Louise Labé; engraving by Pierre Woeiriot, 1555
|Died||25 April 1566
|French literary history|
Louise Labé, (c. 1524, Lyon – 25 April 1566, Parcieux), also identified as La Belle Cordière (The Beautiful Ropemaker), was a feminist French poet of the Renaissance born in Lyon, the daughter of wealthy ropemaker Pierre Charly and his second wife, Etiennette Roybet.
Louise Labé was born into a family of ropemakers, surgeons, and butchers. Her father, Pierre Charly, was a successful ropemaker, who started a business on rue de l'Arbre sec, at the base of Saint Sébastien Hill in Lyon. When his first wife died in 1515, he married Etiennette Roybet, and had five children: Barthélemy, Francois, Mathieu, Claudine, and Louise. It is presumed that Louise Labé was born at some point between her father's wedding in 1516 and her mother's death in 1523.
Records show that Labé's father, despite his humble beginnings, eventually achieved some social prestige. For example, in 1534, he was summoned before the Assemblée de Consuls of the city of Lyon to approve and participate in the founding of a relief agency for the poor.
At some point, perhaps in a convent school, Labé received an education in foreign languages (Greek, Latin, Italian, and Spanish) and music, specifically the lute.
As a young woman, she was acclaimed as an extraordinary horsewoman and archer. Her early biographers called her "la belle Amazone" and report that she dressed in male clothing and fought as a knight on horseback in the ranks of the Dauphin (afterwards Henry II) at the siege of Perpignan. She was also said to have participated in tournament jousts performed in Lyon in honor of Henry II's visit.
Between 1543 and 1545 she married Ennemond Perrin, also a Lyon ropemaker, a marriage dictated in her father's will, and which established the succession of the rope manufacturing business he was involved in. The business must have been prosperous, since the couple purchased a townhouse with a large garden in 1551, and, in 1557, a country estate at Parcieux-en-Dombes near Lyon.
Lyon was the cultural centre of France in the first half of the sixteenth century and Labé hosted a literary salon that included many of the renowned Lyonnais poets and humanists, including Maurice Scève, Clement Marot, Claude de Taillemont, Pontus de Tyard, and Pernette du Guillet.
The poet Olivier de Magny, passing through Lyon on his way to Rome, fell in love with Labé, and is the likely subject of her love sonnets. Magny's Odes contained a poem (A Sire Aymon) that mocked and belittled Labé's husband (who had died by 1557).
Perhaps inspired by the posthumous publication of Pernette du Guillet's collection of love poems in 1545, Labé began writing her own poetry. On March 13, 1555, Labé received from Henry II a privilège protecting her exclusive right to publish her works for a period of 5 years. 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 honour, authored by her male contemporaries and entitled Escriz de divers poetes, a la louenge de Louize Labe Lionnoize ("Writings of diverse poets, in praise of Louise Labé of Lyons"). 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. Her contemporaries compare her to Sappho and hail Labé as the Tenth Muse.
Debate on whether Labé was or was not a courtesan began in the sixteenth century, and has continued up to the present day. In 1557 a popular song on the scandalous behavior of La Cordière was published in Lyon. In 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."
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.
Debates on whether or not she was a courtesan and other aspects of her life have not always been of interest to critics who have focussed increasing attention on her writings, especially her verse.
Works and reception
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 belongs to a long tradition with examples from antiquity through to the Middle Ages, a tradition that had gained contemporary prominence due to the controversial satire, Erasmus' Praise of Folly. The Débat, the most admired of her works in the sixteenth century, was used as the source for one of the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, and was translated into English by Robert Greene in 1584.
Her poetry consists of three elegies in the style of the Heroides of Ovid, and twenty-four sonnets that draw on the traditions of Neoplatonism and Petrarchism. The great theme of her sonnets are the longings, torments and satisfactions of a passionate love which, however noble, is very much of this world, with no metaphysical concepts evoked and no references to a more perfect world than this one. A critic such as Breghot du Lut, writing for the 1824 edition of her works, found that he must apologize to the reader for her explicitness of some of her works; Saint-Beuve, in 1845, expressed something that was to become a refrain for readers and critics up to this day: despite her work showing that she was highly learned, this does not prevent her from seeming to speak to contemporary readers in a very direct way.
