Louise Labe Yvonne Finnegan's Critical Essay
Copyright © Yvonne Finnegan
Source: http://www.geocities.com/khaktus56/
Unabridged (only broken graphic links removed).

Louise Labé: Poet of Merit or "Plebeia Meretrix"?

An Inquiry into the Biographical and Critical Assessments of a Sixteenth-Century
French Woman Writer.

Table of Contents:


I stumbled upon Louise Labé about a year ago. She came at the bottom of a bag of books my mother was clearing from her Victorian townhouse which threatened to crumble under the weight of tens of thousands of books. I read the single volume of her "Oeuvres": the Preface (or Dedicatory Epistle), the Debate between Folly and Love, the Elegies, the Sonnets. The works were stunning: straightforward yet subtle, erudite yet fresh, lyrical and bold, humorous and passionate. I was humbled and shocked: I had received a sound French primary and secondary education and had never heard of Louise Labé. I had received a Bachelors of Arts in French Literature from a fairly prestigious American university, and had never heard of Louise Labé.

I checked with several persons of my generation, all well-educated French citizens. Most had never heard of Louise Labé. One recalled vaguely the name but could not quite recollect the connection (he had a Masters in French Literature). Labé had in fact been excluded from the canon.

Further research indicated that Labé was in fact exceptional: she was the first woman to write a sonnet sequence in French; the first from her social class to publish a true feminist manifesto (she was from the middle class, not the aristocracy); she held one of the first literary "salons" in France; her poetry was widely read in her lifetime and influenced the renowned (male) poets of the Pléïade (Ronsard, du Bellay, etc.); she knew Latin, Spanish, Italian, and Greek; she was as widely read in those languages as any humanist of her generation; she was a professionally accomplished musician (voice and lute); she was an excellent equestrian and fencer; she was also vivacious and physically attractive. There the biographers agree; but beyond this the most amazing "biographical" and "critical" information surfaces, hyperbolic in its praise, vituperous or subtle in its condemnation, riddled with contradictions, well into the last decades of the twentieth century.



The Life of Louise Labé

Documented Facts.

No records exist of the birth, baptism, marriage, or death of Louise Labé. We know from incidental legal records that she was the daughter of Pierre de Charly (also written Charlieu) dit Labé (also Labé or l'abbé), a well-to-do member of the Lyon middle-class. He had accumulated wealth through his rope-making business (a lucrative trade in the sixteenth century), and through various inheritances. He owned several houses in Lyon proper, as well as lands outside the town, including one parcel in Vaux, in the Dauphiné (Boy, 27). It is not known for a fact but it is very probable that Louise was born of the second of his three wives, Etiennette Compagnon, who records show was already deceased in 1524. The birth year of Louise is therefore presumed to be sometime between 1520 and 1524.

In 1542 the Dauphin Henri (later King Henri II) made a royal entrance in Lyon, on his way to Perpignan to wage battle against the Spanish. The city of Lyon spent a small fortune entertaining the prince and his troops, putting on shows, tournaments, building arcs of triumph and temporary structures. The youth of the city was called on to present a "preview" of the French army's expected success against the Spanish. Louise's half-brother François (from Pierre Labé's first wife) was a "maistre joueur d'espée" [a fencing-master] (Boy, 40) and probably enlisted his talented sister to participate in one or more of the public festivities. Louise was an accomplished equestrian and fencer in her own right, as is amply documented by contemporary writers. Thus a number of poems refer to her brilliant performances in the "Perpignan" tournament; these references induced later biographers to declare that she had actually accompanied the French army all the way to Perpignan and fought like a latter-day Joan of Arc. From this probably erroneous inference sprang a profusion of myths, legends, plays, songs--see Biographical Treatment for more details on the Amazon myth.

A street named rue de la Belle Cordiere in 16th century Lyon

A document signed 2 April 1551 informs us that a certain Ennemond Perrin, rope-maker of Lyon, married to "Loyse Charly dicte Labé, sa femme" was purchasing and improving real estate; thus it is certain that Labé was married by that time. Not much is known of Ennemond, but the rumors insist that he was 20 or 30 years older than his wife. There is no record of the couple ever having any children.

A few years later, Louise Labé obtained the King's Privilege (the official "copyright" of the time) for the works she sought to publish. The "Privilège du Roy" is dated 13 March 1554. Her works, "Evvres de Loyse Labé Lyonnoise" were published in one volume by the renowned humanist printer Jan de Tournes in Lyon, in 1555. Three more editions were printed in 1556: two in Lyon and one in Rouen.

On 28 April 1565 Labé dictated her will to a friend. On August 30, 1566, a stonemason, Claude de Bourg, is documented to have received "douze livres deux sols t." to carve a tombstone for "dame Loyse Charly." It is not known where she was buried; the tombstone has not been found. At the time of her death she was probably living on a small estate near Parcieu, somewhat removed from the town of Lyon, which had since 1562 been ravaged by outbreaks of the plague and by wars of religion.(Boy, 75)

The Works of Louise Labé

Title Page of the 1555 edition, now at the Bibliothèque Nationale.


