Louise Labé  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Louise Labé, (c. 1520 or 1522, Lyon - April 25, 1566, Parcieux-en-Dombes), also identified as La Belle Cordière, was a female French poet of the Renaissance, born at Lyon, the daughter of a rich ropemaker, Pierre Charly, and his second wife, Etiennette Roybet. A recent book has argued that the poetry asscribed to her was a feminist creation of a number of French male poets of the Renaissance (see below).

Louise Labé is best-known for Le débat de la Folie et de l'Amour, prose dialogues published in 1555 and Sonnets et élégies, published in 1556.



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.

At the siege of Perpignan, or in a tournament there, she is said to have 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.

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, Clement Marot, Olivier de Magny, Jean-Antoine de Baif, 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 friend 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.

Debate on whether or not Labé was or was not a courtesan began in the sixteenth century, and has continued up to the present day. However, in recent decades, critics have focused increasing attention on 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 Debat de Folie et d'Amour, which draws on Erasmus' Praise of Folly.

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 Debat, the most popular of her works in the sixteenth century, inspired one of the fables of Jean de la Fontaine and was translated into English by Robert Greene in 1584.

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.

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).

According to Huchon, the courtesan did exist, but did not write the poems attributed to her. One critic Marc Fumaroli called Huchon's argument "irrefutable" in a book review in Le Monde.

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.

The debate is ongoing.

See also

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