La Jaguarina

In this week’s episode of Bustles & Broadswords, it’s another delve in the podcast pre-reboot archives. This time one from Summer 2021, all about a legendary rider who did countless duel shows on horseback against men with an unbeatable track record. Expect ambiguously queer sportswomen, absolutely devastating public challenges in the local newspaper and jaguar print hot pants. Also…Muchacho the horse.

Show notes and full transcript below!


Hello and welcome. To Bustles and Broadswords. This is a podcast about women with swords throughout history, fiction and the queer territory in between. I’m your sword-wielding and storytelling host, Claire Mead. And today’s episode is another one from the archives – of Summer 2021. Because it’s got everything. Performance wise yes but also queer vibes, brilliant outfits, a strenuous fencing training montage, and a horse called Muchacho. Amongst other things. So take it away, Summer 2021 Claire!
I haven’t been fencing in a while due to you know…the world outside. I’m very rusty. And when I return to fencing with fellow human beings – I’ll need my trusty foil blade for sure. But I’ll also need a good fencing instructor and a whole lot of training before fighting in any competition anytime soon. Because skill in sword fighting is not something you’re born with – it’s something you work at. Whatever your gender is. Then – and now.

Today’s sword lady knows that – as she rides across a dusty racetrack in the middle of nowhere in 1870s California, to the cheers of the crowd. Her armour is gleaming and her sword is poised, ready to strike as she picks up speed astride her steed, no doubt smiling with ferocious glee behind her mask. And as her opponent faces her relentless, skillful attacks – perhaps the public challenge she issued in the local newspaper to swordsmen like him is ringing in his ears. Maybe at this very moment another man is reading the very same challenge, with a disbelieving scoff or an angry scowl.
This woman is not only challenging champion swordsmen. She’s offering a handsome reward to the one who will beat her. Her current opponent maybe thinks – he’s different. He’s not like those other men. He’ll prove her wrong. And collect the reward. But in a few strikes, she cuts him down. As the cheers ring out she’s already added him to her list of victories. And crossed yet another champion swordsman off her hit list. Only one thing could stop her. Running out of men to fight. Because this is what she trained for. With the help of a fencing master who looked past the assumptions of his time.

This is the Queen of Swords of the 19th Californian duelling scene. The Amazon of the American race-tracks. The 19th century jouster with as much skill in sword fighting – as in showmanship. Or show…womanship. This is…Ella Hattan. Better known under her stage name – La Jaguarina.
The crowd cheers for her but this isn’t her first victory. These past few years sheùs risen up as a swordwielding celebrity. But like most celebrities the crowd knows her but they also don’t really know her. And maybe never will. Because that’s also the persona she cultivates.
She’s a swashbuckling mystery wrapped up in a kickass enigma. Born on the Old Continent of Europe of an English father and a Spanish mother. Learnt the noble art of the sword before arriving in the United States with one goal in mind…defeat every single swordsman who would dare challenge her…At least – that’s what Ella Hattan wanted you to believe. And that’s the legend that she built for herself to match her flamboyant stage name. So much so that legend and fact are mixed up in her story.
So let’s rewind a tiny bit. To Ella Hattan when she is not yet a legend and is still an American girl born in the 1850s, hailing from Ohio and more specifically Zanesville, the Pottery Capital of the world. Ella’s mother, Maria, isn’t really interested in teaching her pottery though. She’s not like other moms, she’s a cool mom. When young Ella is old enough – she teaches her how to fence and how to knife fight. At the age of eight. No Play-Doh or colouring books for this child, no. We’re going straight for the knives. And I must say…I’m really jealous.

So Ella at this stage is already a mini menace with a sword. But at 16 she’s also a drama queen. Who joins a travelling theatrical troupe and like every single starry-eyed protagonist at the start of a musical has her sights set on New York City to become a professional actress. I’d like to tell you it was a story of hardships and moral lessons filled with plucky side characters…but, well, basically, it took her two years and it wasn’t very difficult. By the age of 18 she’s in the 19th century Big Apple after putting in the work through theatrical touring. Musical’s over! And you like Ella, may be thinking – okay, now what?

Sometimes you have a dream and then once you reach it you wonder – is my life calling somewhere else? Well, turns out my life calling is researching and drawing and writing about sword lesbians so I’m in a pretty good place right now, doing this podcast. But what about Ella? Turns out performing remained central to Ella’s life in many ways. But her soul-searching led her to the doorstep of a person who’s really going to fulfill her emotional and spiritual needs. And those emotional and spiritual needs were to hit as many people with a sword as possible. And that person was Colonel Monstery.

A fencing master who was head of the School of Arms in New York. Now this podcast is all about destroying assumptions. But let’s be honest. It’s safe to say that a lot of 19th century American men as products of their time had pretty messed up views about femininity and masculinity and what men and women supposedly could and could not do. Including fighting. Especially fighting. That’s why we’re here right? Because even now, some men are under the fascinating assumption that women didn’t fight or are inherently peaceful, nurturing creatures.

[Evil feminist giggle] That’s cute.

A lot of these men do enjoy flaunting their masculinity as a way of somehow imposing that specific expression of it on all other men and preventing people who are not men from accessing certain activities. So imagine a towering, muscular, mustachioed 19th century dude whose body is covered by the twenty two scars of the countless duels he’s fought. He’s fought with sword, he’s fought with pistol, fought with lance and knife. And when he didn’t have those you still wouldn’t be safe, he’d beat you with his bare fists. On the ring, on the streets – doesn’t matter. So this guy takes one look at Ella – and welcomes her inside.

Because this is what he had to say about women fencing:

“It is a great mistake to suppose that women cannot learn fencing as quickly as men…the fact is the women are much the quicker pupils. They are more flexible of body; their limbs are more supple and elastic—that’s one advantage. Their mental brightness enables them to pick up the strategy of the art quicker—that’s a second advantage. And, thirdly, they have more nerve—it’s a fact; I don’t know why, but it’s a fact.”

Monastery doesn’t give a damn about your misogyny. Granted, the supple and elastic limb thing based on gender is kind of weird but we can still give him an A for overall good effort for not being a sexist weirdo who thinks women inherently can’t fight. For him women have charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. For not only fencing but also boxing and other forms of fighting. In 1874 his “Private Instruction to Ladies and Misses” offered classes for exercise and fencing alike. And like he did with men, he taught his women students how to use a range of military weapons, not just practice foils! He also offered classes for self-defense specifically made to equip women against any aggression or harassment they may encounter in the streets. With the most dangerous, dainty and discreet weapon – the parasol:

“An umbrella is a fearful weapon if used with both hands like a bayonet. It will parry the blows of a big bully, and you can return him a stab in the face or breast or stomach that will settle him. A lady can defend herself from outrage with her parasol in the same way…I remember a certain girl who killed a ruffian who assaulted her by a stab with the point of her parasol.”

And you know that whoever this certain girl is, he was VERY proud of her. He boasts that his bayonet-thrust technique applied to a parasol could, according to him, “break a rib” or “put out an eye.”

And Monstery was not just jumping on an end of century trend of fencing being a more accepted mainstream sport for women. So much so that fencing would become more popularized and even lead to women being able to fence in the Olympic Games in 1924. Monstery was doing this from at least the 1850s onwards. His pupils included Lola Montez, the famous actress, dancer and one-time Countess of Landsfeld when she was the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria as well as Ada Isaacs Menken in the 1860s – an actress, poet and performer who was apparently most well known for her performance in a play in which she rode nude on a horse – scandalous stuff for the mid 1800s.

In fact a lot of Monstery’s pupils, at least the high-profile ones we know of today were actresses, like Ella Hattan. Kind of weird but kind of makes sense. The way fencing for women was justified at the time for women was often for acting purposes. In Europe, Johann Hartl’s women’s fencing class in Vienna, founded in 1873, aimed to train dancers and actresses in the proper use of weapons as props in fight choreographies. Incidentally, they turned out to be so good at it that the Viennese Fencing Women’s group ended up touring across Europe and America doing demonstrations! And will actually pop up later in this story, stay tuned. This also honestly feels like an excuse for women to engage with a practice they found interesting but would not have been able to justify in any other context.

“Oh, swordfighting – Yes, you see I’m researching the role of Joan of Arc so I simply MUST learn how to wield a sword properly!” For sword lady accuracy. And I can tell you, having once upon a time learnt how to stagefight with a sword – it’s no joke. To know how to represent something accurately, you need at least the basics in terms of rules and in terms of movements. And then well – you’re hooked. At least that’s what happened to me.

Maybe Ella Hattan was in that situation. Maybe she wanted to use swordfighting as a bit of a career pivot. But either way her life would change because it’s time for a training montage. And this isn’t a crash course that lasts a few weeks. This is a full on, years long commitment. This is what she says about it later on:

“I fenced three hours a day with foil and sabre for three years before I was considered really qualified as a fencer… The road to success as a sabre fencer is paved by aching muscles and bruises from cuts from a sword.”

So Ella gets cut down. But she gets up again. And again. And her power grows. Monstery sees her potential. So he throws at her everything he’s got. And what he’s got is an armoury’s worth of weapons. She does fence the traditional way – with a foil. The same one she may have learnt to fence with as a child. For most traditional fencing – a foil would have been the way. A foil is not meant to cause damage. Its tip is capped at the end and it’s not sharp. It’s what is still used in fencing today. She also trains with a saber – a curved sword used for cutting and thrusting. Sabres were used in academic fencing in the 19th century and then they inspired a new addition to fencing tools – unsurprisingly the fencing sabre. The sabre has a long and interesting history but the main takeaway for our story here is that it was hugely favoured by cavalry because it was really great for anyone on horseback to enact swift cutting motions. Just like the broadsword. It is characterised by its basket-hilt, meant to protect the whole hand from attacks. Always handy. Handled with one…hand, it was also used by cavalry.

Ella also learns how to use the rapier which would have had long-standing use as a military weapon but also as a civilian one, especially in the context of duelling and was a long-standing staple of fencing from the 16th century onwards.

So that’s already…a lot. Monstery has a lot to teach and Hattan just says…bring it on. Which brings us to our next lot of weapons. Never-ending.

The bayonet – because if you can’t learn how to fight with a dagger meant to fit on the end of a rifle to end up with some kind of murderous hybrid spear, what are you even doing with your life? And perhaps true to her childhood knife-fighting training roots, Hattan also learnt how to fight with the Spanish knife – a folding blade knife which can have dual purposes, like cutting some salami or stabbing your enemy – and the Bowie knife which is actually a lot less glam rock than it sounds and is more like a fighting knife with a fixed blade. And just to round it all off nicely, she also learns how to fight with a lance – which is a polearm – which basically means that the nasty pointy bit is on the end of a long shaft, which is great when you want to strike down your enemy but also not get too close to them. Social distanced murder basically. And it’s also good for, you guessed it, horseback. I wonder what this is building up to. It’s not like we mention it in the intro!

But sometimes the least flashy tools can also be the most deadly. She also fights with the singlestick which is…get ready for this…a stick. It would have been used instead of a sword to enact fencing moves and its practice originated, I can only imagine, with severe military training budget cuts. Seriously though it would have been really useful in self-defense if you were attacked in the street and only had a walking stick. Or a parasol. And we’ve seen how strongly Monstery believes in the murderous potential of the parasol. Or even a good pair of fists. As this snippet documented by a newspaper gleefully demonstrates when Ella Hattan is confronted by harassment on the streets:

“As soon as she comprehended what his words meant, bang, biff! she landed right and left, and he fell to the ground. ‘Get up, you coward,’ she commanded, and he, overcome by the ringing tones, very foolishly crawled to his knees. Biff! Bang! Right and left landed again, and down he went, and this time he refused to get up and sprawled on the ground, calling for help.” In the anecdote then goes on to show everyone how she just punched this dude without damaging her, and I quote, “rosy little knuckles.” Going for the jugular – just like her jaguar namesake. Even after the fight is done.

Everything about her exudes confidence – in her power and skills. Perhaps because for so long, during those three years, she was completely in the dark about how skilled she actually was. Monstery doesn’t go for a lot of positive reinforcment or praise. So when Hattan actually starts duelling other people she quickly realises she can beat them. She’s ready. And she’s unstoppable. With a sword and without a sword. On foot – and on horseback. Because in addition to this three-year stint into becoming a one-woman threat in all the bladed weapons ever, she also learns horseriding – to do it all on a horse. Because hey, why not. Why ever the hell not.

Years later in 1903 this is what she remembered of it:

“When I took up mounted fencing what I suffered no woman will ever know, for I do not think any other woman will ever try it. I was put on a horse and kept on that horse, astride like a man, from 7 0’clock in the morning to noon every day. During that time I worked with my trainer, fencing mounted. At 12 o’clock I was taken off my horse stiff and sore, and almost carried to my house. Then came the agony of taking off my riding clothes.”

In this extract Ella describes the pain she sustained, and the bandages she wrapped around her arms as her body was blistered and bruised from the effort. She doesn’t shy away from the graphic details (though I’ll spare you because it’s pretty graphic). Point is, Ella doesn’t want to come across as an effortless “this comes naturally” kind of student. She wants to show us that she’s worked hard for this. Although she was wrong on women not following in her footsteps. Many had done so before her. And she’d pave the way for many more to do so.

Which brings us to three years later. We’re in the 1880s. And a crowd is gathering for a popular pastime. Seeing two people duel one another – not just on foot, but most crucially – on horseback. It had already been decades since these fights became popular. They channelled the glitz and glamour of medieval jousting tournaments or the way 19th century people imagined medieval tournaments were like with the excited atmosphere of a boxing match and the weird hybrid mashup result was this – competitive fencing duels. So on a pale winter California day in a dusty racetrack, a man is waiting for his opponent to emerge. That man is Captain Jennings. Formerly part of the British Army’s Royal Hussars and the best master-at-arms in the country. Hard to imagine what he’s feeling at the time. Nervous? Confident? His opponent had already beaten several swordsmen across California. Her first challenge was to the sword champion Duncan C. Ross. But he’d refused. Out of fear? Out of disdain? We don’t know. But she hadn’t wasted any time in finding new opponents to accept her challenge.

She emerges – and at the beginning of her career it’s hard to tell what reaction she would have faced from the grandstands. Confusion? Booing? Cheering? Either way, she keeps going, with a sharp, confident gaze. She’s rocking some tight, cream breeches with knee-length leather boots and a white vest, over which are layered arm protections and a shining bronze breastplate.

Ella Hattan the student is no more.

Only one name would be available to the curious crowd, her enemies and the press documenting the whole thing.

La Jaguarina.

Perhaps Jennings is surprised to see that she is relatively short, and would have had a thicker build than the typical image of a dainty stick-thin model of femininity at the time – packing a punch and taking up space, her muscles sharply defined. It’s kind weird to think that when we don’t know what these women look like, we imagine them as slim yet super fit models and not people with actual hips and stomachs and thighs who have the muscle to pack a punch. But we have La Jaguarina staring out from the photographs of the time as proof, with thick thighs that can crush a watermelon – and misogyny. Here to show that women of any size can, regardless of weird values around beauty and attractiveness, do what’s most important – take a sword and beat up some men. She runs her fingers through her dark, elegantly cropped hair before donning her mask – not before the crowd gets to see her graceful features. Jaguarina must have known, even by then, that people would be surprised by her appearance – expecting her to fit some kind of masculine or feminine stereotype and finding that she challenges both ends of that spectrum. Newspapers would describe her “perfect self-control and sweetness” as if her being more masculine would have in any way invalidated her womanhood or exploits. Spoilers, it would not have. Yet these some newspapers recount with admiration her daily routine – in which she maintains her arms of steel by lifting the heaviest swords she can find.

But what really counts is what Jaguarina thinks. And she says it herself to the press better than anyone else: “I’m a firm believer in the philosophy that women were meant to be just as robust and hardy as men—and they can be without losing any of their womanliness.”

Was she about to prove it? Or would this be the one day she was proven wrong? As salutes were made and the crowd held its breath, no doubt others who hadn’t been able to buy a ticket were anxiously waiting for the next best thing – reading all about it the next day. And the Daily Alta of that following day, on 21st February 1887 provided:

“When the signal was given the heavy blades cut through the air like flashes of lightning, and steel rang on steel in a series of movements so rapid in execution as to defy being followed by the eye. (…) until finally the Captain’s arm bent slightly, and the next moment a sounding thwack on his breastplate betokened a point for Jaguarina… The doughty Captain perspired freely, and the gallantry he intended to show the lady had to be thrown away. When he became warmed up the struggle was most exciting, and the scores alternated until the close, when Jaguarina had counted 12 times and he 11.”

It was a close one. But when the cheers erupted, they did so for Jaguarina. And she might have issued a slight smirk, thinking about the first man who had refused her challenge, our friend No-Duel Duncan. Because she had just one upped him – by beating the very man who had once defeated him. And as she gracefully walked away, sword at her side, the cheers of the crowd in her ears, she was perhaps already thinking of the formulation her next challenge. The one that would appear, amongst countless others, in the pages of the Los Angeles Herald as she continued her glorious, flamboyant ascension to gain the title of Master Swordswoman of the United States:

“Let it be clearly understood that no man need hesitate to challenge me because I am a woman, or think he will be called on to show me any consideration for that reason. I grant no favors and I certainly ask none. It is said that this is the day of the ‘new woman.’ If it be so, I hope someone who desires to sustain the reputation of his sex will challenge me before I get to be an old woman and give the ‘new woman’ another chance to prove she is the superior of man.”