The volume published in 1555 by Jan de Tournes includes a Dedicatory Preface, a Debate in the humanist vein entitled "Debate Between Folly and Love," three Elegies, a sequence of 24 Sonnets (one in Italian and 23 in French), and a compendium of poems written by contemporary poets and friends in praise of the author.

The Dedicatory Preface constitutes possibly the first true feminist manifesto in French literature (although Christine de Pisan had launched the "Querelle des Femmes" at the turn of the fifteenth century with her critique of the rampant misogyny of her time, in particular that of Jean de Meung, author of the very popular allegorical poem, Le Roman de la Rose). This Preface, addressed to a young woman of the Lyon aristocracy, Clémence de Bourges, exhorts women, now that the "severe laws of men have been done away with," to improve their minds, to lift them "above their distaffs and spindles" by studying the various disciplines, and to try to do so well as to outdo or at least equal the men. She insists that women need to be concerned with the running not only of households, but also of public affairs, if not directly, at least as counselors to the men in power. She extols the honor, glory, and pleasures brought about by applying oneself to "letters and sciences", and particularly to writing; she enjoins women to help one another and thus seeks Mademoiselle de Bourges' protection and dedicates this volume of prose and poetry to her as the fruit of her own pastime and, she hopes, as an inspiration for Mademoiselle de Bourges and other women to write too, and improve upon her "rude and ill-constructed" work. This ought to be considered a major document in the history of feminism, and is all the more compelling since it was written by a woman who was not of the aristocracy. (Labé, 1-5)


Labé urged the Ladies to improve their lot by studying and writing, to

The Debate Between Folly and Love is a brilliantly conducted exercise in the humanist vein. Labé constructs a dialogue within an allegorical framework, wherein the nature of love is explored and its irrational basis "explained." This perfectly balanced text teems with historical and mythological references (the critic Enzo Guidici supplies 32 pages of explanatory notes to the 70-page text) and not only demonstrates Labé's mastery of the genre but also testifies to her erudition comparable to the most learned of the humanists of her time. Unlike many of these Renaissance "disputes" which fail to capture a modern reader's attention, the Debate Betwen Folly and Love remains highly entertaining even by our standards.

The three Elegies are over 100 lines each, composed in 10-syllable rhyming couplets. Modern critics have discerned the influence of Latin elegiac poets as well as that of Marot. In the Elegies Labé renews with the tradition of women poets and women of power, such as Sappho and Semiramis, thus putting into practice the "solidarity" invoked in her prefatory dedication.

The Sonnet Sequence begins with an Italian sonnet invoking the Odyssean hero.The 23 sonnets in French poke gentle fun at the Petrarchian model; they show that Labé was conducting a dialogue with the concerns and topoi of her era. Her sonnets, all ostensibly dealing with love, rework the neo-Platonic concerns of the Renaissance as introduced by the Italians, notably Marsilio Ficino, and give a humorous twist to the classical mythological traditions which were already becoming somewhat overworked by the middle of the sixteenth century. The sonnets are remarkable for their lyrical quality and perfect metrical balance. Rejecting the somewhat pedantic obscurity of Maurice Scève, (a contemporary poet and habitué of her literary circle, much more famous than Labé), Labé endows her poems with luminosity and clarity, and yet also with enough ambiguity to have modern critics argue as to whether her alleged "simplicity" is not in fact a carefully orchestrated stratagem. A discussion of Labé's merits as a writer will be found in Critical Reception .  


Biographical Treatment

A vexing lack of facts surrounding Labé's life did not seem to deter but rather to encourage those who exploited the possibilities offered by this multi-talented woman. "Louise has attracted more than her share of inventive biographers. Little is known about her life , but the legends surrounding her name more than make up for the lack of fact." (Prine, 132)

Those legends began in her lifetime. Charles Boy has collected the Judgments of Her Contemporaries , in the first scholarly edition of Labé's works, which came out in 1887. Boy shows that positive commentaries outweigh the negative, and that the latter often point to personal axes to grind. Labé's champions point to her erudition, poetic talent, beauty, chastity, and virtue. Her opponents all vilify her for one thing: lack of chastity. John Calvin was among the number, reviling her in a 1560 pamphlet as a plebeia meretrix (a common whore). After Lyon's rapid decline in the 1560's due to outbreaks of religious wars and the plague, Labé disappeared from literary discourse.

