Njinga Mbande – The Mother of Angola

It is Black History Month and I am back! This time with a heroine who ruled her country for 40 years and was incredibly successful in defending it from colonization. Her strategic knowledge, cultural wisdom, thorough education and negotiation skills make her an outstanding example of female rulership. I present to you Queen Njinga Mbande of Ndongo and Matamba. 

This story begins a little before our heroine’s birth when in 1560 the Portuguese arrived on the shores of Ndongo, a country that is now called Angola. They were welcomed by the King of Ndongo, Njinga’s grandfather, who was suspicious but allowed them to stay …under close surveillance and being forbidden to leave unauthorized. The next five years the Portuguese worked on a beneficial image, teaching the population how to read and write, all the while observing the culture and estimating the country’s wealth. Finally the King made a deal with Paulo Dias de Novais, the leader of the Portuguese exploration, to enlist help in defending his land against the neighboring kingdoms. He allowed them to leave Ndongo to return with an army to help. Bad plan. In 1575 the Portuguese did indeed return with an army, however not to aid Ndongo but instead to seize it in the name of the crown. The people were caught completely off-guard, and despite fighting bravely, they couldn’t compete with the firepower of the invaders. And so the people of Ndongo were forced to retreat.

Fast forward six to eight years to the birth of our heroine. By now the Portuguese colonizers had claimed the coast of Ndongo, established the city of Luanda and renamed the country Angola. After they discovered there to be no valuable minerals, they made it their mission to make Luanda the biggest slave-trading post in all of Africa. It was in these tumultuous times that Njinga and her siblings, two sisters and a brother, grew up. When she was around ten, her grandfather died and her father became King. Njinga was his favourite and she was allowed to sit in on war meetings and other stately affairs, trained in battle and learned to read and write in Portuguese from the missionaries. Often she fought alongside her father and brother not only against the colonizers but also neighboring kingdoms. And so they lived for the next 25 years, fighting for what was left of their home and defending it the best they could.

When Njinga was around 35, in 1617, her father died and her brother Ngola Mbande succeeded him on the throne. However he neither had his father’s charisma nor his sister’s intelligence and he feared her. To make sure she would not plot against him, he had her infant son slain and her sterilized. Afraid for her life, Njinga fled to the neighboring kingdom of Matamba. With his sister gone, Ngola declared war on the Portuguese but suffered defeat after defeat. Finally five years later he gave in to his elders’ advice to send Njinga to negotiate a peace treaty. The land was ravaged by famine and the slave trade didn’t look so peachy either, so the colonizers were quite interested in peace as well. Njinga was the best choice for a negotiator, speaking fluent Portuguese and being well-versed in stately affairs. And so she set out to Luanda to speak for her people. Travelling through the country she met people who had lost their homes and families and slaves who had managed to escape. She sent them all to Ndongo, promising them safety. 

Finally Njinga arrived at Luanda and for the first time she saw her ancestral land. It had been completely transformed, had become a crowded city. Not only black and white people lived there, but also their children of mixed race – something Njinga had never seen before. She also saw the slave-trading port, saw her countrymen being shipped of by the hundreds. Upon meeting with the governor, she was welcomed and given a residence for the duration of her stay.

When the time of negotiation came, Njinga found that all the governor was seated in a fancy chair while she was expected to sit on a mat on the floor in front of him. Not having any of it, Njinga motioned her maid to crouch for her to sit on her back – a gesture of power that made clear that she was not here to surrender but to negotiate on equal footing. And so it began. The Portuguese didn’t expect such a formidable opponent who spoke their language so well and thus they came to an agreement that actually benefited both sides: Ndongo was to be recognized as a sovereign state and all troops were to be called back. In return, they would be establishing trade routes with the Portuguese. Since that went so well, Njinga decided to stay a little longer and even converted to Christianity, hoping to strengthen the peace treaty even more. After staying for almost a year, she returned home.

Peace was shorter-lived than her stay at Luanda had been. In the same year the governor of Luanda was replaced and his successor didn’t care much for the treaty. He continued to raid Ndonga and the kingdom of course retaliated, Njinga fighting with her people. One year later, in 1924, King Ngola died. It is unclear how he died; if he committed suicide due to his military failures, or if his sister killed him after all. But however it happened, Njinga became Queen (after killing her nephew who could have objected her claim.) She was 43 years old.

