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BiCons: Julie d’Aubigny

by William Baker

For hundreds of years, people did not discuss their sexuality in public. To be gay was seen as a sin, something shameful to be covered up and kept hidden. All sorts of polite terms were invented to prevent people of high society from having to discuss such “vulgar” things. Two women living together weren’t lesbians; they were merely in a “Boston Marriage.” A man and a woman who were married to keep up the illusion of heterosexuality were in a “Lavender Marriage,” while gay men were simply said to “have never married.” The result of all of this effort to quietly sweep the truth under the rug, is that a number of LGBTQ+ people throughout history have had their sexuality essentially erased from the record until recent years. While it has become more acceptable to speak about such topics in public nowadays, a significant amount of progress has yet to be made. One notable bisexual person from the past who was subject to gay erasure and deserves to be better known is Julie d’Aubigny, a bisexual icon (or BiCon, for short) of 17th-century France.

d’Aubigny was born in 1673, when France was under the rule of the “Sun King,” Louis XIV. At the time, same-sex relations carried a heavy risk in France - the punishment for pursuing such a relationship was death. That was, of course, unless you had the favor of the King and his court - in fact, the King’s brother himself was known to have had numerous relationships with men at court. This practice was common across the Europe of the day - only members of the aristocracy were allowed to openly love whomever they choose without fear of repercussions. But LGBTQ+ people existed at all levels of society, as d’Aubigny’s story proves.

Julie’s father was the personal secretary to an aristocrat by the name of Louis de Lorraine-Guise, Count of Armagnac, who served as Louis XIV’s Master of Horse at Versailles. While not a powerful aristocrat himself, Julie’s father carried a certain amount of weight at court, as he trained the court pages. By virtue of this position, he was able to give Julie an education consisting of academics that were typically reserved for boys at the time. In addition, Julie’s father taught her how to fence in a time when that field was entirely dominated by men. Julie was an excellent learner, and by the age of 12, she could hold her own amongst male fencers and even successfully competed against several.

It was likely through her fencing that she encountered her first real lover - an assistant fencing master named Sérranes. Though Julie had previously been taken as a mistress by her father’s employer at court, it seems that Sérranes was the true beginning of the long series of partners that Julie would court over the course of her life, and Sérranes would also mark the beginning of the adventures that she would become famous for throughout France. When the fencing master killed a man in an illegal duel, he became a target of the Paris police. One can only imagine the scene between the two lovers: perhaps a clandestine meeting under the cover of darkness, perhaps a hurried conversation in the few moments of peace they are able to steal from the watchful eyes of the police. In any case, the lovers decided to flee the city together, taking the road south.

On the way to the southern city of Marseille, the lovers earned their keep as traveling bards, singing in taverns and exhibiting their fencing abilities, with Julie dressing in men’s clothing - a habit that she would keep for much of her life. When they arrived in Marseille, she split from Sérranes and joined an opera company. This would become her main source of income and fame for the rest of her life, as she would live by her powerful voice as well as her sword.

In Marseille, Julie was embroiled in her greatest adventure yet. Her singing attracted the attention of the daughter of a local merchant - particularly interesting in that she was Julie’s first female partner, though certainly not the last. In classic Romeo and Juliet fashion, the girl’s parents forbade the relationship, going so far as to send her away to a convent. Predictably, this failed to deter Julie in the slightest, as she carried out a rescue of her lover so daring that it would make a fairytale prince jealous. Entering the convent under the guise of a nun, Julie snuck into her lover’s room. History does not describe their reunion, but it must have been one worthy of song.

In order to cover their tracks, the two women stole the body of a dead nun (presumably from the convent’s cemetery) and placed it in the bed of Julie’s lover. They then set the room ablaze, making it appear as though Julie’s lover had died in the fire and leaving none the wiser. For three months, the two roamed France together, until finally the young woman returned to her parents and revealed that she still lived. Julie was immediately on the run again, as a tribunal charged her with body snatching, arson, kidnapping, and failure to appear before a tribunal when (of course) Julie did not keep her date in court.

The rest of Julie’s life played out in much the same fashion. She bounced from place to place, from lover to lover. When a young French count mistook her for a man, she challenged him to a duel, won, nursed him back to health, and then immediately fell for him. Though they would eventually part ways, they would remain friends for as long as they lived. Alongside yet another lover, she was admitted to the Paris Opera and sang there for years. As her fame began to increase, she also began to perform elsewhere, making an even greater name for herself.

But a steady career as an opera singer did not mean that she had settled down. Julie was the 17th-century equivalent of a rockstar, after all. During her time as an upper-class entertainer, she never forgot how to handle a blade, and acted as roguishly and as dashing as a character from The Three Musketeers. In one incident particularly reminiscent of said novel, Julie bested three noblemen in three separate duels in the same evening after they had become offended when she kissed another woman at a ball.

At the age of 31, Julie finally put down the sword. It is said that finally, Julie found true love in Madame la Marquise de Florensac, her final lover. For a time, they had lived together in total and perfect joy - but reality caught up with them. In 1705, Madame de Florensac died, leaving Julie heartbroken and ending Julie’s life of excitement forever. The once adventurous opera singer retired quietly to a convent for the last few years of her life - perhaps the very same one that she had escaped from with her lover years ago. Julie died in 1707, at the age of 33 - young for our time, but not uncommon in the 1700s.

Julie was not perfect, and her life is by no means an exemplary one that we all ought to emulate. However, Julie certainly deserves recognition and admiration. She was openly bisexual in a time when no one outside the aristocracy dared to flaunt such a thing. She was incredibly devoted to those she loved, and intelligent in her protection of them. She was undoubtedly brave. She consistently defined the stereotype of gender norms through her dress and her actions - mainly fencing. She was also in touch with her feminine side, making her living as a wonderful opera singer. Not enough people in the modern day know about Julie - and with a life like that, how could she possibly deserve to be forgotten?


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