After being buried for 200 years, she was litterarily exhumed in 1762 when a new edition of her works came out in Lyon. Her revival was at first modest, but thanks to the Romantic movement she soon experienced best-seller success as a figure of myth. The Romantics were charmed with the legend and mystery surrounding the poet and seized upon the possibilities for amplification. As Enzo Guidici mentions in Note sur la fortune posthume de Louise Labé, "one could not possibly gather, by reason of their very nature, the novels, short stories, vaudevilles, etc, starting with Jacques Ridouet in the sixteenth century, that deal with Louise Labé." (Guidici, Note.., p. 349). Guidici does manage to include 27 shorter pieces: poems, epitaphs, essays, etc., which show the continuing interest Labé has elicited over creative imaginations since her publication.

Labé has indeed inspired a number of translators, imitators and artists. Her "Debate Between Folly and Love" was reworked by Robert Greene and added as an appendix to his 1584 romance Gwydonius , with no mention of its origin except for the mention that it was taken "out of French." (Prescott, 134). The lyrical quality of Labé's sonnets has inspired quite a few composers to set them to music (Henri Sauguet in 1928, Sir Lennox Berkeley in 1941, Konrad Roetscher in 1952, Conrad Beck in 1964, Reiner Bredemeyer in 1981, Jean Berger in 1990, Konrad Boehmer in 1990 among others). A ballet was choreographed in 1924 with vocal and orchestra score by Roland Manuel. A streetin Lyon was named after la Belle Cordière; Guidici laments in "Note sur la fortune posthume..." that a restaurant in Paris, named La Belle Cordière, owned and operated by a man from Lyon (and we must remember that Lyon is considered by many the gastronomic capital of France) and filled with a collection of artifacts and iconography devoted to Labé, closed "a few years ago." (Guidici, 350) It is evident that even though Labé was officially treated with some disdain by many, she had an enormous cultural impact.

Inspiration is one thing, but misrepresentation is another. One play, which illustrates very well the kind of hyperbolic treatment the Romantics liked to inflict, is available in the University of Maryland's Rare Collection. Even when we keep reminding ourselves of the frame of mind of the Romantic era, it is still quite an appalling piece to read. Gustave Mayer's play, entitled Louise Labé, ou, la Belle Cordière, épisode lyonnais en trois actes, quatre tableaux, premiered at the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon on September 4, 1847. The fact that she was a published poet is not mentioned here, although one of her sonnets is worked into the play. What counts is beauty, love, sacrifice, heroism, suffering. The play opens with Louise as the transvestite Capitaine Loys; like Joan of Arc, she re-energizes the French troops at the Siege of Perpignan. She falls hopelessly in love; her love is requited, but alas, the young man is already secretly betrothed to none other but Louise's best friend Clémence de Bourges (the dedicatee of the Preface to Labé's Euvres). Back in Lyon, Louise learns of the secret betrothal from Clémence. Edgar, the young man, now prefers Louise, and prepares to take steps to break off the engagement gently; but as fate would have it Clémence walks in on an ambiguous scene between Louise and Edgar and nearly dies of shock. Handsome Edgar and Beautiful Louise sacrifice their love for the sake of Clémence. Louise, the better to convince Clémence that there is nothing between Edgar and herself, immediately marries the aging Ennemond Perrin who was helpfully standing by. To add to the drama, a secondary character in the play, Maurice Scève, is suddenly discovered to be the illegitimate son of the father of Clémence de Bourges. His own inclination toward Clémence can now be transformed into harmless brotherly affection.

I describe this extremely dramatic and romanticized version of Labé's youth because it crystallizes an image of the writer which was commonly held during the nineteenth century and a good part of the twentieth. Although different voices arose challenging this view, notably that of Charles Boy, who denounced all such travesties and cautioned against reading factual information into a poet's works, they were confined to erudite circles and did not make a dent in the popular conception of Louise Labé. Another example of excessive romanticization occurs in the portrayal given half a century later by Paul Lacour in Les Amazones (1901), part of a series called "Les Femmes dans l'Histoire." Gleefully blurring fact and fiction, this "historical" account of Labé capitalizes on her alleged military exploits. It is interesting to note that the author knows he is not relating historical truth, as witnessed by this extract:

  • "Could it be that from afar, with the passing of time and the mirages of the past, things and beings take on strange and magical proportions? Standing on the ruins of the Middle Ages, do the silhouettes of the heroes of that time seem magnified? But the existence of Louise Labé unfolds before our astonished eyes such fabulous episodes of amorous epic! What a striking tableau her young adulthood presents! One would think it a passage from the Iliad . . . And it begins as a fairy tale . . . It so happened that one day the shivering banner of the King of France made their way down the streets of Lyon, below the window of the maiden's chamber, towards Perpignan, where lurked the enemy. She heeds the call of her heroic heart, as Joan heeded her voices; she discards 'her soft womanly vestments' and enrols in the army. Off she goes at seventeen, on horseback through the rippling hills of Roussillon . . . The French knights, marvelling at her courage, nickname her le Capitaine Loys. All wish to die by her side, all rival in heroism. The excitement is indescribable. Louise's biographers agree on that point…." (Lacour, 259-261)
  • Well, not all, the writer reluctantly admits in a footnote which describes Boy's objections in denigrating terms. Lacour goes on for 20 pages of similar extravagance, devoting only two short paragraphs to the fact that Labé actually wrote and published.