And she would get to prove this time and time again. Because Jennings was not her first victory – and it certainly wasn’nt her last. And as her popularity grew, so did the crowds of fans that would follow her at every match. So did the interviews from the fascinated press. And so did the money. How much money? Well, every match may have earned her upwards of $1000 at the time – and by the time she was at the end of her career, her money rewards for whoever could beat her would have proposed $5000 – or $150 000 in today’s money. She was raking in the cash. And she was also clever about her own image and status as a celebrity. Jaguarina to the world. And Rina even to her close friends. Not Ella.

Because remember she’s an actress – the duelling arena was her stage. And the show must always go on. As the nicknames for her grew – Queen of the Sword, Ideal Amazon of the Age and Champion Amazon of the World – so did her story. The story of a swashbuckling swordswoman who had travelled the world and drew her fighting spirit from her Spanish heritage. She understood the power of a narrative – of a persona. You don’t just beat your opponent – you put on a show. And she would have fully taken advantage of the fascination of a crowd drawn in by a woman swordfighter going up against men. Drawn in out of fascination, out of admiration and out of a strange mix of dread and anticipation – could one woman beat all these men? Would this time be the one time she lost? She kept people guessing – and kept on winning. And by the time 1888 rolls around, just a few years after she started duelling swordsmen, the Jaguarina brand is a well oiled machine – with a manager and high demand for duels coming across her desk from eager duelling tournament organisers. And that’s how her most famous duel happens. Against Conrad Wiedermann.

Wiedermann is a legendary German sword master – a towering giant of a man, a gymnast and the director of the German-American Turnverein gymnastic club which promoted German culture in the US. He’s originally a bit reluctant to fight La Jaguarina – reportedly out of, according to the press, chivalric concerns in terms of wounding a lady. Which…dude. Spare us. The damsel’s already beaten all your colleagues. I think she’ll be okay. It’s likely Conrad Wiedemann thought as much in the end, because he gets over his insecurities and accepts.

La Jaguarina gets the word from the peaceful little California town she lives in, in between matches. She thinks – finally – a real challenge. Get me my horse. I ride at dawn. Yes that’s right. In an age of locomotives, Jaguarina does it old school like some flamboyant travelling knight – and rides to San Diego, a day’s journey away, astride her beloved horse Muchacho. Muchacho had been a good boy – and a very resilient boy, accompanying his mistress in her duelling fights on horseback. She wanted to make sure he could build up resilience during this long trip. And as the match prepared itself and the anticipation built up she would train a second horse in San Diego as a reserve – just in case Muchacho is hurt.

Listeners, I know what you’re thinking. It’s okay – Muchacho doesn’t get hurt. But I can’t say as much about one of our opponents’ egos following their fight.

And now it’s time – for California duelling on such a beautiful autumn’s day. At the Pacific Beach race-track at the foot of Rose Canyon. Sunday October 28th 1888. As people crowded in to watch after having forked out a dollar for the most expensive seat in the grandstands, and a few cents to stand – they’re not a few hundred, not even a few thousand. 7000 people are eagerly waiting for the duel to begin. They know it’s going to be a fight using the broadsword. It’s going to be on horseback. And at the very most this fight will last 44 minutes. With 11 rounds of 3 minutes each, with one minute to rest between attacks. Each of the fighters had a second – on horseback as well, who could follow them around and count the points. A point score above the waist – would end the round. The opponents would each have their own corner at either side of the enclosure. And then they would rush at each other as soon as the referee gave the word at the start of each round. So a jousting tournament – but make it 19th century California.

But this is show buisness – and this was the middle of a major entertainment show of which this duel was the crown jewel but not the only attraction. So before the duel – anyone lucky enough to be at the grandstand since morning would have seen a horse race. And just before the duel then – a blindfold wheelbarrow race. But now it’s time for our very serious event.

Jaguarina shows up to face off Wiedermann – To the cheers of the crowd, astride Muchacho. Looking flamboyant – and fashion fabulous. She’s rocking fawn-coloured breeches, top boots and a white flowing shirt, riding around the arena to the cheers of the crowd. And only after that, with great bravado, she puts on her armour. Including her gleaming bronze breastplate which must have been shining in the autumn California sun. Its surface is not smooth – it bears scratches and indentations like battle scars. The ones that she got from her previous opponents. And as she lifts her face towards the grandstand, onlookers would notice that like the battle scars that proudly adorn her breastplate, a pale raised scar cuts across the bridge of her nose, from the time a heavy blow from an opponent caved in her fencing mask. She bears it proudly and defiantly. After all – didn’t she also win that duel?

Jaguarina and Wiedermann face off. They salute. And it begins. And for those not lucky enough to be part of the 7000-strong crowd, The San Diego Union gives us all the juicy details. There were only meant to be 11 rounds. And yet, perhaps an inaccuracy, perhaps a sign that the fight was so enthralling and so close it continued past its assigned timeframe, we are thrown into the excitement of a frenzied twelfth round:
“In the twelfth attack Jaguarina dashed to Wiedemann’s corner, there was a crash of arms, a prolonged ring of steel, a blade was seen to flash through the air, and Jaguarina threw the fragments of a broken sword from her to the ground. In an instant another sword was put into her hand, and again she dashed towards her opponent and slashed right and left, and a moment later the referee announced a point for Jaguarina…the score this time five to five. Jaguarina’s friends urged her to be cautious, but she, heeding nothing, rushed at her opponent and cut right and left, Weidemann parrying with all his might and skill. Recovering himself from the first shock, he aimed a cut at Jaguarina in high carte which was met by a strong parry which threw his sword arm out of line, and before he could return his weapon to protect himself, the sound of Jaguarina’s blade was heard on his cuirasse from a vigorous and unmistakable cut in carte, ending the contest with a score of six to five in favor of Jaguarina. The victor at once doffed her helmet and cuirasse and received round after round of applause from those present, many of her more enthusiastic friends throwing their caps high in the air…”
Wiedermann stands defeated. And he reaches out his hand in sober acknowledgement. And maybe Wiedermann wanted to settle the score or maybe just enjoyed fighting La Jaguarina and recognised that she was a real challenge. Because their second duel happens. This time with foils. Except I’m sorry to say La Jaguarina this time isn’t just as good as she was the first time…
She’s even better. She wins by a higher margin.
This is a hit show. There was an attempt to bring them back. Jaguarina vs Wiedermann, one last time. But this time, Weidermann said no. For whatever reason, he’s done.
But for Jaguarina, the party had only just begun. She basks in the glory in San Diego. She’s invited to take part in shows in which she sings and performs her fencing moves for the crowd. And she’s delighted when she meets the travelling troupe of Viennese women who had come all the way from Europe. There they are! And the story doesn’t say if they got drunk together and partied in San Diego but…I kind of hope they did.

By 1897 our heroic jaguar had defeated 60 men with only a few defeats under her belt that were – usually – swept under the rug or even often dismissed as cheating. After all – she did have a reputation to uphold. But all good things come to an end. As in…she eventually ran out of men to fight. So what does a semi-retired swordswoman who still possesses her flair for the dramatic do, when she’s run out of men to fight? Well, she turns back to her first love – the theatre.

This involves a vaudeville tour throughout California in which La Jaguarina teaches the crowds about fencing – and then poses semi-nude for “tableaux vivants” – a static scene containing one or more actors or models. Because Jaguarina doesn’t just enjoy the performance of her fighting – she also enjoys ways in which she can display it in more seductive ways. Use her femininity once again to make a statement.
Which is why we find her in photographs, boobs and blade bared…absolutely owning it. With as much commanding presence in those pictures than in the ones in which she is posing in slightly less revealing but just as fanciful battle gear. My favourite of these is a photograph in which she stands, sword at her side, in what looks like a circus performance outfit – a far cry away from her breeches and protective bronze breastplate. The outfit is a pair of black tights and a tight top under a waistcoat and what I can only describe as 19th century hot pants. And the waistcoat and 19th hot pants bear the spots of her performance namesake – the jaguar.
So Jaguarina’s having a good time and taking advantage of her fame – branching out towards modelling and performing. But she’s probably facing the pressure many celebrities who slowly see their popularity dwindle must feel. She was barely in her mid-30s so she had time to reconvert back into fighting. No men? No problem! Her manager says – her, why not bullfighting? Cut to a bullfighting ring in Los Angeles. At every single attack of the bull, she dashes out of the way. She plays with fire – teasing the animal and dodging just when its horns are about to impale her. But when the time comes for her to strike, instead of raising her sword, she leaps out of the way and out of the bullring, with a playful laugh. She looks back and declares with a smile: “I couldn’t kill him…why should I? He has as much right to live as I have. Please see that he has plenty of good hay and water.” Jaguarina knows her strength – but she’s not a sadist. Neither with beasts – nor with men.

At the time, Jaguarina was still part of a vaudeville tour, taking part in a night of theatrical extravaganza spearheaded by singer and actress May Howard. That night has everything – burlesque, dancing and, apparently – Tyrolean songs with our friend Jaguarina. Another New York article shows us that she puts on duels as well. But one Monday night in Washington DC, May and Rina, as May might have called her, are leaving the Lyceum theatre. There is no one else around – as the showrunner perhaps May was expected to wrap things up and Jaguarina hung around waiting for her so they could get back to their hotel. (Oh don’t worry – we’ll get back to that detail).

So our gal pals are walking to the hotel. But they soon realise…they are being followed. May is worried but her friend Rina thinks fast – and does the exact opposite of what anyone in that situation would usually do. She leads them down the darkened path of a park – away from the street, away from witnesses. Soon, the man catches up with them – and grabs Jaguarina’s arm. Exactly as she planned. She spins around – and…

“In telegraph time she had him by the collar and was shaking him with all the enthusiasm of a terrier over a newly captured rat. His hat went one way and his cane went the other, and his teeth played a castanet obligato to the solo of good advice that was rapidly breathed into his vibrating ears.”

According to the report from the Washington DC newspaper, her would-be stalker screams for help before finding a way of escaping her grip – leaving his overcoat behind. Jaguarina reveals not only her nerve but also her sense of humour when she’s asked whether she kept the coat:

“No, I did think of adding it to my collection of relics, you know, but the fact was it smelt of cigarettes and moth balls, so I hung it on the shrubbery to air and left it.” When asked whether she hit the man, she shakes her head as well: “I was tempted for a minute to try a half hook on him. I know a little about boxing myself, but on second thoughts I didn’t want to be prosecuted for manslaughter, so I took it out in shaking him and then let him go. Even the sternest justice, you know, should be tempered with mercy.” A laugh accompanied these words – perhaps with the easygoing confidence of someone who knows her strength – and when not to use it.

And after that laugh – presumably – Jaguarina proceeded to return to her hotel – with May Howard. And…look. I know what you’re thinking. Were they…you know…more than just gals being pals? I would love to be able to tell you for sure. But just like this anecdote is open to interpretation…so is their relationship. And so are May and Jaguarina. All we have are fragments – and codes of what may have been. Jaguarina married years later – though no other relationships with men seem to emerge throughout her career.

As for May Howard? Well…I stumbled upon a lithograph from 1898 for May Howard’s Extravaganza – the name of her company. It’s for a production of a show called the Ladies’ Alimony Club. May’s character is at the centre – flanked by two men, but wearing a men’s boating hat – and eyeing the room around her, which looks like a typical men’s club – but, plot twist, full of ladies. Some wearing dresses – and others in men’s clothing, smoking and talking. With the exception of one Black man in waitstaff clothing – represented in a demeaning way as a racist caricature, the other staff is of white women, in men’s clothes as well. And in the background, two shocked men are prevented from entering the club as this crossdressing debauchery is taking place. Now. Does this say anything about May? Or, inherently, about Ella? Maybe so…but maybe not.

Either way – there’s some serious lesbian subtext going on in that picture. Alongside blatant racism and antisemitism. So in terms of the lesbian subtext, by the end of the century, many women would see the reclaiming of traditionally male clothing and activities as a way to reclaim space and agency. This was the “modern woman” Ella was talking about in her public challenge. And more often than not this intersected with women loving women finding new ways to signal their identity and preferences to one another. Through crossdressing, pipe smoking and other traditionally masculine activities. They challenged the gender norms of their time – just like Jaguarina did. And whether or not her gender non-conformity was also a code for lesbian affinities or not – no doubt Ella found herself at home amongst women who could also subvert assumptions and threaten sexist men in doing so. And a good reminder that queer history – in its codes and fragments – is everywhere. Even when you’re not looking for it.

Whatever the truth – when the theatrical tours come to an end – in a way, so does Jaguarina, at the turn of the 20th century. When the star of the Broadway musical The Vanderbilt Cap is talked about in the press years later – it’s not La Jaguarina who is mentioned like she was mentioned in the vaudeville tours she did before. It’s a name we haven’t heard in a while: Ella Hattan. And although journalists make the connection between Hattan and Jaguarina – that ship has sailed. Jaguarina is no longer a theatrical persona. And perhaps fittingly, her last mention of Hattan is in none other than the Toledo Blade newspaper in Ohio for a play called Death before Dishonour. Before she disappeared without a trace.

In many ways this is a story of Hattan making several encounters whose outcomes she determined drastically, in the space of a few sword cuts. But the one encounter that changed the outcome of her life was her training with Monstery. They keep in touch and hold each other up as sources of inspiration. We know that in 1884 they faced off against each other for a public fencing duel – after four hours, it’s declared a tie. In an 1895 duel where she faced off against the Scotsman Jean Gordon, Monstery is one of the judges. And a year later they duelled one another once again. We do not know who won. Perhaps a winning streak for La Jaguarina, perhaps a defeat (since regardless of her overwhelming majority of victories she still did suffer a few of these!), or perhaps another tie. Even outside of this – Monastery cites La Jaguarina as one of his best pupils. And when La Jaguarina is interviewed after his death, her advice feels like it sums up the core of what made this encounter special and life-changing. Her parting words were this: “My advice to people who wish to learn to fence is to go to a good master.”

Ella didn’t just hoard the limelight to herself or see herself as an exceptional swordswoman – she passed her skill on so that she could become a good master of arms on her own terms for any woman who wanted to learn how to fence. She would end up teaching her own fencing classes for women in LA as early as 1890. A reporter says this of her school, as much a reflection of her life as of the passion for swordfighting she wanted to share: “Swords in racks and arranged in trophy groupings, armor and fencing paraphernalia of all descriptions, composed the ornamentation and utility of this quaint apartment, which comes nearer the realization of a hall of the mediaeval period than anything else existing in this part of the world…” But at the centre of it is her and her energy and drive. She was a committed pupil – and now she was a star teacher. Using her power as a master swordswoman to pass this on to a generation of new Amazons.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode researched, narrated and produced by me, Claire Mead. You can find all the sources and recommended reading for this episode in the show notes.

Awkward transition back from archival Claire to present podcast Claire!
Just here to add that any questions or your own sword lady story…write in at In the meantime you can follow the podcast at @bustleswordpod on social media. And you can find me on most social media platforms trying to procrastinate from writing, narrating and producing this podcast at @carmineclaire. Stay safe sword lady lovers and see you in a future episode!

Show Notes

Back into the saddle with Jaguarina! I had a blast researching this one because it had SO. MANY. PRESS SOURCES! And I love 19th century newspapers’ quirky sensationalist style.

Sources and Recommended Reading:

Colonel Thomas Monstery, and the Training of Jaguarina, America’s Champion Swordswoman 

Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies: A Nineteenth Century Treatise on Boxing, Kicking, Grappling, and Fencing with the Cane and Quarterstaff

Los Angeles herald. [volume] (Los Angeles [Calif.]) 1890-1893, October 30, 1892, Page 15, Image 15 

La Jaguarina! | Houghton Library Blog

La Jaguarina: Queen of the Sword

Journal of Manly Arts (Yes, really – lowkey love it – I am calling all my drag performances the Manly Arts now)

Women’s History Spotlight: Jaguarina and Colonel Monstery

#1 – Godey’s magazine. v.132 (1896). – Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library

La Jaguarina! | Houghton Library Blog

Women’s History Spotlight: Jaguarina and Colonel Monstery 

Jaguarina at Pacific Beach

World Renown Champion Amazon: Jaquarina. – Scholarly Articles from Journals, Periodicals, Bulletins, Papers, Proceedings – LA84 Digital Library 

Mara Laura Keire, For Business and Pleasure: Red-Light Districts and the Regulation of Vice in the United States, 1890–1933 

May Howard extravaganza – digital file from color film copy transparency, Library of Congress – before clicking, please be aware that this image depicts racist and antisemitic caricatures. 

Indianapolis Journal,Indianapolis, Marion County, 21 December 1897 

Filmography & Imagery

A photo of La Jaguarina in her awesome jaguar jacket and hot pants.

Another because there are never enough.
Let’s just admire Ella’s breech game for a second.
And the cuirass I can’t seem to be able to pronounce.
And we end on a nice depiction of La Jaguarina duelling!


In this week’s episode of Bustles & Broadswords, hold your horses or wager them in a wrestle for a wedding because it’s time to talk about Khutulun, a Mongolian wrestling legend of a woman – and how her story was adapted for the stage in an iconic (and problematic) opera.

Show notes and full transcript below!


