to choose the weapon, etc) so I guess Serannes did not follow that code. The two had to flee to Marseille.

I think Badass of The Week best sums up what happens next:

“The homicidal fugitive swordsman trained d’Aubigny in the finer arts of fencing for a while;  as soon as she realized the student was now the master she ditched his broke ass and started giving sword exhibitions across Marseille to hone her skills and make a little extra dough. Basically it worked like this – she’d pull out her sword, sing a song or two, and challenge anyone in the audience to battle her in a duel. If someone stepped up, she’d sing a humiliating song about them, then make them look like assholes who couldn’t tell the difference between a sword and a limp piece of linguine. Her skills were so lights-out gonzo that one time some jerkwad in the crowd called out that she wasn’t really a woman, but was some badass cross-dressing cavalier musketeer motherfucker who was ripping everyone off. She responded by ripping open her blouse and telling the audience to ‘judge for themselves’ “.


There really is a surprising amount of toplessness in this Shelved Dolls.

Weirdly, or maybe not weirdly, her dueling prowess landed her a job in the Paris opera. There weren’t many women who could fence, and it was a pretty cool skill!  She was known as “La Maupin” and  played roles including Pallas Athena, Medea, and Dido.

Also, her breasts were seemingly not flat. Not like Princess Pauline’s – HAHAHAHAHA – let’s all pretend to be Empress Sisi and make fun of her. Then let’s drink duck’s blood like Empress Sisi! No, let’s not. Empress Sisi was a crazy person.

On the other hand, no one should ever make fun of Julie d’Aubigny or anyone she knew, because she would just kill you. She would just kill you immediately.

Which is actually a great reason to be her friend. Or her lover, because Julie went both ways.

Apparently, at one point, a fellow worker at the opera was sexually harassing one of her friends – or female lovers? – at the Opera. Julie told him that he should have respect for the lady’s honor, which is reasonable. He . . . declined to do that. So, later in the evening, Julie challenged him to a duel. He, kind of understandably, said he was not going to duel a woman.

So Julie beat him up. Just took a wooden cane and beat him up and stole his watch.

Watch yourself.

The next day, he came back to work – clearly beaten – and said that he had been attacked by a group of bandits. At which point Julie pulled out his watch and waved it around in front of everyone. She exclaimed, “You liar and base coward! It was I alone who defeated you. You were afraid to fight and so I gave you a sound thrashing. As proof, I return to you your miserable watch and snuff-box.” This is kind of the best take-down I’ve ever heard.

She then made him kneel at her feet before she returned his watch.

He complied.

Of course her dueling didn’t always end with people kneeling at her feet. Once, Julie was outside a tavern when a group of men started shit-talking women. In general? In particular?

It could have been anything, really.

So, she challenged three men to a duel. The men, obviously, laugh, thinking the challenge is ridiculous, but Julie is adamant. So, eventually they go outside, and Julie stabs every single one of them through the abdomen.

Just, pretty much kills all of them. The men stumble back to the tavern and take rooms to try to recover. So then Julie pauses and thinks, “Perhaps I’ve gone too far.” She felt terrible. Oddly? Because she had fought a lot of people by that point. But, okay, I’ll buy that. So she called on the local surgeon the next morning and asked after the health of the opponent she had most seriously wounded. The surgeon assured her that he would recover, and informed her that he was  Louis-Joseph d’Albert de Luynes, son of the Duke of Luynes .

I am only throwing in this detail on the off chance that you like aristocratic titles.

She changed into a dress and went back to the tavern in female garb. One of Louis-Joseph’s friend apologized for insulting her earlier and the ensuing duel. It is pretty tasteful when people apologize to you after you have stabbed them in the stomach. Julie said she needed to apologize herself and went directly to Louis-Joseph’s room.

Apparently, she immediately became his lover, which seems remarkable given that she had gored him in the stomach.

Not what they meant by "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach," apparently.

The couple didn’t leave his room for three weeks and then certainly continued a warm relationship for the rest of their lives. That was just how Julie rolled. Stabbing them and then winning them over.

At one point, she joined a nunnery, specifically for the purpose of seducing a nun she had seen. She succeeded in that also. When a nun in a neighboring room died, she dug up the body and hid it in her lover’s bed so the two could escape from the convent. To hide the change in identity in the bed, she set the room on fire as they left. Like one of those zany things in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, except very different.

Honestly, that relationship didn’t last as long as the one with the guy she stabbed in the stomach.

Another time, she french-kissed a woman at a ball held by Louis XIV, which she attended in male garb. However, she did nothing to conceal her female identity, and this cross dressing? kissing?enraged a group of young swordsmen. When they told her to desist she replied, “At your service, gentlemen” which, apparently, was what you said to initiate a duel.

So they went outside, dueled, and she beat all of them. Then she returned to the ball whereupon Louis XIV exclaimed, “You are the jade La Maupin? I have heard of your handiwork! Need I remind you of my decree against duels in Paris?”

The next morning Julie awaited word on her punishment, but Louis sent her a note acknowledging that the decree was only against men dueling, so she was fine.

Julie left for Brussels, where she quickly became a German prince’s mistress. However, the Prince tired of her and fell in love with a German countess.

Honestly, this baffles me. Was it possible that the Countess was somehow . . . more unique? Was she cooler? Was she, I don’t know, made out of magic? I can only employ a line from My Fair Lady (since this seems to have become a story full of references to popular musicals) and assume that Julie’s “oxygen burnt too brightly for his little lungs, so he found some stuffiness that suited him.”

In order to end the affair, the Prince had the Countess’s husband offer Julie $40,000 francs to leave Brussels. She threw the money back at him and said that it was a present for a cuckold like him.

Which was pretty strong.

But she did not duel him, and that makes me sad.

After that affair, Julie returned to Paris, and her work at the Paris Opera. She played Athena again – as well as a number of other roles – but two years later, she took ill and passed away at the age of 37.

She lived more than most of us will live by the age of 37. I mean, I bet when I am 37 I will not have dueled even one person. Like, one single person at a time. Julie was dueling them in clusters of three.

And while on some level reading her story makes me sad that she never seemed able to find a man truly as obsessed with her as he should have been – with the exception of that guy she gored in the stomach, who seemed to get that she was really cool, and also, possibly, Louis XIV who was enough of a genius to perceive her coolness – I also wonder if she ever really cared about that. I do not, at the end of her life, see Julie mourning the fact that she lacked a great love affair, because, while that is a sort of adventure, she had so many other adventures.

The lady dug up a dead nun.

If you are ever worried about being a single woman, take her life as comfort that it does not mean crying into a tub of Ben and Jerry’s. You can, like Julie, live the life of a swashbuckling bachelor. And if anyone suggests that your mode of existence is too masculine, well, you can take that opportunity to tear open the front of your shirt and declare that they are real and they are fabulous.


Pictures via Wikipedia, The Mary Sue

Additional reading:

Badass of the Week: La Maupin

Eldacur: La Maupin

Wikipedia: Julie d’Aubigny

 The Cimmerean: Beautiful, Valiant and Supremely Unchaste: Julie d’Aubigny, Swordwoman

Women of Action Network: Did Women Duel Topless?