    Forty years later Marcel Brion in Les Amantes (1941) devotes seventy-four pages to a life story of Louise Labé. Brion, a biographer, novelist, literary critic and art historian, author of 24 books, describes Labé also as a Joan of Arc at Perpignan. A few sentences will give a flavor of the tone of this "biography":

  • "Capitaine Loys was only sixteen and on that floating threshhold where one is hard put to distinguish the maiden from the young adolescent . . . During the three months [of the siege of Perpignan] Capitaine Loys was seized with the flame which was to burn for a lifetime … There is only one motive which explains why Louise appears suddenly before besieged Perpignan … the reason she gave us herself, the reason for all her lack of reason, the only reason which will inform all her actions, subjected to the impulses of her heart: Love. […] Just as she gives in to love's delirium in the arms of her lover, so she does in her poems, where the hot breath of desire, the exquisite languishing of sensual pleasure become a song …. The wails of the woman in love develop into harmonious stanzas [….] Then she took another lover, Claude de Rubys … Later she returned to Olivier de Magny … people were shocked … they left her salon." (Brion, 199).
  • Although Mayer, Lacour, and Brion appear to praise Louise Labé and condone her "amorous" openness in laudatory romantic terms, the disservice produced by these "biographical" treatments is immense and quite as damaging as the accusation of whoredom. None of the claims put forward are documented. These authors pass as facts and amplify with a profusion of details what must be regarded as pure conjecture and hypothesis. And because one picks up where the last one left off, the snowball becomes an avalanche. The original inference that Labé had been to Perpignan, ironically, has its source in two ambiguous lines of verse from an anonymous author who praises an equestrian performance of Labé's, "Quand la jeunesse française /Perpignan environna" ("In those days when French youths were laying siege to Perpignan" ) (Boy, 40). The verses do not locate the performance in place, but in time; but from those two lines posterity has produced plays, ballets, poems, and anthology entries. The net result of this accumulation of falsehoods is that Labé is fixed in people's minds as that figure of legend, when all that we really know of her is that she published a volume of prose and verse in 1555.

    As is often the case for women of achievement, Louise's intellectual and artistic achievements have been conflated with or explained by her (presumed) emotional states of being, so that it is difficult to find a critical judgment of her work, before the late twentieth century, that does not--explicitly or implicitly--equate the works of Labé to an autobiography--relegating her oeuvre to the devalued category of "confessional literature." The result of this tendency to assimilate the poet and the persona in the case of Labé is that her works tend to be judged according to whether the critic thinks of her as "Poet" or as "Plebeia Meretrix."

    Thus her love poems are deemed to be either fine sonnets and elegies in the Italian and Latin traditions; or they are the raw, shocking confession and stylistically simple expression of unbridled sexual desire by a wanton woman. Despite the improbability of a lascivious courtesan choosing the formally difficult venues of the sonnet, the elegy, and the humanist debate to cool her sexual ardors, the taint has been perpetuated until quite recently and the problem of Louise Labé's morality is reflected in her "inclusion" history.


    Judgments of Her Contemporaries

    Here are a few representative selections from the thorough research done by Charles Boy in 1887:

    1554-55? Anonymous: praise for Louise Labé's sonnets appears in Le plaisant Blason de la Teste de Bois. (Boy, 91)

    April 1, 1555: François de Billon, Le fort inexpugnable de l'honneur du Sexe Femenin, construit par François de Billon Secretaire. Defends "la belle Cordière de Lyon" and praises her abilities in fencing and in 'letters.'(Boy, 92)

    1555: Jacques Peletier du Mans, L'Art poétique de Jacques Peletier du Mans, departi en deus Livres. A Lyon par Jan de Tournes et Guil. Gazeau. 1555. Contains an ode to Louise Labé, praising her beauty, surpassed only by her erudition and her "dous stile" which he believes shall immortalize her.(Boy, 94)

    Undated and Anonymous. "Chanson nouvelle de la Belle Cordière de Lyon." This song depicts the author as a whore willing to take her pleasure with members of various professions: a lawyer, a prosecuting attorney, a shoe-maker, a miller, and a rich Florentine banker. (Boy, 95-97)

    1559. Olivier de Magny. Odes d'Olivier de Magny. Contains an ode of about 100 lines declaring a Sire Aymon to be a cuckold. Critics have postulated that Aymon stands for Ennemond, the husband of Labé. (Boy, 97-100)