Hello and welcome. To Bustles and Broadswords, a podcast about women with swords throughout history, fiction and the weird limbo in between. I’m your sword-wielding and storytelling host, Claire Mead. And I think variety is the spice of the warrior woman life. So sometimes instead of only talking about women with weapons alone, we talk about women…wrestling.
As we press into a curious crowd somewhere on the steppes of 13th century Mongolia – to catch a glimpse at the ongoing drama. Because this isn’t just any random brawl.
Muscles ripple with the push and pull of bodies, grappling and struggling, clouds of dust raised by dragging feet, grunts and the cheers of the crowd. Before a sudden thud…brings about silence. The one rule of this game of strength and skill? Touch the ground with anything other than your feet and you lose. And now out of four feet that had to this point treaded carefully around one another…two have gone heels up.
The fighter left standing on their own two feet? A towering woman, looking down at the man she’s just brought down with a hefty blend of strength and technique, the shadow of her muscular frame cutting across her opponent’s defeated form as he looks up in time to see the resolve across her face dissolve into satisfaction. As the crowd erupts in cheering, the victor calmly steps forward to accept her reward like she has done dozens, if not hundreds of times before. And that reward comes in the form of a rumble of cantering hooves. A myriad of fine horses – additions to her ever-growing stable. The prize she claimed from any man she defeated. Yet if she were ever to lose, they would get something far more valuable. Her hand in marriage.
This is a woman who refused to play a game she didn’t have a chance of winning. A wrestler in control of her destiny. And the inspiration for an Opera that ended up taking more than a few liberties with her legacy.
Yet which, in many ways, crossed paths with that of a few other iconic women – on screen and on the ring. This…is Khutulun. The noblewoman wrestler of medieval Mongolia.

Now, it’s not always easy to relate with a 13th century figure’s experience. Unless you are also a champion lady wrestler in which case…I’m honoured you’re listening. But I’m sure that the people who grew up with brothers in the audience can relate with our protagonist to some extent. So let’s start there. Because kid Khutulun, before becoming a towering terror, was a kid running along with her pack of brothers. All fourteen of them. Which can maybe kind of connect the gaps here to what led her to become someone who literally beats her potential husbands into the ground…So maybe we imagine a girl who naturally leant more towards so-called masculine activities.

But let’s actually check our cultural assumptions here. Because in 13th century Mongolia, if you’re a kid old enough to ride a horse…who cares about your gender? You’re picking up a bow and arrow, and you’re helping hunt for supper. And women were responsible for setting up and packing up camp in line with the nomadic lifestyle of the clans they were part of. Along with a range of other social responsabilities outside of the home.

Including, as it turns out, war.

So Khutulun was a rider and hunter at a young age – like other girls at the time. And she also had a will to fight. Nurtured by her father Kaidu, who, as she grew up and built up her skills, was gaining power through conquest. By the time she was in her twenties – he was one of the most powerful men in Central Asia, his reign extending across parts of Mongolia, modern day Afghanistan, Siberia and India. And he didn’t do this alone. Because he didn’t just nurture Khutulun’s fighting skills – he was like. Okay then. Get on the horse daughter – we’re warring. Yes that is exactly what he said. Fight me. Wrestle me. Don’t wrestle me. I don’t know how to wrestle. Sword? No problem. Wrestling…never done it, might be great at it, who knows.

Khutulun would don her battle clothing, her quiver of arrows, and maybe, yes, grasp the hilt of her sword and give it a few test swings. An ild – a sleek, slightly curved blade meant to be held in one hand. Unlikely to have been used with her feet firmly on the ground but instead having her other hand gripping her horse’s reins, using its sweeping cutting motion to slash her way through the horde of enemies that she fought alongside her father. Swift, brutal and deadly. And as she came of age, her sword’s lethal swish through the air announcing the arrival of a buff giantess of a woman nobody would want to cross – on and off the battlefield.

And, now, sipping my tea, learning about all this bloodshed, I couldn’t help but wonder…was being a ruthless warrior part of Khutulun’s family tree? Not that you have to have an illustrious geneaology to be a juggernaut of pure brutality of course. Pursue your buff, warrior princess dreams regardless! But it is worth asking in Khutulun’s case, because she and her father have a legacy to uphold, shaped in steel, blood and battle cries.

And that’s because the very name of Khutulun’s great-great grandfather is still associated with ruthless conquest to this very day.

It’s the one and only…Genghis Khan.

The first to hold the title of Khan, or Emperor of the Mongol Empire. The guy who united the nomadic tribes and made the Mongols a force to be reckoned with. That guy.

Let’s talk about the massive war elephant in the room. Some may have seen him as a liberator through conquest…most saw him as a destructor. Regardless, he left a massive Mongol Empire and enabled quite a lot of new ideas, technologies and cultural growth to disseminate. Which, if you’re conquering most of Central Asia and China, granted, is probably bound to happen as a side effect. So when Genghis kicked whatever the equivalent was for a bucket for the medieval-era Mongol Empire…he left a massive territory and just as massive shoes to fill. But plot twist. After Genghis’ death these words are credited to him: “Let us reward our female offspring.”

So hey, maybe Genghis could drink his respect women juice from the skull of his enemies. But add a big pinch of salt to that cup. Empowerment for women then and now is always a question of asking which women are included in that – and which ones are left behind. The women he rewarded in his life would have been his wives, concubines or daughters – or other family relatives. high ranking figures he rewarded accordingly when needed. Some of his daughters’ involvement in conquest would have involved marrying the right people to provide political leverage and strengthen alliances. But women under Genghis Khan also fought. And women were expected to know how to ride and shoot arrows on the same level as men.

After his death though, things regressed – with the violent repression of women relatives by Genghis’s son Ögedei and the murder of his sister Altalun to gain control of her territory. Once Ögedei died, more queens or khatuns were able to rule across the Mongol Empire. Including a woman regent – Töregene Khatun. A lot of this would be snuffed out by even more succession wars. If you think that Genghis’s impressive amount of descendants and THEIR descendants spent an obscene amount of time fighting one another for territory…well, yeah, pretty much. This is a podcast about women with swords, not about the complex legacies of tyrants. Which, by the way, I would totally call Tyrants & Tiaras. But this all made Khutulun the great-great granddaughter of a man who by all accounts saw no reason not to place women in positions of power and the great-granddaughter of a man who did everything he could to take it away from them.

And we don’t quite know about whether all women could fight under Kaidu. This being said, in those battles and many others, women were already key even if they didn’t fight. While the cavalry raced ahead, using the speed of their horses as a tactical advantage, women would lead the supplies and extra horses.

But at least we know – Khutulun was there. And she wasn’t just swanning around as a figurehead, coasting off her glorious legacy and keeping her weapons clean. If Khutulun was handed a bow and arrow and a sword – she was going to use them. As well as her sharp strategic mind. Because more than a soldier, she was a commander. Riding and directing her own regiment of heavy cavalry. Armoured, armed…and deadly. But for all her weapon skills – Khutulun showed in battle what many future wrestling opponents would also feel the full force of – her strategy and the strength of her bare hands.

Imagine a battle scene on the steppes, ranks shifting and reforming. A shimmering sea of riders, a storm of arrows and a chaotic clash of arms. And swift as a shadow, a rider, piercing into the enemy ranks like a knife through butter, with ruthless precision and purpose. She zeroes in on her prey and captures the enemy officer effortlessly, in an iron grip of a chokehold. Not to kill him, no. Not straight away. Instead, she rides off with him trapped in her unforgiving grasp. His cries of help lose themselves in the panic and chaos of the melée as she drags him back to her father, like a trophy of war.

It’s a sight that many would have witnessed but that one person immortalised it on paper. In fact, quite uniquely…describing the motion as being as easy as a hawk…snatching a chicken.

[chicken squawk]

Winning the prize for either the best or the worst analogy of all time.

And who graced us with this absolute banger of a line you may ask? A merchant, an explorer, a writer and first and foremost an Italian guy who, we commend him, HAD to commit the metal battle moves of Khutulun to paper.

This is…wait…hang on…





Oh yeah. It’s Marco Polo.

Now again, this is neither the ruthless conquerors podcast nor the one on Venetian merchants who go on a gap year hike throughout Asia and then make a big book out of the experience that captures the intricacies of Asian politics along the Silk Road for a European audience. To be fair…that would be an incredibly niche podcast. Almost as niche as a podcast about women with swords throughout history with a specifically queer lens. But that’s our historical Italian little guy in a nutshell.

The way he suddenly is Here to witness unconventional battle moves, in this story is because he was appointed as the foreign emissary of the leader of the Yuan Dynasty Kaidu and Khutulun were fighting against. Which was only slightly awkward because it happened to be…Kaidu’s own cousin, Kublai Khan. Though given the messed up stuff this family already did to one another, I think family reunions were already awkward before that.

Now to his credit, Marco Polo wasn’t exactly a news anchor for battlefield events so we’ll give him a pass on the hawk snatching chicken situation. A for effort, or maybe a B or a C for chicken…When it comes to Khutulun, he found it in his heart to be slightly more eloquent when it came to describing what she looked like, recalling that “the lady was so tall and muscular, so stout and shapely withal, that she was almost like a giantess.”

Which hey, look. Admiring buff, tall women? Perfect, no notes. B for buff.

He then kind of doubles down on how awesome Khutulun is with this observation: “This damsel was very beautiful, but also so strong and brave that in all her father’s realm there was no man who could outdo her in feats of strength. In all trials she showed greater strength than any one of them.” So at this point we can gather that either Marco here just can’t get over the novel concept of a strong woman or he may just have a bit of a crush.

Which is somehow ironic given that the adaptation of his journey into a series on Netflix, Marco Polo, does feature Khutulun…as his lover. Did Marco Polo rise from the dead and write the screenplay? I mean I hope not because it got cancelled after a few seasons. It does still nevertheless portray her as the warrior woman she was…which can’t be said of all later adaptations of her story. Spoiler alert.

Regardless – thanks to Marco Polo and his inability to chill when it came to talking about Khutulun, alongside the Persian statesman Rashid al-Din, we have accounts of a buff giant woman who didn’t just fight on par with men but also actively beat them with their own weapons, and their own games. As a rider, as an archer…and as a wrestler.
So now we head to the wrestling ring. Where, when Khutulun is not making men into pincushions or sword target practices or snatching them away from enemy ranks like you snatch the last chicken finger from your plate, she’s beating them up. But you know – as a hobby. And not just a little niche side hobby. Mongolian wrestling or Bökh was, and still is, part of the lifeblood of Mongolian culture. How old is wrestling in Mongolia? Oh, I’ll tell you how old. Cave paintings of naked men wrestling old. I mean, at least we think they were wrestling. Don’t get me started on the homoerotic implications of two naked wrestlers. Or do. I literally curated it into an exhibition! It was the wrestlers by Henri Gaudier-Breszka and he knew exactly what he was doing.

But wrestling didn’t just provide a great excuse to get way too close to your best bud but like, in a no homo way. It was also a way to train military troops – a three-in-one way to ensure your warriors had enough strength, stamina and skills. Genghis Khan was so hyped about wrestling that he had it celebrated as a sport meant to produce great warriors. And his descendants agreed, because wrestling became a core part of the Naadam – a great Summer festival tellingly also called “eriin gurvan naadam”, or…the three games of man. Alongside archery and horse racing, if you could achieve all three – wham bam you’re now a true man.

Congratulations. Please accept your goody bag. With complimentary existential 2am thoughts about what being a “real man” truly means. You’re welcome!

And…no, we don’t really know about many historical Mongolian women wrestlers aside from our headstrong and just…strong-strong lady here. But what we do know is that out of all the attire Mongolian wrestlers wear – one of them is the zodog. A tight-fitting short-sleeved jacket that is usually red or blue. It has a knotted string at the back and a daring open front, giving a full view of the wrestler’s chest. This isn’t just a darling Jean-Paul Gaultier-esque fashion moment though. It is tied to the legend of a wrestler who was unstoppable and beat all the other men, one after the other. Only to then rip open the jacket to uncover – a pair of breasts.

So allegedly from that point on the traditional jacket had to reveal the chest – to make it clear the wrestler is a man. And the presence of this moment of revelation comes from a design choice that essentially prohibits women from taking part – despite the very anecdote that shows that they not only did but excelled at it. And yet, it is also a moment associated with victory. As the winner of the wrestling match traditionally performs, just as they did a dance to initiate the fight – a victory dance displaying the chest proudly with a turn and a wave of the arms. Lending tribute to Khtulun herself.

So was the jacket-ripping wrestling woman Khutulun? She clearly didn’t hide her gender while wrestling. But maybe it was part of the flex – like “hey everyone – let me remind you that I’m a woman just to rub it in!” You’d be surprised by how often I come across that. I call it the flex and flash. Very scientific academic terms on this podcast. But either way, Khutulun didn’t let something like that get in her way. In fact – she’d use that skill to get things her way.

Because soon, maybe on her way back from battle or from wrestling – Khutulun is reminded of the more so-called traditionally feminine role she is being asked to fulfill, as her parents are like…so…hey…all that warring is good…and don’t get us wrong we LOVE the wrestling, but…when are you going to bring us back a husband? If you can feel that low rumble, I think that’s the sound of a thousand eyes rolling in a thousand sockets of successful career women who can maybe relate. I mean, barring the bloodthirsty fighting part specifically. But hey. Who knows. I don’t know your life.
But our warrior noblewoman is not one to back down from a challenge. Maybe she did want to marry. But it’s kind of like when you’re asked to do something you were going to do but NOW you feel petty about doing it. So, she announces that she’ll make a public declaration about her marriage. And her parents at this point, knowing their headstrong daughter who feeds men knuckle sandwiches on the regular are either like, hopefully, “oh wow! I’m sure nothing surprising will come out of this” or more likely “oh wow! I’m sure nothing surprising will come out of this”.
As Khutulun steps in front of the crowd assembled at Kaidu’s palace, it’s not hard to imagine a glint of humour in her demeanour, sizing up the hopeful suitors, some of which probably couldn’t reach her shoulders and some of which she could no doubt benchpress. As she declares…“Sure I’ll marry. Whoever…can beat me at wrestling.”
Probably the moment 50% of the men present gave up and 50% of the remaining men found an unrelenting source of completely unfounded confidence. But that’s not all. There has to be a price for entry. A wager, if you will. At which point Khutulun presumably did the maths and decided her hand in marriage could be counted in a specific currency – horse currency. And in Khutulun maths fashion, one hand in marriage equals a BUTTLOAD of horses any loser would have to hand over to her care. Now it’s not entirely certain HOW many horses.
Some sources rock up with confident swagger, remove their sunglasses and slam their boots down on the counter, announcing…it’s one hundred horses. Others, more shy and rational, cough politely and say, umm…it’s probably…more likely…10? So let’s say 10 to 100 fine horses. And look. Don’t point that “narrative vagueness” arrow at me. Okay maybe we said 100 in the intro as clickbait. As horse…bait? But all I’m going to say…if I have to go through with marrying any man who beats me at wrestling…I’m asking for a high wager price.
Also, who knows…maybe Khutulun was also a horse girl. No offense to horse girls – I used to be a horse girl. I mean, I wasn’t allowed to ride the horses, but I played Barbie Riding Club on my PC which is almost the same vibe. But horses – again? Very important in Mongolian culture.
(By the way – 5 horses? That’s maybe not a lot for Khutulun and rightly so? But – five stars on a review if you liked this episode? Now…that would mean a lot to me).

So if this was a montage in a film, it would be set to that one part in Patti Smith’s song that goes “Horses! Horses! Horses! Horse” with clip art of horses flying everywere as one by one, suitors turn up to wrestle and one by one, hit the floor. This cinematic vision will, thankfully (for cinema) remain a vivid visual audio landscape I narrate to you instead. But you get the idea. Khutulun’s beating all the guys and making major gains – equine gains. She’s already ripped, after all…though I’m sure a steady stream of men challenging her to wrestle was a key part of her workout routine.

And this all culminates to the moment a new challenger approaches. And I don’t know his name. So I’ll naturally have to call him 1k Horse Guy. You’ll never guess why or where this is going. We do know that this guy is a Prince. He’s handsome, he’s tall and he’s presumably strong and skilled enough to try his hand at wrestling Khutulun.

But most importantly, he steps up and is like – ha – 10 to 100 fine horses? That’s chump change. Chump horse change. Get this – I will wager…a thousand horses.

Oh wow, who would have seen this coming.

Khutulun eyes him up and down and is like “yeah, sure – I’ll take that action.” He seems confident. This could be interesting. So imagine our wrestling champion’s surprise when that very night, 1K Horse Guy finds her and has something to declare. And…it’s not flirting. It’s not intimidation.

It’s straight up BEGGING. He goes “please, please, oh PLEASE can you throw this fight? I’m not going to win and I just really want to marry you. Like just do me a solid and I’ll be the best husband ever. Pleeeease?” At which point Khutulun probably stared straight into the camera and sighs. Before her damning response. “I’ll never allow myself to be beaten if I can help it. But hey, good luck.” Before walking away, maybe leaving 1k Horse Guy with some hope that just maybe, this wrestling noblewoman might find it in her heart to make an exception to her track record.

So we’re now in the Great Hall of Kaidu’s Palace. And everyone has come to watch this fight. I mean come on, the guy’s pledged a thousand horses. As the match starts, he makes a few moves. Maybe she lets him gain a bit of confidence, a bit of momentum. A bit of hope she’s really going to let him win. And then, in an instant, she grabs him and knocks the wind out of him. And effortlessly throws him on the hard pavement of the palace. But even more painfully humiliating is the noble lady standing over him, enjoying her victory. And soon – her horses.

Exactly how many horses did she end up accumulating? Obviously there may be some exaggerating here. But given most historical sources don’t go with a BUTTLOAD of horses as a descriptor, they go with the next best thing big numbers wise…ten thousand horses.

But if there’s one thing most of these stories have in common…is that the gender non conforming, rule-breaking woman does most of the time eventually marry. No, Khutulun doesn’t run off in the sunset with her 10k horses as incredible as that vision is.