For two more years the people of Ndongo continued to defend their home against the onslaught of the Portuguese, but in 1629 they had to retreat. Partly due to the Portuguese threat and partly because there was an opposition against a female ruler, led by other aristocrats who had their eyes on the throne as well. Njinga took her people to Matamba, where she had once sought refuge from her brother’s wrath. Now she was there to take over the kingdom and by 1630 she had established her new capital. With this new power behind her, she returned to Ndongo and claimed her crown, uniting the kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba under her rule. 

For more than ten years, Queen Njinga thwarted the Portuguese opposition, building alliances and cutting of trading routes, often charging into battle herself, leading her soldiers. Finally in 1641 she saw a chance to get rid of the Portuguese once and for all. The Dutch had just seized the city of Luanda and there was an opening to regain some of Ndongo’s former land. So she forged an alliance with the Dutch, moving her capital to Kavanga, which was in a territory that had been Northern Ndongo before the Portuguese arrived.

At first things looked good, Njinga scored some major victories and secured her new capital. However in 1646 an army of 20.000 Portuguese soldiers attacked the city and forced the Queen to retreat once more. With the help of her Dutch allies however she was able to come out victorious in the end only one year later.

Unfortunately it was another short-lived victory. When the Portuguese regained Luanda, Njinga’s alliship with the Dutch ended and she once more retreated to her capital in Matamba. Continuing to be a thorn in the side of the colonizers for the next 20 years, employing guerilla tactics and spies, having trenches dug around her land and stocking up on supplies to prepare for the possibility of a siege. Furthermore she made her country a safe haven for all who needed to escape the colonizers. 

And so she expanded her power even over her borders until finally in 1657 the Portuguese buckled. They didn’t know what to do in the face of this elderly woman who kept messing with their plans (Njinga was around 70 years old at this time.) And so they finally renounced their claims to Ndongo once and for all.

Now that the war was over, Njinga did all that she could to rebuild her nation, resettling former slaves and using Matamba’s strategic position to make it a major trading power. All the while she kept resisting attempts to either dethrone or murder her until she died peacefully in 1663 around the age of 82. Following her death the nation briefly descended into civil war, but after things had calmed down her legacy was continued.

Today she is called “The Mother of Angola” for laying the foundations for Angola’s resistance to colonialism way into 20th century until it finally became independent. She is remembered for her brilliant leadership, not only on the battlefield but also in diplomacy and and politics. As it is with important figures, there is a street named after her, there was a series of coins and in 2002 a statue of her was unveiled in Luanda. Particularly women consider her a role model as she laid the first foundations for equal rights between the sexes. And even though she had to fight to be accepted as a ruler, her female successors did not have to do so; of the 104 years that followed her death, 80 were ruled by queens.

Until today she remains a symbol of resistance and Angolan identity.  

image credits:

1: “Queen Nzinga Mbande (Anna de Sousa Nzinga)” by Achille Devéria, printed by François Le Villain, published by Edward Bull, published by Edward Churton, after Unknown artist; hand-coloured lithograph, 1830s; NPG D34632 © National Portrait Gallery, London
2 – 5: from the UNESCO Series on Women in African History: “Pat Masioni” / “Njinga Mbandi, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba” / 978-92-3-200026-2 – licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO [6856] – Link

6: Queen Njinga’s Statue in Luanda, image from AfrikaNews – Link

Queen Nanny – Leader of the Maroons

This is the story of a woman who led the Jamaican Maroons in their fight against slavery and who had the British tremble in fear. This is the story of Queen Nanny.

There are few written accounts of her life and the ones existing were written by the British and thus are less than favourable. Fortunately stories have been passed down for generations, so her story is not lost to us. It is not always easy to separate fact from fiction, but I will try.

Nanny had not always lived in Jamaica. She was born around 1686 in Ghana, which was called the Gold Coast back then, presumably a child of the Ashanti tribe. At some point, her village must have been captured as she was sold and shipped to Jamaica alongside quite a few members of her family. Arriving on the island far from home, she was sold to a sugar plantation in Saint Thomas, near Port Royal. There are some accounts that state she was of African nobility emigrated willingly as a free woman and even married, although none of her children survived. In regards to her further life however, I find the story of her enslavement more likely, so I’m going to follow that narrative.