    1560. John Calvin.Gratulatio ad venerabilem presbyterum dominum Gabrielum de Saconay, praecentorum ecclesiae lugdunensis. In a pamphlet addressed to a staunch Catholic of Lyon, and enemy to the Reformation, Calvin vilifies de Saconay for his acquaintance with Louise Labé (she was the cousin of a woman whom a certain Jean Varoz Yvard wanted to divorce; Calvin presided over the divorce court and wanted to forward Yvard's claim; Labé's notoriety was a convenient way of proving Yvard's wife guilty by association). Calvin writes: "Hunc ludum quam saepe tibi praebuit plebeia meretrix quam partim a propria venustate, partim ab opificio mariti, Bellam cordieram vocabant. This pastime [to cavort with women dressed as men] you often enjoyed with that common whore they call Beautiful ropemaker, both for her own beauty and for the occupation of her husband." (quoted in Rigolot, 11)

    1573. Guillaume Paradin de Cuyseaulx, Mémoires de l'histoire de Lyon. "Ceste [Loïse Labé] avoit la face plus angélique qu'humaine; mais ce n'estoit rien à la comparaison de son esprit tant chaste, tant vertueux, tant poëtique, tant rare en sçavoir..." "She had a face more angelic than human, but that was nothing compared to her mind so chaste, so virtuous, so poetic, so incomparably learned..." (Boy, 102)

    1573. Claude de Rubys: "cette impudique Loyse Labé, que chacun sait avoir faict profession de courtisanne publique jusques à sa mort." (this shameless Loyse Labé, who everyone knows held the profession of a common whore up until her death) (Boy, 104)

    1585. Antoine du Verdier. La bibliothèque d'Antoine du Verdier, seigneur de Vauprivas. After praising her equestrian and musical skills, her erudition and linguistic skills, du Verdier mentions that this "courtisane" "communicated privately her most secret parts, and to say it in a word, shared her body with those men, who charged forward--not all men however, and not rude mechanicals or men of vile condition, no matter how much money they would offer [...] It is not for being a Courtesan that I mention her in this book, but only for having written."(Boy, 106-107)

    Labé's publisher Jan de Tournes included in her "Evvres" a series of 24 poems dedicated to Louise Labé which praise her in no uncertain terms. These are to be considered as important counterweights to the aspersions related above because although many of them were anonymous, they were written by persons who actually knew Labé. (It is fairly certain that John Calvin, for instance, never met the woman he accuses of being a plebeia meretrix.)

    Lyon at the time of the Renaissance was an extremely prosperous city


    Inclusion History

    Some anthologists have dealt with the issue of Labé's alleged loose morals by avoiding it altogether and suppressing Louise Labé from their collections. Here are some anthologies that one would think would have to include Labé's works, but in which she does not appear at all:

    Heath Readings in the Literature of Europe. (1933)

    Prose and Poetry of the Continental Renaissance in Translation. (1949)

    Faguet, Émile. Seizième siècle: études littéraires. (1949).

    Literature of Western Civilization (in 2 volumes), 3rd ed. (1952)

    Weber, Henri. La création poétique au XVIe siècle en France de Maurice Scève à Agrippa d'Aubigné. (1955) (Labé is not mentioned once in this 557-page monograph the subject-matter of which directly concerns her)

    Tilley, A. The Literature of the French Renaissance. (2 vols) 1959. (Maurice Scève and Pernette du Guillet are mentioned but Labé is not.)

    Levin, Carole and Jeanie Watson. Ambiguous realities: Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. 1987

    Some anthologists and writers include her the better to exclude her:

    The Portable Renaissance Reader (1968), gives the poet this thumbnail biography:

    • 'Labé, Louise (1526-1566). French lyric poet of the circle of Lyons, famous for her military exploits, her learning, and her loves." (Ross, 54).

    An English version of one of Labé's poems is given in this anthology, as "Poor Loving Soul" (" Trans. Robert Bridges"); this "translation" is so far removed in form and tone from the original (Labé"s metrically perfect sonnet is transformed into three stanzas of three lines each; the rhyme is absent; it scans very poorly compared to the musicality of the original; a title is provided where there was none), that in all conscience it ought not to bear Louise's name above it.