Awkwardly, the more she grows older without a husband, her father’s enemies are like “well that must mean you’re in an incestuous relationship with him” – which…ah yes. What a reasonable, logical conclusion. Whether it’s for that reason, trying to ensure her own lineage or maybe, hey – even just love – Khutulun does marry in the end. Some say he’s a ruler. Others say that he’s a dashing assassin that was originally sent to murder her dad then was imprisoned and gaining the favour of his once-enemies. Which feels like a controversial, offbeat choice Khutulun would go for.

To his credit, her father doesn’t just want her to marry and fall back in line – he actively wants her to become his successor to the khanate. And for her to be khatun. But there’s…several versions there. Either all his male relatives go…yeah, no. Or…Khutulun says…actually…yeah…no. I’d rather be fighting as a commander.

Either way, this leads to her being a commander in her ruling brother’s army after her father dies…before following him in death only five years later. Not sure exactly how she died – whether by politically motivated assassination or on the battlefield. Or one disguised as the other. But like her – it’s swift and brutal. But never fear – because Khutulun’s legacy lives on. Okay…maybe do fear a little bit. Because this isn’t the case of a biopic taking a few artistic liberties. It’s a stage adaptation that seems to fly in the very face of what its original inspiration would have wanted.

Because now we cut from warring, wrestling and horses to…the opera. Where, instead high dramatics wrestle with high notes. A richly adorned woman makes her way onto stage – cold, haughty and dangerous. Any suitor hoping to marry her has to solve three riddles. Fail them? Then perish. Literally.
The Prince passes his “marry-the-princess” entrance exam but she fails him anyway as she’s like…nah. So he offers her the option of guessing his name before dawn and if she does, he’ll die. And then it’s all taken up a notch because plot twist, if the name is not discovered by morning – everyone in Peking gets it. Murder, that is. They all get murdered.
Shenanigans ensue including negociation, a stabbing, and high drama worthy of peak reality TV, just with more singing and less confession booths. In the end the prince kisses the princess and she’s like “dang, making out isn’t that bad. Who knew?!” He gives her his name and she decides to spare him, declaring that the whole time his name was…love. That’s right everyone, love is in the destination of the journey of the friends and deadly riddles you make along the way. I…don’t know either.
But this is the opera Turandot by Pucchini.
And believe it or not – Khutulun’s story was the inspiration.

How did we go from a Mongolian wrestler, daughter of a Khan, who wrestled her suitors to see if they were worth marrying to a Chinese princess won over by love whose only weapon is a set of riddles? Look no further than Europeans just straight up making things up and making these things racist and sexist for no reason. In the early 18th century, François Pétris de La Croix chooses to annoy me off personally by writing a book that just merges various things from different Asian literary motifs. In which he calls calls Khutulun Turandot…which means “Turkish daughter.”A reference to the fact Kaidu and Khutulun’s branch of the family, the House of Ögedei, is linked to the Turkic tribe branch of Genghis Khan’s descendants. But also if historians looked at my name then went ah yes…instead of Claire Mead I will call you “daughter of a French mother and a British father.” I would be kind of have an issue with that.
And La Croix is like…oh no not wrestling, that’s too unladylike. Let’s go with riddles. And apparently he doesn’t like horse girls either because now you lose – you die! By this point, it too late for any kind of historical accuracy to come through as later European playwrights and writers didn’t only go with the notion of a prideful, cold and cruel princess who killed unworthy suitors via riddles and finally in the end succumbed to love. They ran with it. And Puccini’s opera was a full part of that. Also…making her Chinese now? Because hey – it’s not like Asia is a continent with a complex set of different countries, territories and cultures. Cultural specificity? These guys don’t know her. Or know how to write Asian woman regardless of nationality without being racist.

Because this isn’t just an isolated incident of bumbling men taking a few liberties in their biopic adaptation. It’s the start of a whole wave of racism that doesn’t only mix up distinct cultures, but attributes lasting stereotypes to Asian women. Like the “Dragon Lady” trope. A stereotype of Asian women, specifically often East Asian but also Southeast Asian and South Asian women as being sexualised, “deceitful” and “dangerous”. A pendant to the just as sexualised “Butterfly” stereotype of the Asian woman as submissive. Again, specifically often targeted at East Asian women but South Asian women are also often included in this stereotype. Incidentally? The term “Dragon Lady” comes from a comic strip, Terry and the Pirates, which ran from the 30s to the 70s, about a villainous woman who was actually inspired by a historical Chinese pirate woman, Lai Choi San.

This trope made its way onto the movie screen and both limited and dictated the roles Asian actresses could take on – pigeonholed into shallow, cookie-cutter archetypes that focused on exotifying them rather than showing them as complex human beings. Leading us back to Turandot – not her Opera version, but a stage adaptation of the play Turandot by 19th century Count Carlo Gozzi. A commedia dell’arte – more playful than the austere opera. There’s quite a lot of comedy and is the origin of what we know as panto. But still portraying Turandot as this cold, dangerous figure who finally submits to love. In 1937 this stage adaptation at the Westport Country Playhouse has her portrayed by an actress who knew all about pigeonholing, casting discrimination and the challenge of pushing past an archetype. A complex woman, playing the interpretation of another, across different performances and reimaginings of her story in which truth and identity beyond stereotype struggles to wrestle its way to the surface. This was Wong Liu-tsong or as she was known under her actress name, Anna May Wong.

The Chinese-American actress, by this point, had suffered a devastating blow a few years before. When she got refused the leading role of the Chinese character O-Lan in the film the Good Earth. It went to a white actress donning yellowface instead. One theory is that this was due to the anti-miscegenation laws meaning a white actor’s on-screen lover would have to be white. But either way – racism was fully a part of that decision. She was offered a supporting role – Lotus, a seductress. And she said, thanks but no thanks.

This blow had come after Daughter of Shanghai – a film in which she had finally been able to embrace and shape a lead role beyond the either “submissive and self-sacrificing” or “deceitful and dangerous” archetypes she was usually give, in a supportive role. Which must have made losing the role in The Good Earth all the more painful.

A few years before that in, Shanghai Express, despite her supporting role, her charisma duels with an equally magnetic presence of Marlene Dietrich. With something of a vibe about her elegant and smooth exchanges with the openly bisexual actress as they both play strong-willed courtesans aboard a train in the midst of a Chinese civil war. But Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily character gets a happy ending – Wong’s, the character of Hui Fei, stabs a man to help the white lead get the happy ending.

Wong herself would die decades later just before her comeback cinema role, after a string of television appearances and B movies that provided far better Chinese and Chinese-American representation than the Hollywood ones she had been cast in before. And after failing, with great personal sadness, to connect with China’s culture as an American – nevertheless making a film out of her experience. Yet in her embodiment of these earlier roles and her presence nevertheless on screen to give a complex performance within the confines of what she was given, Anna May Wong’s acting legacy remains alive and well. And with it, her iconic status within the LGBTQIA community. And not just for her queer vibes on and off screen…as someone who had a few extra close gal pals in her life aside from Dietrich…and also never married.

But for her outsider status – neither fully fitting into one world or another. And wielding a double-edged sword of expressing her authentic self outside the spotlight and enacting wider Hollywood representation through archetypes that survive to this very day.

But now, we bring it back to the thing that started off this entire episode. Wrestling. Which brings us to 2014. As she approaches the mat, Sükheegiin Tserenchimed – Chimdee as her nickname – is representing Mongolia as a woman wrestler.

Barely a decade after the Olympic Games opened the sport to women. Wrestling in Mongolia had remained a man’s game for centuries. But Chimdee, like our protagonist, had lineage to back up her tough as nails attitude. Her father had been a champion wrestler before his death while she was still a child. Which led her to the steps of the local wrestler club – with more than a gender imbalance to prove. Moreso a material chance at using the sport to improve her livelihood. And that of other women across Mongolia.

The match is a flurry of lunges, pulls and powerful slamming into her opponent. Six minutes of grappling to gain the upper hand. Before the final score emerges and she rises victorious. Bringing back gold. And making her Mongolia’s second woman champion – welcomed back home with cheers and praise.

In some ways continuing the legacy of Khutulun – misremembered and watered down on the European stage, yet her memory still vibrant and alive in Mongolian culture as who she was. As a warrior, a champion wrestler and a woman who didn’t let anything get in her way she couldn’t defeat.

And, if all that failed, who could always resort to trampling you…with her ten thousand horses.

Thank you so much for listening! I hope you enjoyed this episode. It was a wild…ride. Hehe. Seriously though. I learnt a lot about Mongolian culture and history and I’m really hoping

You can access the images referred to, show notes and transcript for this episode via the link in the description. And I also want to hear…your stories. And your questions! If you have a story about a swordlady, real or fictional, or maybe a bit of both that you’d like to tell me about…or ask questions about…write in at!

In the meantime you can follow the podcast at @bustleswordpod on social media. And you can find me on most social media platforms trying to procrastinate from writing, narrating and producing this podcast at @carmineclaire.

Stay safe sword lady lovers and see you in a future episode!

Show Notes


This episode was truly unchartered territory for me, and allowed me to explore aspects of Mongolian history or culture I had not before. A lot could not be included, and I hope to revisit and refine my knowledge in a future episode.

Sources and Recommended Reading:

Jack Weatherford, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire (2010)

On the Naadam:

On women in the Mongol Empire:

On Chimdee:

More on Anna May Wong and her possible relationship with Dietrich, with a few extra details that were cut for time:

Filmography & Imagery

The film Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich star in, Shanghai Express, is available to watch on

There are not many pictures of Khutulun but I found this miniature half-heartedly trying to convey wrestling quite funny. Khutulun daughter of Qaidu, medieval miniatures, 1410–1412

Khutulun in the Netflix series Marco Polo played by Claudia Kim. I should also slip in a tiny erratum, because some recaps did make Marco Polo and Khutulun’s relationship more ambiguous than others. Maybe they just flirted, maybe they wrestled or maybe you know, “wrestled”. I mean, I admit I should have investigated but I also find it kind of funny given that kind of ambiguity is usually reserved for queer couples in Netflix shows. Also speaking of ambiguous wrestling…
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Wrestlers relief, 1913 (posthumous cast, 1965). The one I was involved in the co-curation of is at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, this copy is from Kettle’s Yard. None of the copies have, repeat after me, any heterosexual explanation. I mean just read what the artist says about wrestlers: “Last night I went to see the wrestlers – God! I have seldom seen anything so lovely – two athletic types, large shoulders, taut, big necks like bulls, small in the build with firm thighs and slender ankles, feet sensitive as hands, and not tall.” Anywaayy. Source
Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Turandot”, on 25 April 1926. 
Anna May Wong as Turandot, by Carl Van Vechten, 1937
Bökh with traditional zodog
This is a typical “aghh why did I come across this image after recording” moment but yes, behold. Anna May Wong in a top hat and suit. Showing that her would-be possible lover Marlene Dietrich was not the only one to don men’s clothing and look iconic as heck.

La Maupin

In this week’s episode of Bustles & Broadswords, we dig a favourite episode from the archive…it’s time for some bi opera drama with everyone’s favourite 17th century duelling and singing troublemaker…Julie d’Aubigny aka La Maupin!


Hello and welcome. To Bustles and Broadswords. This is a podcast about women with swords throughout history, fiction and the queer territory in between.
I’m your sword-wielding and storytelling host, Claire Mead. And today’s episode is one from the archives in the earlier version of this podcast, pre-reboot. In fact – one of the very first episodes, from way back in May 2020. It set a lot of the groundwork for the theme of this season around performance…with an opera singer who brings all the chaotic bisexual high drama you never knew you needed. So, without further ado – take it away, Spring 2020 Claire!

I’m an independent curator, an art historian and a fencer. Which I can tell you right now, as I record this in lockdown…is a challenge. There’s only so much you can do in your back garden without people to actually fence against. Much of what I’m actually doing is hitting a target attached to a tree in my garden much to my neighbours’ concern or entertainment. But we all need ways to cope and aside from solo fencing – sharing knowledge about something I am passionate about, for me, is one of them.
So here I am, ready to dive in with you about something that I find very soothing and fun…ladies with swords’ histories. And I’m starting with this story because…it’s awesome. Give me your most exciting story and I’ll give ou a tale of a charismatic and adventurous French bisexual 17th century opera singing woman in breeches including duelling, an escape from a convent and…arson.

Now bear in mind this story is out of control – not just in the content, but also in its sources. What we do know is that our heroine did exist – but some versions of her story and how much was embellished over time differs. How much is history and how much is fiction? That’s something we need to bear in mind in this larger than life story. What I’m about to tell you is a result of various historical sources patched together in my retelling of it. So…grab a sword and hold onto your breeches. This is…Julie d’Aubigny, or, as she was also known, La Maupin.

Julie is born around 1670 in Paris, the only daughter of Gaston d’Aubigny, who is the secretary to the Count of Armagnac. A little bit about this Count – he’s actually a big deal. His role is to look after King Louis XIV’s pages and his horses as the Great Stablemaster of France. D’Aubigny on the other hand, is a bit of a rascal who loves drinking, fighting and the ladies. No one drinks like Gaston, no one flirts like Gaston…no one raises his only child like Gaston.

She is raised in the shadows of Versailles and learns everything a proper lady should know at the time in 17th century France. You know: literature, drawing, dancing, horse-riding and…sword fighting! Taught by Gaston himself and allegedly a mix of pretty good fencing professors.

So yes, admittedly the swordfighting part is nor very traditional for a 17th century girl but Julie would have been raised alongside stable-boys and used to a different kind of life. But as she grows up, her dad is difficult and controlling of who she can date. Ultimately, she ends up with someone he can’t confront – the count of Armagnac itself. A heads up here that we are talking about an underage relationship (if you want to skip 30 seconds or so if you want to avoid hearing about that). We need to point out here, importantly that Julie would have been around 15. There’s an obvious power imbalance here in terms of not only quite obviously age and gender but also class and hierarchy and we can never use “oh, it was another time” to downplay it. That’s not the point. It cannot be used as a way to excuse this power imbalance and this relationship. It’s an uncomfortable truth part of so many girls’ and women’s histories – but one I didn’t want to erase or sugar-coat.

Julie is introduced by the count to the court of Versailles – this is an important step for this daughter of a servant to royalty who is probably well to do but not part of the courtly nobility. But to somehow disguise their ongoing relationship, the count says “you know what? Let’s give you a cover-up wedding”! Every girl’s dream. Enter Mr Maupin, from St-Germain en Laye, a town next to Paris. Coincidentally, I went to school there and it has a really neat archaeological castle-museum so it’s somehow interesting.

That much cannot be said about M.Maupin.

Maybe he had a rich, complex inner life but in this story, he is pretty much useless. The sham marriage happens, but then the Count ends things with Julie. At this point, Julie’s husband gets a job that sounds about as fascinating as him: an administrative taxes job in the South of France. I’m of course kidding – I’d never insult the South of France like that. So…it’s unclear how this happens. Versions vary. Some sources suggest Maupin’s friends got him the job…others that it was the Count’s idea to get Julie out of Paris…and others that it was maybe Julie’s influence. Which makes what happens next even funnier if that’s the case for either of those two last options because Julie decides “Ha, joke’s on you…not going to follow my husband, I’ll just stay in Paris.” So either her plan to get her husband out of her way works perfectly…or the count’s plan majorly backfires.

So let’s sum up: it’s been several years by now, Julie is officially married so under no obligation to do your basic young woman courtship and debutante balls to marry – but her husband’s away and doesn’t seem to care who she’s with or what she does outside their marriage and as a bonus, she’s no longer a mistress to a powerful count controlling what she does. So…she’s in a pretty exceptional position. She’s free! And she uses that freedom to do what we’d all do after a break-up: getting into sword fights with young nobles. Because Julie’s not just free – she’s looking for adventure and she’s got her father’s trouble-making streak alongside a love of the blade. While she’s visiting fencing clubs, she falls in love with a young man called Sérannes. Allegedly he’s her fencing teacher but she would have already been trained already by her father and other instructors so it’s pretty clear he wouldn’t actually have much to teach her – she reportedly could already hold her own in a fight. Sérannes and Julie share a love for the blade – and for getting in trouble. With none other than Paris’ chief of police! 17th century Parisian cop Nicolas-Gabriel de La Reynie would have policed many things and one of those things is anti-duelling laws.

Because here’s the thing: all of France and, to be honest, all of Europe alongside it at the time has a bit of a duelling addiction. Let’s recap on the basics of the duel. A duel isn’t just “hey, let’s start hitting each other with sharp metal sticks spontaneously”. It’s an arranged commitment between two people. Yes, exactly like marriage. But with swords. And later guns. So hopefully not exactly like marriage. There were predetermined rules (for example: stopping when first blood was drawn, or slightly more dramatically, until your opponent is dead at which point there’s not really much extra you can do – and usually you would need at least one witness on either side to make sure there was no cheating.

Duelling develops in early modern Europe (and by “modern” we actually mean from the late 15th century onwards). It’s adapted from knights’ jousting matches but also – the medieval judicial duel which is perhaps the most ridiculous way of settling a legal argument ever. Say you have a matter that challenged someone’s honour that could NOT be settled in court – well, you’d fight over it with your swords until one of them couldn’t fight back. And in some early cases, if you were defeated – you were then executed. Fun, right? Duelling continued though as an acceptable way to solve issues – sometimes pretty petty issues. And was mainly fought by the aristocracy who have the means and frankly, the time to fight each other over their “honour” when everyone else was trying to get by in the hell that is an oppressive feudal system rigged to benefit only 1% of the population. Thank God things have changed, right? Right…? Ahem! But even before Julie is born, duelling is starting to cause problems. Namely well…the aristocrats are all brutally maiming or murdering each other. Because never mind the reduced life expectancy and disease, you know what we also need? That’s right. A reverse Hunger Games for bored rich people. King Louis XIII, probably fed up with the high turnover of aristocrats lost to duelling, bans it in 1626. His son Louis XIV also fights to eliminate duelling. But between 1685 and 1716, 10,000 duels were fought with 400 deaths amongst French officers alone. So that’s not even the highest number. There were probably a lot more – and a lot more deaths. Close duel bracket – for now.