Life on the plantation was hard, they were treated harshly by their owners, but there were stories of other slaves who had managed to run away and a spark of hope lit up. It didn’t take long until Nanny and three other men who are often called her brothers, planned their escape – and succeeded. This happened around 1690. They made their way into the jungle of the Blue Mountains where they would be harder to find and eventually resolved to split up, so they could rally other maroons and organize the resistance. Nanny decided to remain in the Blue Mountains, where she would become the leader of the Windward Maroons of the East, while two of her brothers would head the Leeward Maroons in the West.

Word got out amongst the slaves that there was refuge in the mountains and her camp grew. By 1720 the area she controlled had become a small city which they named Nanny Town. The settlement was built strategically, overlooking the surrounding landscape while remaining hidden itself. It was only accessible via a small path that could only be walked by one person. When the British attacked, Nanny’s men were able to kill them one by one, so even a relatively small band of Maroons were able to eliminate a much larger and better equipped force. Even though the British did manage to capture the stronghold on several occasions, they never managed to hold it. Nanny and her people knew the surroundings perfectly and had adjusted their fighting style accordingly. Their precise guerilla attacks drove their adversaries home quickly. But they did not only defend, they also attacked. They raided plantations to free more slaves and thus add to their numbers, as well as to collect supplies and acquire new weaponry. Thanks to their efforts, about 1000 slaves were freed – by the Windward Maroons alone.

Nanny was a brilliant strategist and employed several decoys to ensure the safety of her people. She would have the British led into traps an ambushes and even when they retaliated, the dead amongst the Maroons were few, less than ten people. Queen Nanny was also an obeah woman, a spiritual healer, a status that earned her even more respect besides the obvious plus side of being able to care for her wounded warriors. She also encouraged her people to continue to honor their traditions and kept them alive herself by passing down the legends, songs and customs of her people. This could also be seen as a tactical maneuver, as this practice instilled a big sense of community and pride in the Windward Maroons.

These skirmishes went on for more than a decade until in 1739 the Maroon War was over. The Leeward Maroons had already agreed to a peace treaty that granted them a plot of land but had them promise not to free any more slaves and to assist in catching any new runaways. That last clause didn’t sit quite right with Nanny and she didn’t sign, preferring war over treason. Eventually however, succumbing to pressure from her brothers who had already signed, she agreed and accepted the land she and her people were granted.

So Nanny Town was abandoned and New Nanny Town was founded. Now they mainly focused on the cultivation of crops and livestock as well as hunting. They did produce their own food before as well, but now there were no attacks or raids getting in the way of a peaceful life. The community itself was organized much like the Ashanti communities of Ghana, with an economy based on trading produce for other necessities. Queen Nanny had made herself a new home away from home and she continued to live in this place until she passed away around 1755 as an old woman. Another story tells that she was killed around 1733 in one of the many battles with the British, although I find that unlikely, as the plot of land was allocated to “Nanny and the people now residing with her and their heirs” which indicates that she was still alive in 1740.

While the original Nanny Town has since disappeared, New Nanny Town still exists, although it is now named Moore Town. Until this day many women there are being called by the honorific “Nanny” although there is only one Queen. In 1976 she was made a National Hero of Jamaica – the only woman amongst them – and her portrait can be found on the Jamaican 500 Dollar Bill, which is also commonly known as a “Nanny.” On top of that numerous streets and places are named after her and a statue has been erected in Moore Town. Still she continues to inspire Jamaicans to create art and there even is a movie about her life!

While often ignored by Western scholars, she remains alive in the hearts of her people, a symbol of their strength and unity.

image credits:

1: Nanny of the Maroons – Link
2 & 3: Renee Cox: Revisiting Queen Nanny Series – Link  – check out the full series here
4: Gloria Simms plays Queen Nanny – Link – check out the movie here
5: 500 Jamaican Dollars banknote (Nanny of the Maroons) – Link

Hortense Mancini – The Runaway Dutchess

This time I’d like to introduce you to one of my biggest history crushes: Her name is mostly mentioned in relation to her famous family and as a famous mistress, but she is so much more than that. Today’s post is about Hortense Mancini, a runaway wife who bedded kings. Are you interested yet? Because it keeps getting better. But let’s start with the beginning.