    In Kreilsheimer's The Continental Renaissance: 1500-1600, Labé's name does not appear in the table of contents where she is subsumed under "Scève, the Lyonnais poets" (p.6) [Maurice Scève was the only male of the three main Lyonnais poets of the period]; but she is discussed briefly in the following terms in the body of the text:

    • "Louise Labé, 'la belle cordière" (her father was a rope-merchant), […] openly rejected [the social proprieties]. Her life was the subject of much slander and gossip, some, no doubt, invented, but it is abundantly clear that she was not content to establish just the cultural rights of women, but their sexual rights as well. The three elegies and twenty-three sonnets available in modern editions may not be poetry of the highest order, but are undeniably effective in their burning affirmation of feminine passion. No shrinking maiden, she sighs and tosses, […]only to be reminded of the imperious needs of the flesh.[…]In form and expression she owes much to Petrarch, but the content derives wholly from the consuming ardour of her own extraordinary nature. The intensity and individuality of her verse would hardly be remarkable in a man, but in a woman of the sixteenth century are astonishing. 'Baise m'encor, rebaise moy et baise' is an echo of life, rather than an exercise in the style of Catullus; such fire owes nothing to artifice." (Kreilsheimer, 180-81)

    The Library of the World's Best Literature, Ancient and Modern, (1902) gives the following biographical/critical sketch of Louise Labé, stating as fact her alleged military experiences:

    • Labé, Louise . A French poet; true name Charlieu; called "the fair rope-maker" from her husband's business (about 1526-66). She was early noted for beauty, linguistic talent, and intrepidity. At 16, disguised as a cavalier, she took part in the siege of Perpignan. After marriage at Lyons, her house became the rendezvous of poets, scholars, artists, and musicians. Her poems are true lyrics, singularly graceful and original, though showing Petrarch's influence. She also wrote in prose a charming allegory, "Dispute between Folly and Love." (Vol. 43, p. 317)

    No doubt exists in the following writer's mind either, when he asserts in 1860: "...at the age of 16 she was present at the siege of Perpignan (1542), under the name of capitaine Loys." (Feugère, 6)

    Will Durant (with or without Ariel Durant?) offers this tantalizing description in his sweeping Story of Civilization:

    • "[Scève's] ablest competitor in Lyons was a woman, Louise Labé, who, in full armor, fought like another Joan at Perpignan, and then cooled into marriage with a rope-maker who winked in kindly Gallic fashion at her subsidiary amours. She read Greek, Latin, Italian, and Spanish, played the lute alluringly, kept a salon for her rivals and lovers, and wrote some of the earliest and finest sonnets in the French language." (Durant, 808)

    Durant goes on to describe her "triumphant funeral", unaware that he has confused Labé with Clémence de Bourges or Pernette du Guillet, two contemporary women of Lyon who received public honors to their resting places, while Labé died in obscurity. Durant's "story" illustrates rather pathetically the treatment Labé received at the hands of historians and biographers: facts are not checked for accuracy; where there are facts they are embellished, and where there are no facts, they are invented and couched in romanticized and exaggerated terms. The praise he reserves for Labé's "earliest and finest sonnets in the French language" comes only as an afterthought it seems.


    The Renaissance Reader (1996), which includes a short excerpt from the Dedicatory Epistle, perpetuates the Amazon myth even though the editors are at least conscientious enough to couch it in doubt:

    • "Legend has it that Louise Labé, of Lyon, known as "la Belle Cordière" because she was the wife of a ropemaker, dressed as a man and went off to war; and that she may have practiced the arts of a courtesan. She wrote love poems, elegies, and sonnets in the Italian style that were powerful in their elegant simplicity and evocation of her melancholy and passion." (p. 193)

    Some critics miss opportunities; for example, Carla Freccero in her book article "Gender Ideologies, Women Writers, and the Problem of Patronage in Early Modern Italy and France: Issues and Frameworks" notes that Labé "published her writing herself" and quotes a fragment from the Preface, where Labé requests Clémence de Bourges's patronage, "asking her to be a chaperone because, she writes, 'women do not willingly show themselves alone in public.'" (Freccero, 73). But this phrase, taken out of context, would seem to imply that Labé was somewhat unsure of herself, whereas the entire tone of the Preface speaks of her empowerment, and the phrase quoted is very probably tongue-in-cheek. Freccero ignores the strong feminist bent of the Preface although this would have been an excellent place to mention it and to portray Labé as the confident author that she was.


    Critical Reception

    • "She didn't write it.

    • She wrote it, but she shouldn't have.

    • She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.

    • She wrote it, but "she" isn't really an artist and "it" isn't really serious, of the right genre--i.e. really art.

    Joanna Russ. How to Suppress Women's Writing

    Joanna Russ's list of strategies aimed at denigrating a woman writer's achievements can serve as a useful way to encapsulate recurrent motifs in judging Labé's work. Since the publication of her "Evvres," there have always been those who admired her writing; but a larger number of critics have managed to belittle her in various ways as outlined above.

    "She didn't write it."