Long story short  if you were smart – which our story’s protagonists aren’t neccessarily – there was usually a lot of sneaking around when you actually want to duel – and law wise, that’s a big no-no. So back to our story. La Reynie accuses Sérannes of fighting a duel behind a church, leading to the death of a man – and Sérannes escapes from Paris with Julie, determined to start a new life in Marseilles, in the South of France. But it’s revealed that Sérannes, like many of us in life, doesn’t really know what he’s doing. And Julie is not the type to wait at home and assign him as the main breadwinner so she helps them both earn a living. They find a nice entertainment slot where they give flamboyant duelling demonstrations, sing and tell tales in the streets and taverns. During these fencing demos Julie would defeat Sérannes – probably causing a sensation amongst audiences not used to a dashing duelling woman.

There are some records describing Julie and let’s be fair – they paint a pretty flattering picture. She’s described as a strikingly beautiful woman with dark curly hair, an aquiline nose, bright blue eyes and, apparently, perfect breasts. This last detail is how you know straight men are responsible for recording these important facts. Another thing we know about Julie is that she prefers men’s clothing – and that definitely feeds into the allure of her duelling demonstrations with Sérannes. Because while the practical aspect is one thing, another is what I like to call “the scandalous frisson of gender nonconformity.”

This is a good time to tell you that 17th century Europe is obsessed with the idea of a woman in men’s clothing. I’m going to perhaps make a lot of gender studies historians angry but oversimplifying but essentially I’ll just slip into the mind of a 17th century person watching our Julie in breeches for a second – watching what would have been a striking, slightly androgynous woman in tight trousers. “Damn, isn’t a woman dressed as a man transgressive and wrong…and doesn’t that make it kind of hot?” It’s a weird contrast for sure but for me it actually has so many comparisons with the way society treats gender non-conforming and queer women (which is handy here because our hero is a bisexual icon herself).

One one hand you have the idea of the “virago” – the masculine warrior woman, who is othered because of her masculine, aggressive traits and shunned for being outside of the feminine norm. On the other hand – there’s this fascination and often sexualisation of women disguised as men taking part in traditionally masculine acts such as fighting while retaining their own femininity or returning to it by the end of the story. With a constant undercurrent of ambiguity regarding another trait seen as “masculine” – courting women. This double standard kind of reminds me of the way society will still vilify masculine and gender non-confirming queer women, and either sexualise or erase femme-presenting queer women.

While later on in our story Julie would sometimes wear men’s clothes as a disguise at this stage they serve more as a theatrical prop for her performances. She was probably well aware of the fascination and scandal involved in seeing a woman in gasp…breeches! Would provoke! In fact there’s a great anecdote about that and whether or not it’s entirely true, it does capture Julie’s spirit. Allegedly, at some point during one performance a heckler shouts that she must be a man – presumably not believing a woman can fence like that. Julie decides to answer in her own special way by tearing her shirt open to flash everyone her boobs. What a power move.

But Julie isn’t just a talented fencer it turns out. It turns out she has a pretty good singing voice! She’s admitted to a music academy in Marseille run by an influential theatre director around 1685. She starts her singing career – and soon is working at the Marseilles Opera! By this point, we know Sérannes may also be working there but he fades away somewhat from her story. But we hear more about Julie’s interest for the ladies.

Because there, at the Marseilles Opera…she meets and falls in love with a young woman. We don’t have an official recorded name for her. Some obscure source believe her name may have been Cécilia Bortigali. I’ll use this name for narration’s sake, but let’s take it with a big pinch of salt. Cécilia is seduced by Julie…and completely falls for her. But her parents react along the lines of “it’s the 17th century and like many 21st century families even now we are homophobic as heck”. So what do they do? Well, perfectly reasonable…they place her in a convent. Allegedly the couvent des Visitandines in Avignon.

Because truly, nothing says “gotta get our daughter away from falling in love with girls” than putting her in an enclosed space full of women, some of which actually didn’t really want to be spiritually married to God. So, what does Julie do about this? Well…what anyone would do in that situation when your girlfriends’ parents won’t let her out to see you – you sneak in. Julie doesn’t have time for your homophobic crap. She’s gotta save her girlfriend from this life of non-sin. So Julie improvises and infiltrates the nunnery. Which makes it sound like a high stakes espionnage. Which…it kind of is. She gives up her men’s clothing for the habit. But her bad habits don’t stop there. So she finds Cécilia at the convent and you might be thinking. That’s really cute. Now we’re probably going to have a Princess-Bride style escape where they run away on white horses right? But if you know Julie you know that a slightly flamboyant more escape is coming. Emphasis on flames. It starts with an old nun dying. I think it’s important to note at this stage that Julie did not murder her, as far as we know. But what she did do was steal her corpse, put it in her lover’s room and…set the whole place on fire as a diversion as they made their escape. Yeah. She did that.

I’d love to tell you this was the violent and romantic if slightly disturbing beginning to a blossoming lifelong love story. But this is real life and Julie is a bit of a player. So they enjoy three months or so together and then Julie says…you know what? This was fun! Bye! She drops her girlfriend off at her parents to run off for new adventures. Wow. Julie is all of our bad exes. Now you’re maybe thinking…okay…well that was something else. That alone would give Julie a pretty good position in the hall of fame of women with swords with flamboyant, dramatic lives. But this is only the beginning. It also starts with the trial of a certain d’Aubigny by the Tribunal d’Aix condemned for kidnapping, arson and whatever the criminal term is for stealing a poor old nun’s body. Dead nun-napping? Except the person condemned to burn at the stake is a “Monsieur” d’Aubigny. Hm. So basically a way to cover up the fact two women had an affair and one infiltrated a convent to save her loved one. Which makes you think: how many other stories have been covered up this way in historical records through deliberate misgendering and erasure?

Maybe we’ll never know. But what we do know is that our living out loud disaster bisexual isn’t really going to wait for that condemnation to catch up with her – since she is also accused for the absence at her own trial. Or at the trial of “Monsieur” d’Aubigny She heads off Paris, but doesn’t get there straight-away – even hot-headed Julie knows you can’t just waltz into Paris after being condemned of kidnapping, arson and nun body snatching. So she kind of makes do along the way and sings in taverns for a living. She meets an old alcoholic actor called Maréchal who sees potential in her and teaches her some singing for a while. It honestly sounds like the plot to some heartfelt movie about a grumpy old man teaching a young troublemaker. And I love it. This confirms to Julie that she has actual singing talent and could have some kind of opera career in Paris. After they part ways, she continues north. Now she’s in the town of Villeperdue.

She’s wearing her men’s clothing and in the process of leaving the stables at the tavern she’s staying at for a few nights when three men block her way and start heckling her about whether or not she’s a girl – which pisses her off and, because this is Julie, she ends up challenging one of them to a duel.

They spar and she drives her blade through her inexperienced opponent’s shoulder – at which point, a fair player and having proved her point about not messing with her, she pulls it out and goes to her room. But she feels kind of bad about it so the next day she asks the village doctor who attended to his wounds if her opponent is going to be okay. She also finds out his name is Louis-Joseph d’Albert de Luynes and he’s the son of a duke. That night one of his lackeys visits and tells her Louis-Joseph is sorry for having offended her. There’s nothing like a woman spearing you after you catcall her for an apology for being terrible to suddenly emerge. And she doesn’t respond by simply relaying “it’s all good” back to the lackey. She goes to her wounded opponent’s room – in her women’s clothes. Which soon hit the floor. Julie stays on to help him heal and they fall in love. But they can’t stay there forever – Louis-Joseph has to join the king’s regiment. Julie would like to join him in Paris but she can’t yet – she’s still condemned and it’s too risky. So she kind of wanders around. And despite Louis-Joseph and Julie loving each other very much – she’s still on a roll lovers wise.

She bands up with another singer, Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard and as they make their way to Paris, he falls desperately in love with her. But Julie still has this condemnation issue. So she goes to the residence of her old acquaintance – the Count of Armagnac! He promises to petition the King – who accepts! So finally Julie is free, she’s pardoned, it’s 1690 and Paris is her playground. When Julie gets back there her beautiful contralto voice guarantees her a better and longer career at the Paris Opera than as a nun. Perhaps because she didn’t try to set the Opera on fire. There, she takes on the name Maupin since, in spite of everything, she needs a break from the D’Aubigny name associated with her condemnation. And her first role in the opera “Cadmus and Hermione”, by composer Jean-Baptiste Lully is that of Athena – the Greek goddess of wisdom and war. Which seems pretty accurate for her. Well, at least the war part. Now there’s some speculation that Julie’s love of masculine clothing translated to the scene. It was pretty common for the time for some masculine roles on stage to be played by women. But we don’t have any evidence for this and most of the recorded roles she played seem to have been goddesses, queens and…even a warrior woman!

So after all this some may be thinking that at this point in her twenties this is the “I’m going to settle down and just have a flamboyant career on stage with no duelling and no drama” part of her story. But if you’ve followed me so far you’ll join me in saying: as if! Julie’s living for the drama and she decides it’s a great idea for her moonlight as a duellist. And she still enjoys dressing as a man in doing so. And as you can imagine, Julie’s messy drama doesn’t stop at the doors of the theatre and she seems great at just either falling for people or challenging them to duels, both within the Opera and beyond its walls. She has a crush on leading lady soprano Marthe Le Rochois, playing the role of Hermione – and later the soprano Fanchon Moreau taking over as the lead soprano after Le Rochois retires.

But let’s get to the duelling part, shall we? So, Julie intensely dislikes his one singer at the Opéra, Duménil. In our story at least he’s a rude guy who keeps chasing the women of the Opéra and apparently steals stuff from them. Julie hates him in particular because he’s been rude and insulted her two crushes, Fanchon Moreau and Marthe Le Rochois. And then he tries to flirt with her and she’s like “dream on, loser.” Like many men who are rejected after being sleazy, he does what so many men still do today when creepy messages have failed: he insults her. And Julie threatens him – that he’d better watch it. Later on, Duménil is crossing Place des Victoires in the evening when a figure in the shadows challenges him to a duel. He refuses though – saying he doesn’t want to duel with a stranger. This stranger promptly beats him up with a cane – and steals his snuffbox (a fancy tobacco box). The next day, Duménil shows up at the Opéra, with the visible signs of having been beaten up. He loudly proclaims he was mugged by three men and put up a fair fight but they managed to subdue him and…stole his watch and snuffbox. At which point…Julie speaks up. She says, how interesting you say it was three men…because as I recall I beat you up myself after you refused to duel me. Oh, you all want proof? And she reveals his watch and snuffbox. If mics existed in 17th century France, you would have heard one drop.

Julie isn’t afraid to stand up for herself – or to stand out, as this next anecdote shows. Let’s set the scene. A royal ball at the Palais-Royal. Now we are not quite sure who arranged it – but many sources suggest it was Monsieur – the brother of King Louis XIV. Julie makes her entrance. And as always, she’s going to be unapologetically herself. Her bisexual, gender non-conforming badass self. Picture this: a striking woman entering the ballroom in dashing men’s clothing, turning heads and provoking as much admiration as confusion in her glorious ambiguity. She’s confident. She’s got swagger. And a beautiful woman catches her eye. She flirts with her for a whil – and after proposing they find someplace more intimate, she does something exceptional. She kisses her, right there on the dancefloor, in front of everyone. At this moment, three shadows appear to surround them – three men, three angry suitors who also had their eye on the object Julie’s affections. And they aren’t happy about Julie’s forward manners. And she says something like this: “Oh, you want to duel? Let’s take this outside.”

They go to the gardens and Julie being Julie challenges all three of them to fight her at once. And probably underestimating her, they accept. We’re not quite sure if she only injures them or finishes them off – but she emerges victorious and returns alone to the party. But when she discreetly tries to slip back into the ballroom (well, as discreetly as Julie can manage, being Julie), she comes face to face, in some versions at least with none other than Monsieur the brother of the king, who would already have been introduced to her. Who reminds her that duelling is forbidden and she’s facing severe consequences.

But something about Julie’s story and who she is prompts Monsieur to forgiveness. I’d like to imagine one reason why, although it may just be wishful thinking. Most of the court would have heard or told rumours about this secret hidden in plain sight – Monsieur loves men. He’s married, certainly, but he has his male lovers in secret – a secret he could never live out loud in the eyes of the court or of his brother. And although this is just speculation on my part and we have no evidence about this – I’d like to think that Julie’s brazen kiss provoked unspoken solidarity on his part. No, we’ll never know. But regardless, this is a moment in which a queer man and a queer woman locked eyes in a restrictive, heteronormative court and perhaps recognised something in each other’s experienced that no-one else around them could understand. And I wanted to acknowledge that.

Whatever the truth, he is sympathetic about Julie’s story or simply takes a liking to her, and promises to do his best to defend her. But he advises her to lay low in the meantime.

Ultimately, a little while later, the King will decide that his law only applies to male duellists. Once again – Julie is pardoned. But by the time she gets the memo – she’s already escaped to Brussels in Belgium. While she’s there she casually becomes the mistress of, oh, the governor of the Spanish Netherlands, Maximilian Emmanuel. When he grows bored of her he rudely sends her 40 000 francs via the husband of his new lover which she rejects, leaving Brussels. She then ends up in Madrid, at the service of the snooty Countess Marino. It doesn’t go great. In fact, Julie’s parting gift to her before she sneaks off back to Paris is to prepare an elaborate hairstyle for her for a great ball, with a spicy little twist all but the Countess could see – a dozen or so radishes garnishing the back of her hair! Our prankster is now back in Paris and continues to thrive as part of the Opera. While continuing her pretty remarkable career – she even gets an opera “Tancrède” with a main role written specifically for her contralto voice – pretty rare at the time if you weren’t a soprano.

But love finds her again, in the form of the Marquise de Florensac. Saint-Simon, a politician whose delightfully snarky commentary in his memoirs gives us insight into 17th and 18th century court life, described her as the “most beautiful woman in France”. They fall in love and live together for a few years – but tragically, their relationship ends with the Marquise de Florensac’s death from illness. We are now in 1705 and, whether due to heartbreak from her lover’s death or a general weariness, she retires from the Opera. Some sources suggest she suddenly remembers she has a husband and he returns from Provence for them to live together until his death. The end of her life, merely a few years after the death of her Marquise and her exit from the Opera stage, is a sad one. And her death seems so at odds with the glittering, flamboyant splendour that accompanied her life. Not going down in a duel on the streets, but quietly in, perhaps in the most ironic twist of all – a convent.

I have told you a delicious story with dashes of duelling, splashes of singing drama and a big helping of bisexual bravado. Now it’s time to add, as I have mentioned, a big pinch of salt. Did Julie d’Aubigny actually exist? Yes. We actually have a record of her in the Dictionnaire Des Théâtres De Paris, Volume 3 from 1757. But there’s much in her story which feels like when you slightly embellish a story to make it more palatable for social media but transposed to 17th century France and a bunch of different people telling their own legends and very very romanticised biographies till no-one is quite sure what is fact and what is fiction. Even her name, for some, is up for debate. Perhaps the best representation of this is Théophile Gautier’s book Mademoiselle de Maupin, in 1835. Initially asked to write an account of her life, Gautier instead writes a novel loosely based around her life in which Julie cross-dresses as Sérannes and is an androgynous figure making both men and women fall for her. The book was banned in many places notably by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, for being too naughty about its depictions of love regardless of gender. It was also accompanied in a later edition by an illustration of La Maupin herself by English illustrator and author Aubrey Beardsley – known for his erotic, camp and decidedly queer depictions. And this black and white engraving from 1898 doesn’t disappoint. It shows D’Aubigny in men’s clothing, a picture of androgyny and ambiguity. A sword at her side, she looks like she’s in the process of either fitting on her glove or removing it. The latter would have been a hallmark of duelling culture where “throwing down your gauntlet” would have been an insulting gesture and would have required a duel to respond to – slapping with a glove would also have been customary as a gesture that needed to be responded to, to defend your honour. And yet, throwing down your glove as a woman would have been a seductive gesture – prompting a man to pick it ip. So it is a nice little touch which I’d like to interpret as a sign of her ambiguous gender non-conforming nature. Is she dropping her glove to seduce – or throwing it down to fight? A reproduction is currently kept at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and you can admire it for yourself on their website under the name “Mademoiselle de Maupin.”

Julie’s story would prompt a lot of fictional adaptations in the wake of Gautier’s – including plays, films and even a musical! But my favourite is the novel Goddess by Kelly Gardiner. Thanks to years of research, she weaves a passionate and powerful retelling of d’Aubigny story. Rather than a biography it is a brilliantly written fictional re-interpretation rooted in what we know of Julie’s story with some wonderful twists in the narrative that will give you a few surprises I won’t spoiler here! From it emerges a complex and many-layered, bisexual and gender non-conforming heroine in a story I, full disclosure, started and finished in the space of a day because I was so taken in. I’m really grateful for this story. Because to me it also shows how powerful Julie d’Aubigny remains as an icon, as a hot-headed, adventurous, breech-wearing and sword-wielding bisexual who didn’t let anything or anyone get in her way. Yes, let’s acknowledge that it’s a story that wavers between history and legend. But let’s continue adding new versions to the legend. Let’s never get tired of it. Because it means something to us – and it shows us a heroine who didn’t fight for her country, her father or for any sense of moral duty but because she could – to live her own life on her own terms. To be herself – and to be free. And for that – we’ll always remember her and we’ll keep on telling her story.