Hortense was born in Rome as the fourth of the five Mancini sisters, who were to become famous for their beauty and wit. When their mother was widowed in 1650, she sent the girls to Paris to live with their uncle Cardinal Mazarin. She hoped that his position as the king’s minister would allow her daughters to find suitable husbands. And the plan worked. The sisters were superstars at the French court, famed for their olive-skinned beauty which differed from the “standard French girl” and for their scandalous lives; either praised or despised, but definitely talked about. They even had a collective name: “The Mazarinettes” – remind you of anyone? (In the picture, Hortense is the one on the far right.)

Anyways, there were a lot of suitors. And I mean a lot. And they were respectable too. But because Hortense was her uncle’s favourite, no one seemed to be good enough for her. The cardinal had rejected a ton of suitors, among them Charles II, the exiled King of England (who funnily enough was legitimized only a few months later and was quick to reject the cardinal’s offer of Hortense’s hand and a lot of gold – hurt pride and all.) Finally in 1661, on his deathbed, Mazarin signed a marriage contract between Hortense and one of Europe’s wealthiest men: Armand Charles de La Porte de La Meilleraye. Not a good choice as it turned out.

Hortense was a cheerful girl (just look at the flower portrait on the left!), liked by everyone who met her, while Armand was a grumpy and jealous person. Also he was twice her age. Not to mention that he had that weird obsession with sex – and not in a good way. In his vast art collection, every bit of nudity was either painted over or chipped off, the teeth of his female servants were knocked out so they wouldn’t attract suitors and he tried to keep them from milking the cows (because udders are sexual, you know). Hortense was forbidden from meeting with any other men and often woken up at midnight when her husband decided to sweep her room for hidden lovers. Finally he forced her to move to the countryside with him, away from her beloved city.

Sure enough, Hortense was more than unhappy. And she decided to do something against that. And so she took a lover who was her age. Her name was Sidonie de Courcelles. Armand was shook when he found out, oh, the immorality. So he put both girls in a convent. That’ll teach them. Well, that plan kinda backfired – who would have thought? Honestly, I’m a little sorry for the nuns. The two girls were basically the Fred and George of the nunnery: they spiked the Holy Water with ink, flooded the nun’s beds and even tried to escape through the chimney. So in the end Hortense had to reluctantly return to her husband. She stayed for seven years, in which she bore four children. She did not idly take the abuse though. It was around that time when she started on her memoirs – highly unusual for women in the 17th century. Her main reason was to chronicle her husband’s behavior to have a solid case against him in court. It did not do her any good though and her attempt to divorce Armand failed.

But now she truly had enough and bolted, donning men’s clothing and leaving her children behind. A move so unusual at the time, that it attracted a lot of attention – not only from the public, spawning own magazines devoted to the topic, but also from the court. Soon the French King and her former suitor, the Duke of Savoy offered themselves as her protectors. Graciously she accepted the pension offered by the king and moved into the household of the Duke. Unfortunately he died not long after and his wife kicked her out again. Once more she was alone. Her husband had managed to freeze all of her bank accounts, including her pension from the King, which left her penniless – unless she returned to him. But that was out of the question. Enter the English ambassador. To secure his own status and maybe even improve it a little he’d like Hortense to try and replace the current mistress of Charles II. Does that name ring any bells? Right, the guy she’s supposed to seduce is the same King of England who wanted to marry her earlier, which didn’t quite end so well. Still, she was willing to give it a shot. Where else should she go anyways?

Soon she was on her way to London, pretending to be visiting her cousin there and once again dressed as a man. She travelled through Germany, having her memoirs basically published on the way. In January 1675 she arrived at the English court and by August she had been given an apartment and a generous pension by King Charles II. Less than one year later, she fully took the place of his chief mistress. It was the perfect match. They both loved lavish parties, riding and fencing. The King didn’t even mind her refusal to address him as “majesty” or her numerous affairs (playwright Aphra Behn even dedicated the introduction of one of her novellas to Hortense, turning it into a full-blown love poem.) And he liked her penchant for cross-dressing. Life could have been great.