    This accusation, because it is extremely difficult to defend, has been used sparingly against Labé. A variation of it is used instead: "She merely imitated." Here for example, is Joseph Vianey, writing in 1909 about Louise Labé and Pernette du Guillet (the other Lyonnais female poet):

    "I have next to nothing to say here about their work, nor about that of any other imitator of Scève ; for their influence is entirely contained within his, or rather, is completely erased by his, and their merit is slim, all told, compared to his." (Vianey, 79)

    Catherine Randall seems to echo Vianey's judgment, but in more subtle terms: "...[Charlotte de Mornay and Hélisenne de Crennes'] contemporaries fall into a catchall category of Petrarchan imitative writers. Louise Labé, Pernette du Guillet, Catherine des Roches, for instance, all write Neoplatonic and Petrarchan sonnets.... Labé uses typed forms and conventional topoi ..., modeling herself on a male precursor voice. Her original contribution is that she uses as a woman, in a self-conscious way, the Petrarchan language and forms given her by men. But she does not significantly alter these forms." (Randall, 200-202)

    But then perhaps the essence of parody is not to alter the form but to subvert the meaning. Again, Labé's artistry is denigrated by being lumped into a 'catchall category' of "imitators. " Indeed, one would be hard put to find a Renaissance author who had NOT imitated, as noted by Deborah Baker: "The relationship of poetic texts to previous models, the inexhaustibly rich and multileveled workings of literary imitatio, are essential issues in the study and interpretation of Renaissance poetry..." (Baker, 126).

    What makes Labé original is that while other poets did indeed imitate Petrarch and Latin poets, she did so with the particular effect of drawing attention to the gender difference she was portraying. Thus she playfully deconstructs the Petrarchian model of poetry which appropriates, categorizes, labels and judges the woman's body parts; this "blason" technique, rampant and often insultingly gross in Labé's time, is shown up to be ludicrous and hollow even in its more refined modalities, when one is dealing with a real woman.

    "She wrote it, but she shouldn't have." "She wrote it, but look what she wrote about."

    Feugère registers his shock at the subject-matter and style: "Louise Labé expresses the bursts of passion in a language too lacking in discretion and which a modern reader would have difficulty in accepting." (Feugère, [1860] quoted in Zamaron, 80).

    Much more recently (1985), Dassonville takes a curiously un-modern view of Labé's work: after cautioning against the temptation of reading biographical details into her elegies, he writes: "It is the temptation I will avoid here even though it is undeniable, as Albert-Marie Schmidt noted, that 'the Elegies of Louise Labé can be regarded as so many pages of her personal diary.'" (Dassonville, 78). Why is it undeniable? He advances no proofs, no arguments, no support other than his opinion. Later he taxes her verse with "indecency." (Dassonville, 79). Then he succumbs altogether to the temptation he had warned against: "These two elegies, shameless pleadings, are also confessions without remorse or penance." (Dassonville, 79). While we're on Dassonville's case we may ask whether it is serious literary criticism to riddle one's commentary with misogynistic remarks such as the following: "At the end of the first elegy she develops the theme of 'When you are very old' but she does it with a cruelty that only women are capable of." (Dassonville, 80)--and, referring to a line in which Labé uses the word "moon" to signify a month's time, he writes in parentheses: "(Women are fond of keeping time by the number of moons)" (Dassonville, 80).

    Interestingly, "critics" who choose to diminish the author's stature by pointing at the impropriety of the subject-matter usually disregard completely the Debate Between Folly and Love, and focus on one or two of Labé's poems, particularly Sonnet XVIII, which deals with the kiss. It is telling that the critics who reproach Labé for her topoi never mention the fact that the kiss was a commonplace in the Renaissance. It is not an "indecency" invented by a woman in a sexual frenzy but a poetic archetype, with sources in Ovid, Tibullus, Catullus, Petrarch, and a host of sixteenth-century minor poets: "The kiss was very popular in sixteenth century poetry, both in neo-Latin opera and in French vernacular texts: Nicolas Bourbon, Giovanni Pontano, Michael Marullus, Jean Bonefons wrote kiss poems, but the major influence on the French poets was Johannes Secundus, whose series of nineteen Bacia [...] became the principal source of kisses in French poetry."(Gooley, 11-12). Gooley goes on to cite contemporary poets who dealt with the kiss (indeed it would be easier to quote those who did not): Clément Marot, Melin de Saint Gelays, Jacques Tahureau, Rémy Belleau, Olivier de Magny, Pierre de Ronsard, Maurice Scève. It seems a little hard to accuse Labé of indecency and not the others. Perhaps, just perhaps, she was having a little fun with all those men poets enamored with the Kiss?

    She wrote it, but "she" isn't really an artist and "it" isn't really serious, of the right genre--i.e. really art.

    The most clinging and insidious type of "praise" that Labé's works have received revolves around the theme of the "spontaneous," "natural," "sincere," and "simple" in her poetry. This charge of easy achievement has often been levied against women, and is perhaps best illustrated in the following quote, written in 1924 concerning Christine de Pisan (a 15th Century female author):

    " ... She is the first in this intolerable line of women authors, for whom not a single line on any subject demands any sort of effort, and who during the lifetime that God has granted them, have nothing better to do than to multiply the proofs of their unceasing facility, equal to their universal mediocrity." (Lanson, quoted in Richardson, 13-14).

