France has historically been the host of a surprisingly high number of fighting women during an era of male dominance. Most people have heard of Joan of Arc, some may even know the story, but few realize just how daring and dangerous breaking with tradition was during the Middle Ages.
The Maid of Orléans
Joan of Arc was born in 1412 (we have this as an exact date because she stated she was 19 at the time of her trial in 1431) the daughter of Jacques d’Arc, a minor town official and farmer in the minor French town of Domremy. In the early 1400s, France was in shambles. Brugundians and Armagnacs formed a political rift within the political world of France, leaving an opening for their neighbor, the English. The English had conquered most of the mainland and dethroned the king, scoring a series of stunning military victories on the split political nation of France. Charles VII of France was the heir apparent to the throne, but lacked the control or the military to ascend to his throne. Then Joan appeared. In 1424, she said she saw Saint Michael, Saint Margret and Saint Catherine, who told her she must aid the Dauphin (Charles) in regaining France. An illiterate peasant girl, she petitioned a local garrison captain for aid in her journey to Charles’ court in Chinon. When she was refused, a pair of his troops, both minor nobility, swore to aid the maid in her task, allowing her enough influence to gather a small group of troops for her task. When she made it to Chinon, her petition to join the siege reinforcements in Orleans was allowed by Charles.
Historians have guessed that Charles allowed a teenaged peasant girl who claimed to be guided by God to lead his army because all other logical decisions had failed. Joan of Arc was, in a way, France’s hail Mary pass. She was allowed to become a pseudo-knight while leading the troops, but all her equipment had to be donated. When asked about a sword, she said they would find her blade in the church of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois (they found one there). When she got to Orleans, Joan led a sudden assault on the defenders, foolhardy and decidedly against the orders of the commanding French officer. The attack was a success, but won her few allies in the command unit. When she planned another attack, the commander ordered the gate barred. Joan gathered the townsfolk, common soldiers and a single captain to force the mayor to unbar the gates. With her ragtag force, she attacked the main English stronghold, taking an arrow to the neck. With a glorious victory, the siege turned in the French favor after that. Joan reportedly took a cannonball to the head during the fight and survived.
Successfully battling her way through France, she was ultimately captured in May of 1430 by the Burgundians. After a number of escape attempts (including jumping out of a 70 foot tall tower into a dry moat) she was brought to trial in a Medieval/Ecclesiastical kangaroo court. Tried for heresy, Joan was asked if she was in the grace of God; a trick question that would end in heresy with nearly any answer because one could not know if they were in the grace of God, but if not then she would be considered guilty. Her answer bespoke a great deal of understanding: ‘If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.” Joan was eventually convicted of heresy on what amounts to a technicality because of her dress. Joan wore men’s clothing while a prisoner to deter rape, then when she was tried, she wore women’s clothing. Switching back to men’s again allowed them to consider it a repeat offense of Heresy which would be punishable by death. She was burned at the stake as a witch and a heretic in 1431, but her efforts in France eventually led to Charles VII taking the throne.
Julie d’Aubigny, born in 1670, was quite well known in France during her era. Her father taught her as though she was a son, training her in etiquette, literature, dancing, music and above all, swordsmanship (or in another story, she learned how to use a sword after a long and fortuitous affair with a fencing master). Said to be strikingly beautiful, she floated her way up the social ladder until she was a frequenter of the Parisian courts, gaining the name La Maupin when she married a count of Maupin (she eventually bored of him and left). Her story becomes interesting when her habits become involved; she enjoyed dressing up as a man and doing all the things men do. She would start fights, she would seduce women, she would do all of this while dressed up as a male and clearly being a female. She reportedly killed more than 11 men in duels throughout her life, all the while becoming a popular opera star. Her exploits were all encompassing and read very much like a penny dreadful story, with the exception that she was a woman. In one story, she seduced a young woman while she was dressed as a man and began a torrid love affair. When the woman’s family found out, they sent the young lass to a convent. La Maupin followed her to the convent, became a nun, STOLE A DEAD NUN’S BODY and placed it in the girl’s room, which they then set on fire and escaped, leaving a charred corpse where the girl would have been. After some time, the girl had to return to her family and La Maupin was tried as a male for everything between body snatching and kidnapping. She never showed at the trial, but the sentence was death by fire.
In another story, La Maupin was at a party and started a duel with three squires, all of whom she defeated. One of them was run clean through his shoulder with the blade (far enough that he could look behind himself and see his own blood on the sword). When the day was through she found herself worried that the young man had been killed (she never worried after duels in usual circumstances) and she found the surgeon of the city to find out if the lad survived. She found out he was the son of the Duke of Luynes and went to him to apologize, dressed as a woman. One thing led to another, and the two had a long and torrid affair from then on. Because dueling was illegal, she had a sentence hanging over her for her many actions, but in most cases, the King was persuaded by assorted nobility to give her a pardon for her actions. La Maupin, France’s female James Bond.
Citations, because the history of Cross dressing is surprisingly large:
I’d Have Believed Her After She Predicted Finding a Sword in a Random Church:
La Maupin Should Really be More Popular With the Internet: