Louise Labé; engraving by Pierre Woeiriot, 1555
|Died||April 25, 1566
|French literary history|
Louise Labé, (c. 1520 or 1522, Lyon – April 25, 1566, Parcieux), also identified as La Belle Cordière, (The Beautiful Ropemaker), was a female French poet of the Renaissance, born in Lyon, the daughter of a rich ropemaker, Pierre Charly, and his second wife, Etiennette Roybet. As is usual for a person of her time, there are certain gaps in what we know of her biography. Simply being a woman poet, especially one who writes frankly of desire, makes her extroardinary, and as such she has been the starting point for myths, romantic novels, and much conjecture, including recurrent hypotheses that attribute her work to a male author or group of male authors. (See below, "The Huchon Hypothesis".)
Both her father and her stepmother Antoinette Taillard (whom Pierre Charly married following Etiennette Roybet's death in 1523) were illiterate, but Labé received an education in Latin, Italian and music, perhaps in a convent school.
After her death, this once controversial figure came to be celebrated in Lyon as a symbol of local pride. One oft-repeated colorful tale about her claims that the siege of Perpignan, or in a tournament there, she dressed in male clothing and fought on horseback in the ranks of the Dauphin, afterwards Henry II.
Between 1543 and 1545 she married Ennemond Perrin, a ropemaker.
Lyon was the cultural centre of France in the first half of the sixteenth century and she became active in a circle of Lyonnais poets and humanists grouped around the figure of Maurice Scève. Her Œuvres were printed in 1555, by the renowned Lyonnais printer Jean de Tournes.
In addition to her own writings, the volume contained twenty-four poems in her honor, authored by her male contemporaries and entitled Escriz de divers poetes, a la louenge de Louize Labe Lionnoize.
The authors of these praise poems (not all of whom can be reliably identified) include Maurice Scève, Pontus de Tyard, Claude de Taillemont, Clément Marot, Olivier de Magny, Jean-Antoine de Baïf, Mellin de Saint-Gelais, Antoine du Moulin, and Antoine Fumee.
The poet Olivier de Magny, in his Odes of 1559, praised Labé (along with several other women) as his beloved; and from the nineteenth century onward, literary critics speculated that Magny was in fact Labé's lover. However, the male beloved in Labé's poetry is never identified by name, and may well represent a poetic fiction rather than a historical person.
Magny's Odes also contained a poem (A Sire Aymon) that mocked and belittled Labé's husband (who had died by 1557), and by extension Labé herself.
In 1564, the plague broke out in Lyon, taking the lives of some of Labé's friends. In 1565, suffering herself from bad health, she retired to the home of her companion Thomas Fortin, a banker from Florence, who witnessed her will (a document that is extant).
She died in 1566, and was buried on her country property close to Parcieux-en-Dombes, outside Lyon.
Debated connection with "la Belle Cordière"
From 1584, the name of Louise Labé became associated with a courtesan called "la Belle Cordière" (first described by Philibert de Vienne in 1547; the association with Labé was solidified by Antoine Du Verdier in 1585).
This courtesan was a colorful and controversial figure during her own lifetime. In 1557 a popular song on the scandalous behavior of La Cordière was published in Lyon, and 1560 Jean Calvin referred to her cross-dressing and called her a plebeia meretrix or common whore.
Scholars deliberate carefully over what status to accord to such statements published in a piece of religious propaganda by a writer whose tone has been described as vicious and hysterical, and similarly question to what extent the historian Paradin, writing in 1573, was aiming at neutral objectivity in writing "She had a face more angelic than human, which was yet nothing in comparison with her spirit which was so chaste, so virtuous, so poetic and of such uncommon knowledge that it would seem to have been created by God so that we may wonder at it as something prodigious."
Debate on whether Labé was or was not a courtesan began in the sixteenth century, and has continued up to the present day. However, such debates have not always been of interest to critics who have focused increasing attention on the striking originality of her literary works.
Her Œuvres include two prose works: a feminist preface, urging women to write, that is dedicated to a young noblewoman of Lyon, Clemence de Bourges; and a dramatic allegory in prose entitled Débat de Folie et d'Amour, which draws on Erasmus' Praise of Folly.