Time for sources and recommended reading! Firstly, as I have mentioned, big mention to Kelly Gardiner and a big recommendation from me to read her novel “Goddess” which was rooted in years’ worth of research and whose listing of sources allowed me to collate together some remaining information I was missing on. She also wrote a great article on her website called The real life of Julie d’Aubigny. Also big mention Rejected Princesses, Jason Porath’s ongoing project, which includes a brilliant illustration and piece on d’Aubigny. Rejected Princesses is an amazing project to compile and illustrate the stories of women too politically incorrect or brutal to be your typical “Disney Princess”, and each illustration or comic has that Disney Princess cute style contrasting hilariously with the outrageous, heroic or downright bloody things those women got up to. Amateur historian Jim Burrows’ summary of D’Aubigny’s life was also a great dramatic, beautifully written interpretation of her story. The sources they use and that I have used as well are the Dictionnaire Des Théâtres De Paris, Volume 3 from 1757 for the historic record of d’Aubigny, Oscar Gilbert’s Women In Men’s Guise from 1926, Cameron Rogers’ Gallant Ladies from 1928 and an earlier French account called Gabriel Letainturier-Fradin, La Maupin, sa vie, ses duels, ses aventures. Richard Cohen in his history of fencing “By the Sword” touches upon her story and it’s also where I was able to collect a bit more information on the logistics of duelling in 17th century France. 

If after that you want to plunge back into a more fictionalised account as a palate cleanser, and you’ve already finished Goddess, a book banned for its scandalousness is always fun and so is Gautier’s 1835 novel if you like 19th century swashbuckling romance. 

Thank you very much for listening. I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode – researched, narrated and produced by me, Claire Mead. My co-producer Theo the household cat accidentally made it into the first recording of this episode and I didn’t have the heart to cut him out so listen to the end for a cat cameo. 

Awkward transition back from archival Claire to present podcast Claire. That works!

Don’t worry – you’re still getting the cat cameo from Theo at the end. I’m not a monster. I should add that Theo has since then moved away. He’s very happy in his new home. But there won’t be any extra cat cameos from Theo so enjoy that one. But I’m adding that for any Qs or your own sword lady story…write in at I’m stil figuring out how a sword lesbian Q&A corner would work but we’ll figure it out together. Look at me exploiting the parasocial relationship [gremlin laughing]. In the meantime you can follow the podcast at @bustleswordpod on social media. And you can find me on most social media platforms trying to procrastinate from writing, narrating and producing this podcast at @carmineclaire.

Stay safe sword lady lovers and see you in a future episode!

Next time on Bustles and Broadswords…

This is a woman who refused to play a game she didn’t have a chance of winning. A wrestler in control of her destiny. And the inspiration for an Opera that ended up taking more than a few liberties with her legacy. Yet which, in many ways, crossed paths with that of a few other iconic women – on screen and on the ring. 

En garde and see you then!

[podcast recording interrupted much cat meowing and purring]

Show Notes 


  • Sources and Recommended Reading:
    Alfred Cohen, By the Sword
    Kelly Gardiner, The real life of Julie d’Aubigny
    Julie’s entry in Jason Porath’s Rejected Princesses 
  • Images:
    Aubrey Beardsley, Mlle de Maupin, V&A website 

Emancipated Duel (Part Two)

In this week’s episode, I continue our exploration of our iconic Emancipated/Topless/Flower duel, its main players…and its facts and fictions. MORE scandalousness, queerness, Opera, fashion, flowers…and SWORDS.


Hello and welcome. To Bustles and Broadswords. This is a podcast about women with swords throughout history, fiction and the queer territory in between. I’m your sword-wielding and storytelling host, Claire Mead. And today we’re continuing our story from last episode. If you’re joining in and haven’t tuned in to part 1 because you like living life on the edge, here’s a brief recap.
Meet Princess Pauline von Metternich. This sounds like one of those teen movies…Actually Pauline out of all the people we cover would be great for a Mean Girls type movie.
She’s a 19th century trendsetting Austrian aristocrat who spends most of her life being an ambiguous gal pal to an Empress, casually starting new fashion trends and being an opera influencer. That’s when she’s not planning the biggest events with maximum flower power. But a challenger approaches in fin de siècle Vienna – Countess Kielmannsegg who is challenging her authority when it comes to maybe the one thing it would have been best not to challenge – her taste choice concerning flowers in an event all about opera. Pauline issues her challenge in response – a sword duel. Yeah. If you’re just stepping in you must think…that’s already a lot. And to those who joined in the first half, you may be clamouring – well what about the part where they both fence topless?! Oh yeah. It’s a lot. But when it came to weird duels fought over petty reasons…we’ve also covered (pun FULLY intended) that this was a Thing.
So now let’s look at the duel, its fallout, and all of the gender feelings.

Which leads us back to our confrontation…many months after the initial challenge. Because a duel was a serious affair. I mean…its preparation process. Not always its cause, as we’ve seen. Or…heard. Usually there was limited rushing outside to solve this in the moment. Tradition would have called for a careful preparation in terms of letter exchanges between the two opponents, determining a day, a time and a suitable spot. I mean…if it kind of sounds like a date…you’re not wrong.

Duels had mostly been a huge source of casualties over the past centuries. And many still took place with swords, pistols or other inventive weapons. Like…I assume…at some point in history…sausages. And despite numerous attempts to prevent this it in previous centuries there were still several cases of duels to the death. Even though the general, less bloodthirsty rule was that a person would win when they hit a person first – and drew first blood. Presumably because it was getting increasingly awkward when you had to avoid an acquaintance at a dinner party because you stabbed their cousin to death over a play they didn’t like.

I mean, we’ve all been there.

So the right choice of location was a must to avoid any kind of trouble with the law. And Liechtenstein at the time was an independent principality where things were low-key enough for two aristocrats from Austrian high society to duke it out discreetly without getting arrested. Whatever the subject of their quarrel was. And whatever their gender was.

So let’s get back to our chaotic fools. Because if they’ve chosen the location, they still need to choose the weapons. And no, this wouldn’t be a pair of sausages. I just can’t get over the sausages. Guns would have made sense, with Pauline’s sharpshooting skill. But the story, much to our delight and the Internet’s, goes with…swords.

By all accounts, in a late century of pistol-wielding, a pretty old fashioned choice. But it may also have spoken to both ladies’ aristocratic backgrounds and rooting in Viennese culture. Which was at the time obsessed with fencing – taught as much to men as it was to women. And as much as we know very little about Anastasia, we do have one engraving of her in full Russian traditional costume – sporting at her belt, a delicate but deadly saber.

Even though, on the day of the duel itself, like her opponent, she would be sporting a rapier. And on that day in August of 1892, it must have been…quite a sight. The older Princess ready to face off against the ambitious debutante. They stare at one another, with steely determination – seconds by their side.

Wait, what by their side? Oh yeah! Seconds!
Seconds in a duel are witnesses to the fight. They can provide balance and vouch for the person they are seconding in the case of cheating and other foul play. They could also step in as replacements as needed. These two seconds, according to newspaper accounts, were Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsky. Is this a Princesses vs Countesses tag team situation? Potentially.
But there was yet another woman present. And she’s kind of a game-changer. Because her alleged recommendations took the vibe of this fight and its either semi or fully fictionalised account in later centuries from 0…to 100.

Introducing the duel’s official doctor – Baroness Lubinska.
There is frustratingly little about the Baroness in historical records if we rely on the assumption that, like the other figures in this story, she is a real person. Most of the information I can find about her is that she was a Polish medic from Warsaw who may have been involved in medical work on the battlefield. Now many of the people who claim this entire story is false also go a sexist step forward. And go so far as to say…“well besides, women wouldn’t have been allowed to practice medicine at the time so any mention of a woman being a doctor is false.”

Because famously, women don’t do anything unless they are legally allowed to. Duh!

I have a confession. I don’t like the quote “well-behaved women seldom make history” because it’s often twisted out of context and it favours the idea of exceptional lady badass rebels over different kinds of women in history. And in doing so, tends to favourise a certain flavour of said badass lady who is very white and straight. But…let’s not pretend women didn’t break sexist laws all the time.

Why don’t we actually look at some facts in terms of that particular claim? Because why have a podcast if you can’t have a tangent on Polish women doctors in the 19th century? I mean what’s even the point…? The sword point? [pun goblin laughter] Well first we have the tale of Regina Salomea Pilsztynowa who was the first Polish woman doctor we know of…as early as the 18th century. But more around Baroness Lubinska’s time, we also have Anna Tomaszewicz Dobrska who got her medical degree in Switzerland, worked in Paris and Vienna…and despite being forbidden from passing the Polish state exam several times to try and become a member of the Polish Society of Medicine, said “screw you all,” passed her exam in St-Petersburg to practice in Poland and Russia and…then led a maternity shelter during an outbreak of childbirth infection in Warsaw in 1882. Oh…yeah…that was just before becoming the first woman to perform a Caesarean section there in 1896. Oh and then we also have Mélanie Lipinska who was not only a Polish physician but became a historian of women doctors in the early 1900s.

So…Just like the histories of women who fought, just because it was uncommon – didn’t mean it didn’t happen – and that the women involved didn’t fight tooth and nail to make it happen.

So let’s also go with the assumption that, yes, the Baroness has been called to attend in her capacity as a doctor. And according to some articles the Baroness was not just standing around offering her help. She was specifically sent for – travelling all the way from Warsaw to provide her services. The Baroness would have tended to the fighters’ wounds. But she wasn’t just ahead of her time because she graduated from medical school and had experience working on the battlefield. You know, tending far more serious injuries caused by far more serious reasons.

She was also an early supporter of germ theory, which argued that germs could cause deadly infections. A fact that we are all acutely aware of at this stage. And as a trained medic, she also had first hand experience of what happens when people are badly wounded and are wearing a lot of different layers of clothing. Infection. And by that logic, any piece of fabric from the waist up – because in this duel, any strike below the waist would be a foul – might compromise either lady.

So in our legend we don’t just have two nobility ladies ready to duke it out.

We also have a pioneering woman surgeon urging them to remove their shirts.


Sort of.

We’ll get back to that.

For now…

The first round is about to begin. And it starts off slow, and cautious at first perhaps, before slowly picking up momentum.

One thrust, and the other swerved with a skillful feint, and things still looked relatively tame. By the second round, you might even say not much was happening, as neither Princess nor Countless were landing a hit. With blades clashing and twirling but failing to meet their mark.

Until…the third round.

It starts as the others had, in a swish of feints and thrusts, before…Countess Anastasia makes her move. And with a slash of her blade, strikes Princess Pauline fairly on the bridge of her nose.

From which a faint trickle of blood starts to drip, staining the grass beneath their feet.

The Countess, upon seeing this, realises for a split second that…verbal sparring is one thing. Actually going for someone’s face and causing a flesh wound is another. And as she drops her blade, her hands fly to her face, in visible shock at what she just did.

This is first blood.

And as we know this signals the end. But Pauline, visibly pissed off at having been giving the equivalent of a blood-inducing boop on the nose, takes advantage of this shock…and takes her revenge. With a lunge, she pierces Anastasia’s right forearm, from which blood, to no one’s surprise, gushes as well.

The seconds upon seeing this, take action within seconds.

By promptly fainting.

Fine, seconds. You do your thing.

And the footmen and coachmen who had been asked to turn their backs away from the whole thing as men…hear shouts of pain and shock. And turn around to go help, much to their credit.

Except Baroness Lubinska, who probably saw far worse and wouldn’t have really seen much cause for alarm around two small flesh wounds she could easily heal, let’s say…misinterprets their actions.

She lunges towards them, in her hand a formidable weapon…her umbrella, yelling “Avert your eyes, avert your eyes—you lustful wretches!”

So with that I’d like to add a new subsection to this podcast about ladies with swords. Not ladies with edged weapons no, although we have axes and spears galore as far as our next guests are concerned.

But…for now…let’s give it up for…ladies with umbrellas.

At some point the chaos eventually subsides. And presumably comes the moment to actually decide…what the hell is going on. Who wins? It’s…unclear. Some accounts document the Countess striking on the nose first – but in others it’s actually the Princess.

And honestly that sounds pretty on brand for her as well.

But now that the drama is over, the two seconds, waking up from their bout of fainting, have decided that’s enough excitement for one day. Which, fair enough.

And they ask Pauline and Anastasia to please make up, embrace and kiss.

And…Look. I’d love to tell you this is a fiery enemies to lovers situation where they suddenly make out but this was most likely a demure kiss on the cheek. Or a hug. But really, we don’t know. All we know is that the story ends with their seconds literally demanding they hug it out and a return to Vienna by carriage. And most importantly to put this whole story behind them.

Which, if this ever happened in any shape or form…spectacularly failed.

So…Is this a legend or a real-life anecdote? We don’t know, but newspapers of the time went with it regardless. With a range of them across different countries excitedly recounting the terms of the duel. Pauline soon shuts this down – and makes a public statement in a French newspaper saying this was “a ridiculous invention by Italian journalists!”.

You know, those pesky Italian journalists…

Denial such an event ever happened could have, of course, been damage control. And we don’t have enough evidence to place it in the real-life category. But could it have happened? Save a few crucial details, yes. The fact that the two duellists’ rivalry is well documented at this stage…that we know all the main players’ names and that the event itself was reported on at the time gives us enough space to at least speculate. Even if we can’t confirm.

And leaves us with another enigma. If this happened – would it have been topless? Well, fans of the blade and boob assortment…I’m sorry to burst your bubble but…unlikely. For more than one reason.

Believe it or not, there is in fact another instance, in the UK, of two MPs choosing to duel one another. And one of them, the next morning, MP Humphrey Howarth, obviously not over his night of drinking, choosing to…strip as he turned up for his duel. Not from the waist down. Completely.

And probably still not be the weirdest thing that happened in Parliament.

By which point I should confirm this happened in the same century as our duelling ladies, in 1806. And not last Thursday. Also – that in some stories he’s at least got underwear on.

Humphrey Howard’s hammered hunch was based on the idea that layers of clothing could cause infection but he chose to take it a step too far. His opponent, of course…backed out. Because going for a completely exposed opponent isn’t exactly glory-inducing if you win. It just kind of feels like common sense and hardly an earned victory.

So what would this have meant? Well, remember Pauline’s love of fashion and high society’s general obsession for a great quantity of fabric and layers. Too much of it WOULD cause infection. So when and IF the baroness asked for some layers to be removed, it makes sense that they would have stripped down not literally…but to the thinnest layer possible. To ensure no infections while having a baseline of protection. Such as a thin chemise that would have essentially have been an undergarment.

Now obviously this is the 19th century. So even if it’s not actually a nipple fest, it’s still pretty revealing for two high society ladies to be so pared down in what was essentially a historical bra. And if we rely on word of mouth and the power of a snowballing rumour, that’s perhaps how things would go from…a light top to fence with more ease and less risk of infection to partial nudity, baby.

Well, that and…people loving a juicy, salacious story. It’s like the tale of the naked drunk MP. Doesn’t it sound more compelling or you know, scarring if he’s NOT wearing any underwear? And what’s more scandal-inducing than two high society ladies sparring shirtless? Most importantly, the very nature of this kind of story and its retelling and presentation tell us a lot more. It tells us about the strange sexualized fascination the 19th century had around women with swords. Both to be objectified and ridiculed. We have a clue as to how this legend may have emerged in the first place. And, in terms of a subset of visual culture, its long term ripple effect.

Or should I say – nipple effect.

To study this up close and personal we walk up to a painting. It is by Emile Bayard and it’s called An Affair of Honour. And it’s quite a trip. Let’s have a closer exploration of this painting. We’re in the middle of the countryside, with the sky indicating the very start of morning with its pale blue and wisps of pink. On the left, three women all clad in dark clothing, from head to toe…gawk with quiet shock and a tinge of fascination. One of them clutches the other. On the right, a fourth woman recoils in more visible shock and horror. What are they staring at?

Two women, in visibly brighter clothing that makes them stand out against their dull, drab and earthy-toned surroundings. One in red and the other in light pink fabric. Their ruffles and expensive, satin-like renderings making them quite similar to the fashion of the ladies surrounding them. The only quite noticeable difference? This fabric clads them only from the waist down. And the ripple of the fabric is only matched by the gleam of their swords. Two fencing foils, crossing and clashing as the painting captures a mid-duel snapshot.

That’s right. The painting…of a topless duel.

One that became immensely successful and found itself being reproduced everywhere.

Seems like a pretty cut and dry case right? If not an accurate rendering of the Topless Duel, at least reflecting the moment the rumour started to spread.

Only problem?

The painting was finished in 1884.

Almost a decade before our legendary duel.

And that brings us to an interesting phenomenon. Looking at the actual articles about the duel around the time…none of them ACTUALLY bring up the toplessness. The idea of the doctor being there is reported on. But the idea of her batting away servants with an umbrella from topless duellists she herself asked to strip is…definitely not verified by any of the newspaper sources I could find which had already been busted by Pauline.

The sources of the toplessness – and the Baroness’ umbrella exploits – emerge in later accounts. When the story had already started to snowball.