And it was, until Hortense decided to start a relationship with Anne of Sussex. You see, generally the king didn’t care which beds she hopped into, but Anne was his daughter – an illegitimate daughter, but still. It didn’t really help that the two girls were caught in the midst of a friendly fencing match. In their nightgowns. Right in the middle of a public park. Watched (and presumably cheered on) by a group of onlookers. Immediately Anne was sent to an estate in the country, where she reportedly refused to leave her bed and just lay there, kissing a small painting of her beloved Hortense. That alone would not have tipped the King over the edge, but then Horense took the Prince of Monaco as her lover. Another royal was just too much for poor Charles II and he refused to pay her pension for a few days, but quickly relented. Hortense however had to give up her position as the King’s favourite to her predecessor in 1677. They did however remain friends until his death in 1685.

With both of her protectors dead however, Armand came back. Yep, I had hoped to never hear of him again as well. And so in 1689, he went to court, demanding his wife to return to Italy with him. But Hortense fought – and won. She was allowed to stay in England. And while her pension was reduced by the new King she kept her estate, which she turned into a salon for intellectuals and artists. In 1699, Hortense too died. It isn’t entirely sure how, but her drinking problem is mostly assumed to have been her downfall, but there are also rumors of a suicide.

One might think the story of Hortense Mancini ends here. But did you forget that Armand is still alive? Yes, even after her death, he couldn’t just let her be. He literally took her dead body with him while he travelled the country, visiting all the estates she had despised so much. It took four months until he finally allowed her to find a resting place in her uncle’s tomb. I hope she whoops his ass in the afterlife.

You can still buy her autobiography (and that of her sister)!
It’s on amazon but if you can, please support your local bookshop!

image credits:

1: “Three Nieces of Cardinal Mazarin” (detail; fltr: Marie, Olympia, and Hortense) by an unknown French artist, ca. 1660 – Link
2: presumed portait of Hortense Mancini by Jacob Ferdinand Voet, 1671 – © Hermitage Museum (ГЭ-5743) – Link
3: “Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, as Cleopatra” by Jacob Ferdinand Voet, 17th century – © Bonhams (Lot 17) – Link
4: “Portrait of Ortensia Mancini, as Aphrodite” by Jacob Ferdinand Voet, ca. 1675 – © Christie’s (Lot 202) – Link

Katharina Henot – The Postmaster Who Was Burned As A Witch

Today I’d like you to meet Katharina Henot, Germany’s first female postmaster who was burned as a witch for economic and political reasons.

But let’s start at the beginning. She was born around 1570/80 to a wealthy family in Cologne (a city I live really close to by the way, it’s a local lady this time!), her mother coming from Dutch nobility. The family valued education and so most of her many siblings ended up with intellectual work, often in the church and one of her sisters joined the local convent. Originally being a silk merchant, father Henot managed to secure the job of reorganizing the country’s postal system, with Katharina and her husband (this is the only time her husband is mentioned anywhere) assisting him. Due to father Henot’s ambitious character however, his “supervisor” quickly got rid of him as soon as the job was done in 1603.

But the Henots fought. They fought for more than 20 years.

And finally, in 1623, they succeeded. Father Henot was reinstalled as postmaster of the city of Cologne. He had however reached the ripe age of 91 by that time, so Katharina took over (I suspect that her husband had died by that time). When he died two years later, the family was terrified to lose their licence again. And so they hid his passing, going as far as forging signatures when needed. For three months they managed, then they were found out. And her father’s adversary from before grabbed the opportunity. With plans to establish a central postal system, which would render the individual towns’ postmasters obsolete, he tried to take Katharina’s post from her. But she didn’t want to hear anything about it. And she went to court. Again.

And that’s when the rumours started. Nuns of the convent nearby (where not only her sister but also her daugher resided) reported being possessed, with Katharina being the one who had bewitched them. And even though she had always been giving generously to the church, her being a witch was soon the talk of the town. (This seems particularly odd to me because the nuns surely must have known her, being religious and having family members in the convent, but on with the story…)

You might have guessed it, Katharina did not take it silently. She wrote a letter to the archbishop, rejecting the accusations and urging him to inspect the circumstances at the convent. If he wouldn’t do that, she hoped that he would at least allow her to be judged by the clerical high court instead of the worldly one, which would most likely result in a mild punishment if she showed regret. These hopes were not to be fulfilled. Despite her knowing the archbishop personally and having lent him a big sum of money some time ago, he decided that her case was one for the worldly court – thus practically sealing her fate already.