The sonnets, remarkable for their frank eroticism, have been her most famous works following the early modern period, and were translated into German by Rainer Maria Rilke and into Dutch by Pieter Cornelis Boutens. They have been translated into English by Annie Finch and Deborah Lesko Baker (2006), and by Richard Siebuth in a volume published by NYRB (2014).
The Huchon hypothesis
In her 2006 book Louise Labé: une créature de papier (Droz), the eminent Sorbonne professor Mireille Huchon argues that Louise Labé was not the author of the works signed with her name but rather that these works were by the Lyonnais poets Maurice Scève, Olivier de Magny, Claude de Taillemont, Jacques Peletier du Mans, Guillaume des Autels, and others, and by the publisher Jean de Tournes. According to Huchon, these poets created these works and made believe they were by Labé.
By this hypothesis, creation of the fictional poetess capitalized on the period's literary fascination with the classical poet Sappho and on a publication (1533) of poems attributed to Petrarch's "Laura" (Laura de Sade; the poems were in fact the work of a descendant of Laura).
The name "Louise" may have been coined by Clément Marot when, in 1542, seeking a French equivalent of Petrarch's praise of "Laura", he proposed to the Lyonnais circle that they "louer Louise" (praise Louise).
However, other critics do not concur with Huchon's view.
- First, her theory, although intriguing, remains speculative; she reinterprets existing historical documents, rather than citing new evidence.
- Second, while Labé's corpus does contain verbal echoes of works by Scève and other writers in his circle, these echoes, typical of Renaissance practices of intertextuality, may indicate that Labé collaborated and interacted with her poetic contemporaries, and do not necessarily indicate that her contemporaries went so far as to ghost-write her works.
- Finally, a unique stylistic voice and a remarkable consistency of vocabulary and themes are found across all of the poems, which renders it less likely that individual poems were composed by more than one person.
- Robin, Larsen and Levin, p. 192.
- Mireille Huchon (2006) Louise Labé: une créature de papier (Droz).
- Fumaroli, Le Monde, May 5, 2006.
- The French webpage entitled "Louise Labé attaquée!" ("Louise Labe attacked!") at  is collecting published responses to Huchon's book and making them available online. Scholars who disagree with part or all of Huchon's theory include Emmanuel Buron, "Claude de Taillemont et les Escriz de divers Poëtes à la louenge de Louïze Labé Lionnoize. Discussion critique de Louise Labé, une créature de papier, de Mireille Huchon," L'Information littéraire 2, 2006, p. 38-46 (); Henri Hours and Bernard Plessy, "Sur Louise Labé, rien de nouveau," Le Bulletin des Lettres, October 2006, p. 3-5 (); Madeleine Lazard, "Droit de réponse envoyé au Monde des livres, non publié" (); Daniel Martin, "Louise Labé est-elle ‘une creature de papier’?" Réforme, Humanisme, Renaissance 63, December 2006, p. 7-37 (); and Eliane Viennot, "Notice sur Louise Labé," Théâtre de femmes de l’Ancien Régime, December 2006, p. 377-379 ().
- Robin, Diana Maury, Larsen, Anne R. and Levin, Carole (2007). Encyclopedia of women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England. ABC-CLIO, Inc.
- (French) Marc Fumaroli's review of Mireille Huchon's book, published in Le Monde, May 5, 2006
- Louise Labe, Complete Poetry and Prose, ed. and trans. Deborah Lesko Baker and Annie Finch, University of Chicago Press, 2006.
- (French) Louise Labe, Œuvres completes, ed. Francois Rigolot, Flammarion, 2004. Critical edition and biographical chronology.
- (French) Madeleine Lazard, Louise Labe Lyonnaise, Librairie Artheme Fayard, 2004. Biography.
- (Italian)) (French) Enzo Giudici, Louise Labé, essai, 1981 OCLC 8101638 and 123705566.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Louise Labé.|
- (French) Biography, by Françoise Charpentier
- (French) Biography, Analysis
- Other Women's Voices: Translations of women's writing before 1700: Louise Labé Contains links to online translations by a selection of different translators, essays and reviews.
- University of Virginia's Gordon Project Louise Labe page Contains digital images of a 1556 edition of her works and background information.
- Translations of 24 sonnets