Her poetry was singled out among that of her contemporaries for special praise by Rilke, with Ferdimand Brunetière, in his 1900 article on the Pléiade and Lyonnese schools, writing that her poetry was the first time in French that passion was expressed with such vehemence and naiveté. Modern critics cite her rejection of the more showy or extravagant metaphors and poetic effects employed by poets such as Scève or Pernette du Guillet as one of the key components of her originality and appeal for the modern reader, with Jerry C. Nash writing in 1980
"Labé's lyrical voice is truly one of the best expressions in literature of artful simplicity, of a consistent and masterly synthesis of fond and forme, of passion and poetry".
Readers have, from the middle of the last century, commented on how in her verse she presents women in a way that goes against prevailing attitudes about what a woman's nature was or what made a woman either praiseworthey or blameworthy, a feature which makes her appear more in step with modern ideas than her contemporaries were. The frank expression of female desire had previously been confined to comic genres such as fabliaux.
In 2005, Labé's work was included on the programme of a very prestigious exam in France, sparking a flurry of academic publications. The most remarked upon of these was the 2006 book Louise Labé: une créature de papier (Droz); discussed below.
The sonnets 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).
Marc Fumaroli and Mireille Huchon
In her 2006 book the Sorbonne professor and specialist of Rabelais Mireille Huchon controversially argued that, despite over four centuries of scholarship and biographical evidence to the contrary, 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. The conservative critic Marc Fumaroli called Huchon's argument "irrefutable" in the literature supplement of Le Monde. Numerous critics and scholars examined Huchon's essay and frequently found her reasoning absurd, judging that her interpretation of the biographical evidence seemed to show inexplicable bias and reliance on unfounded assumptions. The lack of any evidence in support of her thesis was a further reason for the ease with which many dismissed her ideas as mistaken and considered Huchon's work to have made no valuable contribution to scholarship. The list of eminent scholars opposing Huchon include Emmanuel Buron, Henri Hours, Bernard Plessy, Madeleine Lazard, Daniel Martin, Eliane Viennot, and many others. Despite strong objections from most Labé scholars, however, Huchon's audacious thesis has not entirely disappeared from view.
- Robin, Larsen and Levin, p. 192.
- All quotes relating to the work's reception by critics from pages 250-261, Oeuvres complètes présentation par François Rigolot, Flammarion, 2004, Paris. (1st edition 1986)
- Other general discussion e.g. related to feminism and the originality of the peot, see the introduction to Oeuvres poétiques / Louise Labé. précédées des Rymes de Pernette Du Guillet. avec une sélection de Blasons du corps féminin / édition présentée, établie et annotée par Françoise Charpentier. Gallimard, 1983
- 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.
- (in French) Marc Fumaroli's review of Mireille Huchon's book, published in Le Monde, May 5, 2006 . The links to this and many more published reactions to the book can be found on the Siefar website, http://www.siefar.org/debats/louise-labe.html
- Louise Labe, Complete Poetry and Prose, ed. and trans. Deborah Lesko Baker and Annie Finch, University of Chicago Press, 2006.
- (in French) Louise Labe, Œuvres completes, ed. François Rigolot, Flammarion, 2004. Critical edition and biographical chronology.
- (in French) Madeleine Lazard, Louise Labe Lyonnaise, Librairie Artheme Fayard, 2004. Biography.
- (in Italian)) (in French) Enzo Giudici, Louise Labé, essai, 1981 OCLC 8101638, 123705566.
- (in French) Oeuvres poétiques / Louise Labé. précédées des Rymes de Pernette Du Guillet. avec une sélection de Blasons du corps féminin / édition présentée, établie et annotée par Françoise Charpentier. Gallimard, 1983
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Louise Labé.|
- Works by or about Louise Labé at Internet Archive
- Works by Louise Labé at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- (in French) A collection of 26 published responses to the debate, including biographies etc., many freely accessible online http://www.siefar.org/debats/louise-labe.html
- (in 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