Slowly running out of ideas, Katharina still did not give up. In consultation with her defense lawyer and supported by her brother, they planned a purgation process, which would basically allow her to swear herself free from the accusations (no, I don’t quite get that either). The formalities however took forever – apparently no one wanted to solve the situation quickly and above all, positively.

While still waiting for her purgation, Katharina was formally charged with witchcraft in early 1627. Two days later, she was arrested. Against regulations, she was denied medical aid, visitors and a proper defense in court. Her knowledge about law was dismissed, she wasn’t even told the exact charges. Her brother tried to have her released on bail, but was denied.

But even then Katharina did not break. Despite being crippled from torture and sick from the conditions in prison, she would not confess. She even managed to get out two letters to her brother, written with her left hand as her right had been paralyzed due to the torture. These letters chronicled her experiences in prison and once more declared her innocence, naming witnesses who could attest her. There was no answer.

On May 19, 1627 Katharina Henot was sentenced to death.

The accusations were “harmful magic, resulting in the death of five people, harmful magic in nature, feeding dispute, magical practices, divination (specifically with a divination rod) and sex with the devil.” These were backed by nothing more than the purportedly possessed nuns, the widespread rumors about her, the formal charge made by another nun and lastly the “confession” extracted from another alleged witch. A quick execution was pressed. And so, on the same day, she was hanged as a witch and her body burned (a little more merciful than the straight up burning).

This whole farce of a court is especially interesting: usually a witch could not be sentenced to death until she confessed – which was usually achieved with torture but since Katharina never confessed, this whole process is so wrong. She even declared her innocence one last time on the way to the execution site for heaven’s sake.

Her brother Hartger seemed to have had the same line of thought, as he chose to resign from his religious duties and asked for the trial records. His request granted at first, he ended up with only a few pages which did not give any new indication. The reasons why he was denied access to the papers are unknown, as is the true reason behind this odd witch hunt – the records did not survive the tooth of time.

It doesn’t end all bad though:

Many hundred years after her death, she is not forgotten in the city: her statue adorns Cologne’s town hall (1st picture: created by one of her descendants, Marianne Lüdicke, in 1988) and a street as well as a school are named in her honor. There’s even a movie (2nd picture: still from the movie “Die Hexe von Köln” from 1989 with Marita Breuer playing Katharina)!

But most importantly, in 2011 Katharina’s descendents achieved her official rehabilitation (and that of 37 other falsely convicted “witches,” male and female) – unfortunately almost 400 years to late. Still, I imagine she would appreciate it.

image credits:

statue: © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 – via Wikimedia Commons
movie still: “Die Hexe von Köln,” 1989 – TV Spielfilm archive

Julie d’Aubigny – The Most Badass Lady Ever

This total badass won at least ten duels, performed on the world’s biggest opera stage, burned down a convent and had to be pardoned by the king twice. May I present to you: Julie d’Aubigny, better known by her stage name La Maupin.

It’s actually not even 100% certain that her name was Julie, but oh well. (And the girl in the picture isn’t her either, it’s “The Fencer” by Jean Béraud (ca. 1890s) – but I think it captures her spirit very well)

Born into a quite wealthy family in 17th century France, she could have just spent her life idly enjoying the country and not moving a single finger. But that wasn’t really her thing. Or her father’s. His name was Gaston (heh) and he was the Master of the Horse for King Louis XIV (the Sun King), responsible for the training of the pages. The sword-training, mainly. So from early on she learned all the important things: fencing, riding, reading and, thanks to her mostly male environment (I couldn’t find out where her mother was – or who for that matter), also the even more important things like drinking, gambling, fistfighting and more stabbing. All of which she did in men’s clothing, a habit she would continue throughout her life.

So, her dad was a pretty hot headed guy and usually disposed of her would-be suitors by cutting them up with his sword. Julie found a loophole though, getting it on with the one guy her father couldn’t duel: his boss (not the king though). She was however far too much for him and he married her off to some calm, dull guy to calm her down a bit. That’s how she became La Maupin for short. It was her husband’s name. But oh boy, did she do the opposite of calming down.

Quite soon after the marriage she had taken a sword master as her lover. It just so happened that he was on the run for murdering his opponent in an illegal duel and she decided to leave the city with him. They made their living with fencing shows and he further trained her in the art, but soon she had surpassed him and ditched his ass, continuing her travels without him. Now her fencing shows looked somewhat like this: Julie brandishes her sword and starts singing a few songs, then challenges anyone in the audience for a duel. Whoever steps up gets to hear a humiliating song about his very person and beaten like he had never held a sword before. Sometimes the audience would even question her womanhood (as she wore men’s clothing like she had always done and of course because “a woman can’t fight like that”). To this she usually responded by tearing her shirt off. It worked.

So, after she had ditched her swordmaster lover, she became involved with a merchant’s daughter. Well, the girl’s father was not too happy about that, so he sent her off to a convent, hoping to separate the two. Yeah, right. Julie took the holy orders and joined the convent – to continue her love affair there. Soon after an elderly nun happened to die (no, Julie didn’t kill her …it seems) and La Maupin did the only logical thing: putting the body into her lover’s room, setting fire to the building, grabbing her girl and getting the fuck out of there. Three months later our heroine delivered the girl back to her parents’ doorstep – she had gotten bored again. In these three months she was charged for this lovely little adventure of convent-arson and kidnapping and actually sentenced to burn at the stake. But smart as she was, she rang up (not literally, mind you) her old paramour, her father’s boss (remember him?) who used his influence to have King Louis XIV pardon her.

(There is actually a book about her adventures and that’s where the picture on the left is from: “Mademoiselle de Maupin” by Theophile Gautier, from 1898, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley)

With her newfound freedom, she made for Paris, singing to earn her living. Once in a tavern after one of her songs, she was insulted by a drunkard and challenged him to a duel outside. Do I need to say it? She cut him up pretty good, but they survived. The next day she felt kinda bad about it, so she visited the poor chap to see how he was doing and ended up becoming involved with him. You gotta hand it to her, getting a guy you stabbed to be your lover is not a small feat. And remarkably the two remained lifelong friends even after their romance subsided.

And all this before she was 20! What a lady! And it’s not like her wild life ended then. Nooo.

Julie made it to Paris and after being initially rejected, she became a member of the Paris Opéra, the world’s most respected opera at that time. And damn, did she cause a stir. After all, opera singers were the rock stars of the time. Her beautiful voice and androgynous beauty captivated the audience and her passionate character brought with it many admirers. That character did mean of course that she either slept or fought with most of her colleagues at one point. At one point for example, another actor was making disrespectful remarks about his female colleagues. After he had dismissed her complaint – rudely – she awaited him in a dark alley on his way home, challenging him to a duel. When he refused (on the grounds of being a coward), she beat him up with a wooden cane and stole his pocket watch and snuffbox. The next day at work she caught him complaining about a gang of thieves assaulting him and swiftly pulled out his watch and box, proving him to be a liar and a coward in front of all his coworkers.

Her opera career was interrupted when she fled to Brussels for a while, following an incident at a royal ball. She had attended dressed in her men’s attire and spent the evening courting a young woman and finally French kissing her (hehe) right there in front of everyone. Three gentlemen were particularly unhappy about that and challenged her to discuss matters outside. In the following duel she defeated all of them and returned to the party, leaving her opponents bleeding. At that time however, anti-duelling laws grew increasingly harsh, and although King Louis XIV was so amused by the whole situation that he pardoned her (for the second time), she decided to spend some time abroad until the heat had calmed down.

She did return to Paris and the opera though and for the first time entertained a lover for some longer time: the Madame la Marquise de Florensac (see picture: An anonymous print from ca. 1700 called “Mademoiselle Maupin de l’Opéra”). After her beloved’s death, Julie’s trail gets a little fuzzy. It is known that she died around 1707 from unknown causes aged about 37. As far as I could find out about her later life, her husband and her were reunited and lived together fairly peacefully in Paris. Yes, she was technically still married throughout this whole tale. Did you forget about this too? From what it seems, she sure did.

image credits:

1: “L’Escrimeuse” (The Swordswoman) by Jean Béraud, date unknown – via Wikimedia Commons
2: from “A Second Book of Fifty Drawings” by Aubrey Beardsley – via Wikimedia Commons
3: Bibliothèque nationale de France (FOL-QB-201 | FRBNF41505463)