But even before then…search topless duelling on Google and you find yourself facing a real avalanche of risqué vintage ephemera. Mostly involving very scantily clad women poking one another with swords. This included postcards but also stereoscopic views. Which are separate images that you’d see as a whole complete 3D image by looking through a stereoscope. That’s right – the 19th century equivalent of 3D glasses for the privilege of seeing spicy lady swordfighting!

And of course…countless reproductions of Bayard’s image which, for many, came to represent the fateful duel between our Princess and Countess. Even though we don’t actually know who the ladies in the painting were actually meant to represent. According to some interpretations, the place they are duelling is the Bois de Boulogne, a popular site for duelling at the time on the outskirts of Paris. And which was also known, already at the time, as a place for sex work. The fighters themselves are often interpreted as being sex workers. Which is hard to confirm. But also a reminder that upper-class women were not the only women working things out with swords.

And while Pauline may have had countless reasons to deny the duel ever happened, maybe this association…to raunchy pre-existing art and the implications of behaviour linked to a class lower than hers…may also have played a part. As much as the idea that her words carried strength that a blade didn’t have to. It is possible that both women sparred – verbally. And some have even interpreted that the strike on the Princess’ nose could have been a metaphor for a cutting comment on her appearance. But a rumour’s a rumour. So here we are centuries later…neck deep in images of sword-fighting and stripping.
And in the end, what’s better – for nothing to remain of your legacy aside from the rumour of a now internet-breaking duel, or a very well documented life that is glossed over in favour of that one event? Ultimately, Anastasia died at the age of fifty one – and was outlived by Pauline. Who passed away well in her eighties. We don’t really know what Anastasia’s deep feelings were about this duel – and whether or not she ever gave her side of the story.
But Pauline harboured deep annoyance and concern over the last three decades of her life, that this would be the one thing she’d be remembered for. Dying in 1921, she lived through a slow decline. And saw the Austrian Empire that has once been at the heart of her privileged, glittering life fall apart. By then she had sold her carriage to supplement her income. And her last ball was from decades ago – the Gold and Silver Ball in January of 1902 at the Sophiensäle theatre in Vienna.
With its glimmering extravagance and outfits, with its music and drama, it reflected her own life – and the legacy she left behind defined by far more than just one moment.
And yet ironically without that one moment she hated – many of us today wouldn’t know about all the rest. The real moments, the legends and those fragments that resist being pinned down as real or false, as history or story…

We probably won’t ever know the truth. But one thing is for sure. The Internet has loved and latched onto this story with the same gusto as late 19th century newspapers. And it’s not hard to see why. We get sucked into gossip and scandal all the time. It’s in our nature. We feed off of it. For better…and for worse. And while many people might express frustration at it being circulated as truth…or sadness that it is in fact false, I’d like to suggest something else.

Whether or not it is true is kind of besides the point.

What it tells us about women who fought, how they were perceived at the time and how they are perceived now is just as important. While people have often focused on the topless nature of it all, something else emerges through the duel’s other nickname – the Emancipated Duel. This term doesn’t just refer to the idea of a duel between women supervised by women – from the doctor to the witnesses. For some it also points to a duel between two women which was not fought over a man.

Well…I actually don’t think this is the first Emancipated Duel, either way. Forgive me but…I have trouble believing that in all the history of humankind, women didn’t duel previously for reasons other than a man. Or that a women-only duel had not happened before. Think Bechdel test but with blades. But that aspect of the story is useful to show all the different facets and contradictions of this duel and what it meant.

To some, surface level titillation with a side dish of sexist sneering at these silly women fighting over flowers. To others, an empowering moment with a side dish of sizzling scandal. Probably an intersection of both these things for several. But also the opportunity to pursue the story further – rewrite it and reinterpret it today – using a language that would have been familiar to Pauline herself.

Which is why, while researching this, I was excited to discover the production of such a performance. Enter stage left…The Language of Flowers, a very recent opera all about the duel! Written by author Cecil Castellucci with music by composer Charlotte Marlow from the feminist and queer inclusive Medusa Collective, it seeks to delve a bit deeper into the story of Princess Pauline von Metternich. And in doing so, uncover who she was, in new original ways. Which includes combining comics and opera, with art by Rumbidzai Savanu, Fiona Marchbank and Vicky Leta. And it first was performed in August 2021 as a scratch performance directed by Lily Dyble.

Unfortunately due the plague, I have not seen it yet. And I can’t wait till I do, some way or another. But the programme provided with the play available online provides extra context on the Princess – and brilliant excerpts of her life presented in comic book form. Which, as a comics artist – I can’t help but love.

And in the passage on the duel in comic book form by Vicky Leta, a phrase stood out to me.

“Why do people relish the idea of two women fighting each other?”

It’s not a question I can easily answer. Hell, if anything I’m actively fanning the flames over here and then throwing some oil onto it for good measure. But I think it says something about our obsession with women’s fighting…over collective solidarity. Over the moments women fought together – not against men specifically but for civil rights that are not limited to their gender alone.

Because we shouldn’t forget that women’s solidarity is meaningless if it refuses to view other intersecting systems of oppression. And would have the most oppressed women in society fighting against women who hold power and privilege yet share neither.

And I think there is something powerful about asking this question in a work that is led by women – not to entertain the cheesecake sexiness nor to strip away the fun scandalousness of it all. But to question the spaces in between, where queer and feminist history lies.
The legacy of the topless duel today is quite different. And in some ways the same.
It provokes this fascination, this intrigue we can’t quite put a finger on. There’s the mockery of the eccentric facts surrounding women’s existence…these existences that often get lost in between the cracks of the sofa of history. There’s the scandalous nature of some bared boobs clashing with bare blades.
But there is also power in taking this story that maybe never happened and reshaping it again and again to reflect our own feelings and stories.
And for some nipple-based, sword-wielding theatrical fun.

Thank you so much for listening! You can access the images referred to, show notes and transcript for this episode via the link in the episode description.

I have wanted to tell this story in my own words for a while and it’s been a chaotic, unexpected ride. I hope to lead you on many more this year. This marks episode one of a reemergence of the podcast after a few interesting years. I learnt a lot about podcasting, did ALL the mistakes and I’m excited about doing many more with a new version of the podcast. To some of you who may have been listening since the podcast initially launched in 2020 – thanks for sticking around! I hope you enjoy the stories I have to tell.

And I also want to hear…your stories. And your questions! If you have a story about a swordlady, real or fictional, or maybe a bit of both that you’d like to tell me about…or ask questions about…write in at! In the meantime you can follow the podcast at @bustleswordpod on social media. And you can find me on most social media platforms trying to procrastinate from writing, narrating and producing this podcast at @carmineclaire. Stay safe sword lady lovers and see you in a future episode!

Show Notes 

This episode took a lot of digging through old newspapers for a story that may not even be true! Here are a few sources below as well as some recommended further reading…And a bit of a sense of Pauline’s legacy as well as the emancipated duel’s legacy in art!


Emancipated Duel (Part One)

In this episode, I explore an iconic duel, its main players…and whether or not it ever really happened. Expect scandalousness, queerness, Opera, fashion, flowers…and SWORDS.


Hello and welcome. To Bustles and Broadswords. This is a podcast about women with swords throughout history, fiction and the blurry territory in between. I’m your sword-wielding and storytelling host, Claire Mead. Bringing you a story today which I have always found…titillating.

It’s 1892 on the borders of Liechtenstein. A quiet country scene in the midst of Summer is disrupted by new sounds, new voices…and rising tension amidst the dry heat. As a Princess faces a Countess, both of their blades drawn. The rapiers glint in the August sun. By the end, one of them will have drawn first blood – and signalled a winner. The witnesses are present to account for this – women dressed in the latest fashions, looking on with a mix of anxiety and anticipation. The surgeon is as well – as she prepares her material, grimly predicting having to tend to one wound – at the very least. But while a few more people are present – they are not witnesses. How can we tell? Well – they are not women.
The only men present have detached themselves from this situation the best they possibly can. In fact, they turn their backs to the scene, following their employers’ orders. And there’s a clear reason for this. Four reasons, in fact. Assuming, of course, that both Princess and Countess had two sets of nipples each. Because in this scenario both pairs were bared in dangerous proximity to sharp sword points. To any passer-by glimpsing a peek at the two women, stripped down at the waist amidst their clothed peers, something would quickly become clear. This wasn’t a major wardrobe malfunction. And it wasn’t a scandalous bout of forgetfulness. It was this duel’s condition.
And this image as it travelled around the world seared itself in the minds of those who weren’t there to witness it in the flesh.

Because the story of this Topless Duel caused a scandal at the time whose repercussions live on in Internet legend today. It inspired countless imitators, as paintings and photographs considered combining swords with usually censored bits. And it remains the most infamous duel amongst damsels…that may have never happened. There’s a lot to unpack. A story veering between fact and fiction. At least four uncovered nipples. With, at the heart of it all, a woman who had a clear idea of the way her story would be immortalized…and lost control of the narrative.
And of what parts of her story would be revealed…and concealed, in the double edged sword of her legacy, from Opera and fashion to…drama and various states of undress. So let’s uncover…a little bit more. This is the fabric-lacking and perhaps fabricated yet still fascinating legend of…the First Emancipated Duel.

Now I got your attention, I know…I know how much you want us to stay at the nipples and blades convention we started with. I mean WHAT exactly is going on and how did we get there? But to answer that we have to backtrack a little. Add a few layers…back on. And hop into a horse-drawn carriage. Because we’re leaving rural Liechstenstein for the cobbled streets of Paris in the 1860s. Three decades before our fateful undressed duel. It’s well past midnight and the city of lights has fallen asleep…for the most part. The windows of the Austrian Embassy still shine into the night. And if you found a way to sneak your way in, you’d encounter the smell of cigars and the sound of raunchy songs that wouldn’t feel out of place at a gentlemen’s club. But instead, in a murmur of taffeta, you find yourself amongst women. And not just any women – the high society of Paris, the hoity toity upper class letting loose for an evening.

And in the crowd, you spot her. It’s difficult…not to. She’s waving a cigar around for emphasis as she shares the latest gossip with a loud, booming voice. As the puff of smoke she’s just exhaled clears, you see a tall, athletic silhouette. And a face you may have already seen occupying the best seats at the Opera. Unless you’ve first seen it formed by the brushstrokes of a portrait by a famous artist. The pride glinting in her eyes tells you this spark of recognition isn’t new to her. She’s used to having her reputation precede her.

Because this is Countess Pauline Sándor de Szlavnicza. At least this was the title she inherited from the Hungarian noble family she was born in. At that moment she would have been known under her married name, whose new title marked her as part of the Austrian nobility – Princess Pauline von Metternich.

This…is her after-midnight ladies’ cigar smoking club. Highlighting one of her favourite hobbies after shooting pheasant on horseback – a habit she acquired from her father. Who was such a fan of horse riding he was known throughout the Austrian Empire at the time for being a “furious rider” who once drove his carriage up the marble staircase of the imperial palace in Prague, and was also known for casually jumping into the river Moldau on horseback. Because the 19th century nobility apparently had no chill. And this was their way of being unbearably quirky while being obscenely privileged.

And thankfully for us and our entertainment right here and right now, Pauline Sandor is cut of the same cloth – a brash, cigar-smoking sportswoman, described as a sharpshooter and fearless rider even though she was raised with her much more sensible (and boring) mother’s family, the von Metternichs. But if you’re wondering why her mother’s family name is also her married name…well…about that.

A heads up for incest. Yep…we’re starting strong.

Pauline essentially marries her uncle – Richard von Metternich. The Austrian half-brother of her mother from a first marriage. Not that that really makes it any less weird.

And I’m sure Pauline’s uncle-husband Richard lived a somewhat interesting life as an Austrian diplomat. But this isn’t a podcast about diplomats. I mean. Not unless you believe swordfighting is a very brutal form of diplomacy. His main purpose in this story is being the reason Pauline is living it up in the high society of Europe. While he’s doing his diplomatic thing, she’s following him around the Continent, from Vienna to Paris via Dresden, throwing wild balls and sharing intense gossip in doing so. This includes his stint as Austrian ambassador in France, at the court of the Emperor Napoleon III. Which brings us here, now, in the 1860s.

And leads to a passage in Pauline’s memoirs which, frankly, I have no heterosexual explanation for.

“I was subjugated, as much by her grace, her kindness, than her stunning beauty. Her features were incredibly delicate, her gaze tender and intelligent, her nose, lips, the oval of her face, the shape of her head, her neck, her shoulders formed with rare perfection, her teeth so neat and beautiful, her smile…delightful. (…) But what surpassed her true beauty was her grace beyond comparison, with each of her movements so refined you could have painted her in any pose…”

In Pauline’s memoirs, these extracts flow with admiration and fascination. As she goes on to describe an encounter that gave her the impression they’d both known one another for years and years even though they’d met seconds ago for the first time.

And I’m left wondering…did our Princess have a massive crush on the last Empress of the French?

Because the woman she is describing is Eugénie de Montijo, whose husband is Napoleon III – making her Empress Eugénie under France’s Second Empire at the time. (Because, in France we’ve had a monarchy, a couple Empires and we’re now on our fifth Republic. It’s a whole chaotic mess). The passionate horse rider and sportswoman may have found common ground with Pauline. Who became one of her closest friends.

Pauline devotes a lot of space in her memoirs to Eugénie’s beauty and the vivid memories she has of her. Like the time they go on a picnic in the mountains and Eugénie erupts into spontaneous dancing. Or the time Eugénie is convinced a trip on a ramshackle boat with a bunch of ladies is a great idea. To great comedic effect when they all end up projectile vomiting their lunches. If you wanted a top ten of the Empress’s quirkiest moments, Pauline could deliver.

Whether this was friendship or something else beneath the surface is obviously unknown.

On Eugénie’s end…we know she reportedly found sex with her emperor husband disgusting and surrounded herself with twelve ladies in waiting after she got married. As you do. And we know that Pauline’s wedding to Richard, while stable, was operated with a clear awareness he was messing around with actresses and opera singers. In return he expressed no concern about her midnight cigar smoking with the ladies.

Neither the dozen ladies nor the cigar-smoking club mean anything on their own. But they are glimpses into a possible queer story which, if it existed, would not have been documented. Not even by its main protagonists. And certainly not in an official memoir by a reputable lady. So all we can do in the face of uncertainty is interpret and sometimes wonder. IS there a heterosexual explanation to any of this? This is the same episode in which we are exploring topless fencing between two women. It’s worth considering the non-straight scenario…for a hot minute.

All we know is that a decade between the moment they met and the fall of the Second Empire in 1870 is recounted in snippets that hint at the formidable Pauline’s influence and free-spirited nature. And how this maybe allowed Eugénie to let loose a little. Little things – like stories of wearing trousers for climbing or hiking and riding recklessly into the fields.

And bigger little things.

Like a recounted story of the moment the Empress muses with curiosity about what Paris must look like…say, from the top of an omnibus. Pauline looks at her with what I can only guess is a mischievous smile. And later on, two silhouettes slip out of the royal Palace into the night, and meander through the noisy, bustling city. They walk past the cabarets and cafés referenced so often in the racy songs of Pauline’s midnight cigar club. The cafés where women from all walks of life have started to form their own spaces to socialise, organise and sometimes…fall in love. They move past the operas and concert halls where the audience knows them under other disguises – and where they both dictate the latest fashions.

They make it to the top of the omnibus and steal a complicit glance, the nervousness and thrill of a caper though Paris in men’s clothes. At that moment, Eugènie and Pauline didn’t know what was to come. They didn’t know that a decade later, they’d be making rushed goodbyes as the Empress went into exile and her Empire collapsed. And that Pauline would do her one last little upper class gal pal favour. Smuggling her jewels into a bag to London for her.

But for now, here they both were on top of that omnibus – or here they weren’t. This story has something of a fairytale vibe to it. But it does capture a lot of what Pauline could do, would do – and would get away with. All of this under the guise of being eccentric, high-spirited and not quite the dainty, young and beautiful noblewoman people expected her to be.

In fact – quite the contrary.

It’s a regular night at the opera. Intrigue. Drama. Back stabbing.

And that’s only what happening off stage.

Where everyone is focused on who’s turning up, who they’re with and …what they’re wearing. Which is why a few of those fancy little binoculars may have dropped – as well as a few jaws – when Pauline turns up. With a cocky little smile.

And a new outfit.

Because Pauline didn’t end up the central subject of a topless duel at age fifty by being forgettable. Or by not knowing how to brand herself. As a ruthless taste-maker who described herself as “a fashionable monkey” and whom others called the “beautiful ugly one”, Pauline would openly admit she wasn’t beautiful – but she didn’t give a damn. Instead of being ashamed of it – she wore it as a badge of honour, summed up in one of her iconic one liners:

“I’m not pretty, I’m worse.”

Pauline’s attitude? Anybody can do pretty. But it takes guts to be worse than pretty – insufferably chic. And kind of a freak. And as we know – le freak, c’est chic. Her story with Eugénie is an alliance. But noble circles are battlegrounds for her to attack, provoke, influence and thrive long before she possibly found herself with a blade in her hand.

And that very evening, with a single dress, in the language of fashion and performing for the main stage of the Opera’s who’s who and gossip…she’s going for the jugular. At the time, European high society fashion involved a lot of crinoline – a structured petticoat to hold out a skirt which would make them take up a lot of space. Pauline disliked this floofy, voluminous frilliness. In fact she enjoyed describing the women of the time as waxworks – immobile, bogged down by excessive layers of clothing they couldn’t move around in. And so that evening, Pauline, true to her reputation, is wearing not a puff-pastry crinoline, but a tight dress with a long train. This was the fuseau or spindle dress. And Pauline wearing it, as well as the person who designed it, were about to change fashion forever. And contribute to the early beginnings of haute couture.

And that person is definitely…worth talking about.

Because English designer Charles Worth, arriving in Paris with barely five pounds to his name, soon gets noticed by Pauline for his innovative silhouettes – after she gets over her fear of being dressed by an Englishman. Give her some slack – she’s a Parisian. And as soon as Eugénie sees her confidante in one of his creations, a stunning and again, tighter fitting white and silver number, she must have one for herself. And so must the rest of Paris. Now there are several queer readings of Charles Worth. But they go beyond the idea of his identity alone. Instead, they look at the culture of fashion he constructed – a world in which men could express masculinity and creativity in different ways. Who swapped a world of bravado and performative strength for a world of silk and careful tailoring. His practice also introduces a new kind of relationship between the couturier and his model – through friendship and collaboration, mutual respect and inspiration.

Charles and Pauline, for decades, cultivate a creative relationship – despite Worth’s slightly catty, caustic attitude towards her and the numerous other women he receives in his house. They tease one another with affection. And they both claim one “made” the other – either by contributing to their fame or by creating an iconic look. Though given that the original discovery may have occurred when Worth’s wife asked Pauline’s maid to show her the fashion engravings, it’s worth questioning who gets left out of these narratives of discovery in the first place.

And this fashion influencing with an innovative flair is not happening in a vacuum either. In the midst of all of this, Pauline is throwing the wildest, most extravagant parties you have ever seen. She’s transforming entire gardens into bizarre, shiny ballrooms. And as one of her bemused guests says:”lighting up trees, houses and people by Bengal fires, thus giving the scene the appearance now of a veritable Eden, and anon the aspect of the realm of Lucifer.” Pauline can literally send you to Heaven or Hell in the space of a party. And…she can cause a riot.

Because it’s 1861 and we’re at back at the opera – the Paris Opera. The music swells. Pauline is so hyped about at this new show by this promising young composer she discovered that she can’t contain herself. And promptly breaks her fan with excitement.

I know. Oh, my. Calm down, Pauline.

But she’s not the only one getting agitated – as boos and whistles shoot up in the crowd. Because the opera had disobeyed a crucial rule in French opera conventions and it had included a ballet in the first act instead of the second act.

But I mean, really…who cares?

Well, the angry members of the Jockey Club cared. This was a club of old crusty aristocrats who…heads up for the mention of what were very likely underage relationships…had most of their young mistresses taking part in the ballet act. This was in a context in which many ballerinas were very poorly paid or unpaid and relied on rich patrons for income. This meant the club would have missed the ballet as they always drunkenly turned up after the interval…way after any act 1. And these men believed very strongly about their right to ogle and objectify women while drunk. So naturally on the opening night they finally make an effort to turn up on time…but only to heckle and boo the entire performance. And because this is France and we are are generally petty as hell, other people with no idea about what they were actually booing join in on the heckling. But Pauline stands by her decision and her taste-making.

Because the opera Pauline had pulled strings with the Emperor himself to show at the Paris Opera was Tannhauser. By a certain humble, niche composer she’d discovered called Richard Wagner. You know. The [Ride of the Valkyries tune] guy. Yes. Well. Big deal right? And a bittersweet moment. This was the very first time Wagner was being given a chance in France, thanks to Pauline’s influence. But due to the fuss, the opera was shut down after its third night as protests continued. And it wouldn’t be performed in France again for another two decades. Pauline, however, again, did not give a damn about what anyone in France thought and continued to support Wagner, helping him rise to fame. And this wasn’t a one-off. She championed many other composers’ careers, and formed an artistic crowd around her. Becoming a respected taste-maker of music and opera.

And when she didn’t find an opera to showcase a piece she liked – she’d do it from home. More specifically, within her salon. Essentially regular get-togethers that were held in upper-class people’s living rooms to showcase literature, music and theatre. Also the best places to swap all the gossip. One of these salon operas performances had her stage directing an abridged version of Wagner’s massive four-part, 17-hour long opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung. Not only that but she also played a singing role. I’d like to think it was the role of the warrior woman, spear-wielding Valkyrie Wagner’s opera is most known for. The one with the [Ride of the Valkyries tune]. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

In any case, it’s one of many examples of Pauline’s love of the stage – as an amateur actress, singer and dancer. As well as someone who liked to put on a show and be the centre of attention. And in fact, this, combined with her sense of showmanship and flamboyance mingled with chic and a good dose of pride…would lead to the story she is now most known for.

Because we’re now in the 1880s in the streets of Vienna – where another kind of show is taking place. Horse drawn carriages, beautiful outfits and…flowers. Flowers everywhere, Dripping from these extravagant displays, as far as the eye can see.

Because when Pauline eventually made her way back to the Austrian city, a decade prior, she wasn’t ready to hang up her party planning hat just yet. In fact her events just got even weirder as she proceeded to create what…I can only describe as the first festival floats, with her “fiacre festivals”. These involved all of the high society of Vienna riding around town on richly decorated carriages because you know, they were bored and people were obviously starved for entertainment. And they had names like “The Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival” which is innocent enough but also… “The Spring Festival in a Futuristic Village” and…”The Mars Festival”. Which can only be described as Pauline’s Japan-obsessed and science-fiction obsessed phases respectively. So 10 years later she’s still going strong. And then she goes “hey everyone – why don’t we organise a big banger of a Flower Parade?”

Okay, I mean “big banger” is my addition but I think the general sentiment was there.

So in 1886 this involved – you guessed it – MORE decorated carriages parading around Vienna. But obscene amount of flowers edition. And to this day, it’s still going on. So I think it’s safe to say that Pauline was kind of all about her event planning expertise. With a specific obsession around flowers. They were the symbol of her ongoing legacy and her contribution to Vienna’s end of century splendour.

And by that time, at 56 years old, she’s still an incredibly influential tastemaker who knows a huge amount about music, who was still supporting Wagner’s career and had shaped him into a big deal on the opera scene. And that was alongside a range of other composers as well. So it’s fair to say she’s not willing to have many people question her authority on at least three things. Event planning, music, and flowers. Which means we’re approaching our perfect storm. Our perfect musical flowery party storm.

But the skies still seem clear as Pauline volunteers at the Music & Theatrical Exhibition in 1892. This was originally going to be a modest little affair. But Pauline is like “Hell no. Do you know who I am? My parties in Paris shocked the breeches off the elite. I single handedly put the last Empress of the French in a tight fitting dress. I made the French aristocracy lose their sexist little minds at the Opera. We’re going big or we’re going home.”

And in doing so she completely transforms a small exhibition of Austrian music – into a major, impactful show with international reach. She also includes theatre where there was once only music. Because of Pauline, operas like Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana are shown at the Exhibition. Successfully this time. Or at least without riots. And, as the Honorary President of the Ladies’ Committee, Pauline is basking in the glory. And won’t take no for an answer.

At this stage she is glorious, respected…but also feared. This is a woman who is scared of no-one. So much so that she is openly dislikes the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Much to everyone’s ongoing entertainment gossip wise.

And that’s when the storm clouds start forming. Or maybe the air was already…crackling with electricity for a while. Just waiting for the right person to make sparks fly.

Because a young firebrand steps onto the scene.

In a flurry of event planning and flower drama.

And this is the President of the Ladies’ Committee for the Music & Theatrical Exhibition…Anastasia Lebedevna von Lebedeff or as she was known at the time, Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg. Of which we know…honestly…not much at all. All we have are a few snippets of her story…that do at least reveal one thing. And that is that she couldn’t have been a better foil to Princess von Metternich if she tried.

First off, she’s young, in her 20s by the time the Exhibition rolls around – and a beautiful brunette. With looks that could have maybe prompted lavish memoir entries from Pauline in…other circumstances. She is a member of the Russian nobility and married the Austrian statesman Count Erich Kielmannsegg who at the time would have been governing lower Austria.

But probably most threatening of all for Pauline, was Anastasia’s ability to also throw a sick party. The Countess was a rising star – and maybe Pauline knew, deep down, that her own star was slowly fading. Not due to lack of beauty or youth which she’d never really wanted or made a part of her image. But due to the inevitable change in fashion and taste. Countess is described as ambitious and full of energy – especially facing the Princess who had started to run out of steam for…a range of reasons. One of these may have been the murder of her own daughter. Maybe just one extra reason she may have felt like a raw, exposed nerve…facing a rival young enough to be her child.

And so on a fateful day, the President and Honorary President of the Ladies’ Committee…clash. Now I assume most of these clashes were good humoured verbal jabs. It’s all fists of steel in gloves of velvet. But then the Countess takes it up a notch in terms of passive-aggressive aristocratic behaviour. She goes “hey uh so those flower arrangements you really care about for this Exhibition that capture your whole brand in Vienna as the inventor of the iconic Flower Parade…let’s do them differently.” Or words to that effect. Yes, the root cause of the disagreement is…flowers. The assumption is that the Princess wanted a big and bold display that would link in with her pre-existing flower parade legacy and…that the Countess wanted something different. We don’t really know.

But suffice it to say that Pauline responded with what I can only imagine is the Austrian upper class version of…“bite me.” And she reveals another side to her that lies barely dormant. The Sandor, reckless riding, sharpshooting, daredevil side, As she faces up against the Countess…she stares her down. “Oh, you don’t like my flower arrangements? Fight me.” Literally. Because our Flower Princess can beat your ass in a fight.

You will like her flower arrangements…or perish.

But wait – are they really doing this?

Fighting over…flowers?

I’m going to be honest with you. This isn’t the most unplausible part of this legend.

Firstly. Escalating things massively because of a tiny disagreement being unrealistic?

Have you SEEN the Internet?

But seriously though. Or…more seriously. Semi-seriously.

It’s part of this story’s appeal for many – the so-called feminine frivolity of women’s disputes over flowers…contrasting with sword-based violence. But it’s also often framed with some amused disdain. “Oh these silly women! Fighting over flowers! How frivolous! How petty!” And that disdain is steeped with a certain sexism that seems to imply that…of course women would fight over flowers. Petty precious little things that we are.

As if men duelling in 19th century Europe were doing so for high-level, lofty ideals immortalised in modern-day knightly accounts. Sorry to disappoint but just as our idea of medieval knights and their chivalry is completely fictionalised and romanticized…so is the idea of most duels fought for the most serious, lofty, noble reasons.

If gender equality and duelling in history can ever truly be attained, it can be by admitting this: whatever your gender, if you were duelling someone else in the 19th century in a civilian, non war-time context…like, literally pulling out your sword to stick it into someone else until a little bit of blood spurted out or one of you fainted…you were 99% of the time doing it for a really petty reason.

Sure, “honour” is often stated as the reason. But what that equated to in practice in the 19th century was not so much a sacred oath to restore your integrity by capturing the Avatar. And…more so a verbal insult, not appreciating a review of your book, and someone taking your hat instead of theirs…and no, reading through these records…I cannot tell if some of these are fake or not. That’s how ridiculous some of them really are.

But just in case, you should probably leave a good review for this episode.

Otherwise I might just challenge you to a duel.

One encounter under Napoleon’s reign has a Colonel Barbier-Dufrai and Captain Raoul de Vere facing off. Why? Because Barbier-Dufrai had criticised de Vere’s…cockade. Wait, hang on…his…his…what? Oh…right…okay…his hat ribbon. That’s what that is. And how did they solve this terrible affront on Raoul’s honour or…cockade? By hopping on a moving carriage circling the place du Carousel in Paris and stabbing themselves with blades on this moving vehicle until one of them survived. Ironically…the guy who criticised the cockade is the one who survived, bringing the conversation about responding to trolls to a whole new level.

France also boasts a 19th century account of two men duelling one another from two hot air balloons – presumably using pistols and not very long swords. And why were those two, Monsieur de Grandpré and Monsieur de Pique, fighting? Because it turns out they’d been sleeping with the same woman. Which you know, is more severe than cockades but does it justify a death duel in the sky? Feels like they’re both just really full of…hot air. There are even rumours of a duel between Otto von Bismarck and the scientist Rudolf Virchow following one of them feeling insulted. Using…sausages. Wait, I can explain. Allegedly the scientist says “oh yeah, I’m being challenged by Bismarck eh? Well…” and he holds up two identical large sausages which he just had on his person apparently. He states that one of them is infected with deadly trichinae – the very thing he’s working to eradicate – and the other is healthy. And he offers Bismarck his choice of sausage to eat. It’s all very choosing the cup without poison in Princess Bride but make it 19th century Germany. With sausages. Except Bismarck didn’t even need to build up an immunity to infected sausages. His representatives, weirdly enough, refused and the duel gets called off.

Is this a true story? Uh…probably not. But honestly? It could be. That’s how ridiculous duels could be.

It’s also worth pointing out that these all feature men. There isn’t a shortage of women throughout history duelling their own gender or people of other genders for laughable reasons. And don’t worry. We’ll get to those stories. But in short, facing the idea that two women duelling for petty reasons was due to their status as women…I’m here to say – nah.

Damsels can duel for ridiculous reasons, gentlemen can grapple for silly purposes and non-binary people can nab people with blades for senseless motives.

No innate gendered pacifism or gendered violence here.

Historical humans are all chaotic fools running around with swords.

And I’m just here for the drama of it all.

So much drama in fact, that it couldn’t all be packed into one episode. So this episode…concludes part 1 of this story. Tune in next time for the duel itself, an unexpected additional unconventional lady and her unconventional weapon and some investigative journalism around pinup fencing debunking.

In the meantime, thank you so much for listening! And a big personal thanks to the people who have been following the podcast from its pre-reboot beginning, the people who have hyped me up and for people with whom I have done a lot of accountability of “I’m doing the thing!” Well now the thing is out and if you like the thing you can encourage me to make more episodes by leaving a nice review, sharing with your friends, sharing with your fencing club!

And in this new iteration of the podcast I also want to hear…your stories. And your questions! If you have a story about a swordlady, real or fictional, or maybe a bit of both that you’d like to tell me about…or ask questions about…write in at In the meantime you can follow the podcast at @bustleswordpod on social media. And you can find me on most social media platforms trying to procrastinate from writing, narrating and producing this podcast at @carmineclaire.

Stay safe sword lady lovers and see you in a future episode!

Show Notes 

This episode took a lot of digging through old newspapers for a story that may not even be true! Here are a few sources below as well as some recommended further reading…And a bit of a sense of Pauline’s legacy as well as the emancipated duel’s legacy in art…I’d recommend having a look at these after enjoying Part Two of this story if you are wary of historical spoilers!


Guest blog post on Akabane Swords for Imperial War Museums

I have written a guest blog post for the Imperial War Museum’s Partnerships blog! Read it here.

“What comes to mind when you think of art looted during wartime? Or the kind of weapons used during the Second World War? In both cases, swords are probably not your first choice.”


Women and swords in art blog post for Art UK

I have written a blog post for Art UK on the subject of women with swords in art! Read Femininity weaponised: a history of women and swords in art. A little extract here…

“Such images redefine what power can look like in the hands of a woman. The armed woman challenges the gender norms of her time or embraces them in ways that assert her femininity, leadership and power. This contrast endlessly captures our collective imagination.”

Saints, Sinners or Seductresses: their representation is double-edged…

A big thanks to Art UK for allowing me to write this article on a subject I have been increasingly fascinated with and focused upon!


Queer Voices in Museums Symposium with Hull Museums

I was delighted to take part in the Queer Voices in Museums online symposium on exploring queer history and heritage, in a brilliant Thursday morning session facilitated by Dan Vo alongside Katie Cassels, Family Programmes Producer, National Maritime Museum and Jon Sleigh, Freelance Arts Educator and collaborator with Queer British Art.

This was my intervention in a nutshell:

How can we queer museums and heritage in lockdown, focusing on women’s stories in doing so? From YouTube drag and swordswomen podcasts to Anne Lister tweets, experimentation is key. Freelance educator Claire Mead explores how she adapted her practice to a range of digital formats.   


Taking part in AKT Together Sessions – The World We Built

I am proud to have taken part in ‘The World we Built, part of AKT Together Sessions in support of AKT’s essential work in providing support for young LGBTQI people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness:

“Queer folklorist Sacha Coward is joined by Dan Vo, Claire Mead and
Ben Paites to help ‘queer’ a range of everyday objects in a whistlestop LGBTQ+ history lesson!”


Living Beyond Limits Exhibition at MIMA

Living Beyond Limits: Art and the Limits of Language, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, 20 October 2018 – 3 February 2019 

This exhibition is the outcome of my 2018-19 curatorial residency at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, funded by Fluxus Art Projects, co-curated with MIMA and its constituents.

To be queer is to be erased from public space and to persist, nevertheless, in making yourself heard. This exhibition queers the museum by reclaiming it as a communal and political space within which marginal voices will not be silenced.

Originally the term queer was used as an insult against lesbian, gay, bi and trans people – and still is in certain places. It was reclaimed in the 1990s by activists intent on challenging norms around gender and sexuality, rather than blend into society, in terms of identities and politics.

Living Beyond Limits showcases works from the Middlesbrough Collection by artists whose life or work deviate from long-held norms around gender and sexuality. However, in this context, queerness is more than an identity marker. The focus of this show is political and activist, and it includes themes around racism, sexism and class inequalities.

Through a programme of public workshops, discussions and zine making during 2018, Living Beyond Limits has been curated through open dialogue with local people and members of the local LGBTQIA+ community. These constituents have contributed to queered re-interpretations of works from the Middlesbrough Collection and offered perspectives related to their own identities and narratives.