    Regarding women authors in this light, perhaps subconsciously, many critics have decided that Labé's works are nothing more than a sort of sexual/emotional diary used for the outpouring of the surfeit of passion which consumes the lovely courtesan. Here are a few examples:

    In 1928, literary historians characterize her poems as follows: "Her Sonnets and Elegies (1556) reveal a very deep passion; her poetry, improper and rough, is full of ardor and flame. It is a cry from the heart." (Darmesteter and Hatzfeld)

    Zamaron bases his entire book, Louise Labé Dame de Franchise, (1968) on this view. "Her poems were written only as an outpouring of her feelings"(Zamaron, 41). "... the poetry of Louise Labé, like many works leaping straight from the heart, is written with minimal orthodoxy [...] conveying a spontaneity which demands respect for the sincerity of her emotion." (Zamaron, 65)

    Bettina Knapp (1979) admires Labé's poetry in terms which extol the passionate feelings over the art of the medium in the following terms: "The swells of tonalities and rhythms which she experienced in both the dance and music swept her up in its movements, helping her to expel her feelings for her lover, in ardent, tempestuous, and frenzied outcries. Labé's passionate outpourings parallel the depth of her pain and joy in tempo and tonality. First experienced at the age of 16, her newly born passion ranged from violence, to torment, to ecstasy. Emotions [...] flow from her pen like drops of black blood as she gives vent to her fury and crushing misfortune." (Knapp, 16) The article continues in the same vein. It seems laudatory... but is it really?

    Similarly, Dassonville sees no work involved in Labé's mastery of the tone of simplicity: "...[the second elegy] renders an atmosphere of truth, of nature, and of simplicity which would be very high art indeed if the author had merely imagined the situation." (Dassonville, 81) Are we to understand that since poor ignorant Labé just thoughtlessly recorded what was happening to her, letting the words magically flow into rhyming decasyllables from her pen, she is guilty of no such art ? Dassonville seems to be merely repeating what we have already quoted from Kreilsheimer , who crushes any merit on Labé's part when he claims, "such fire owes nothing to artifice." (Kreilsheimer, 181)

    Jeanne Prine notes that "even Dorothy O'Connor [Louise's 'foremost biographer'] diminishes Louise's stature as an artist when she writes that Louise used her poetry as a sort of vase to contain the overflow of emotion from her aching heart: 'Elle usait plutôt de la poésie comme d'un vase où elle put verser le trop-plein de son coeur endolori' " (Prine, 134)

    The accusation of "artlessness" is one of the subtler forms of discrimination, and is self-perpetuating because it is so easy to accept. Who would look for intertextuality when the text seems so straightforward? The real damage is that this woman, who was the intellectual equal of the most celebrated male poets of four hundred years ago, who was bold enough to publicly call on a solidarity movement of women to improve their lot through their own intellectual efforts, has been misrepresented as a simple, "confessional" type of poet, or left buried; in both instances, she remains inaccessible as a role model. Russ incisively analyzes the thinking behind the charge of 'spontaneous art': "The idea that any art is achieved "intuitively' is a dehumanization of the brains, effort, and the traditions of the artist, and a classification of said artist as subhuman. It is those supposed incapable of intelligence, training, or connection with a tradition who are described as working by instinct or intuition." (Russ, 91)

    Rehabilitation: a recent phenomenon

    It is only in the last fifteen years that critics have begun to agree that Labé is in fact a poet of crucial importance in the Renaissance. Much work has been done, specifically in recontextualizing her work and in exploring its intertexuality, to establish that she is not so simple and sincere as some would portray her; in fact it has been well demonstrated (see Rigolot, in particular) that those who would think her simple and passionate and sincere have been duped by her art; and that it is they who are rather too "simple."

    The feminist movement, instrumental in altering perceptions about women writers of all eras, has contributed enormously to the rehabilitation of Labé as a serious poet in full mastery of her art. Once women were viewed as being capable of higher level thinking and artistic skills, their works started being given serious attention. Thus, important critical work is now being devoted to studying Labé's position within humanistic public discourse and poetic production, her affiliation with the Greek female model of Sappho, her incorporation of neo-Platonic as well as Latin elegiac paradigms, her inscription within the renewed interest in mythological figures and their meaning in a society which was beginning to embrace capitalism and pluralism. In short, it is now recognized how very rich a fabric Labé has woven into her texts, as demonstrated by the excellent studies recently published by Berriot, Cameron, Hanisch, Nash, and Rigolot.


    A Tale of Two Portraits

    The original engraving by P. Woeriot in 1555--in Desvernay's  

     The original Loise Labé (1555) and the revised Loise Labé for mass consumption, 326 years later

    The manipulation of Louise Labé as a cultural product does not stop with the story of her life. Her looks were likewise modified to suit the expectations one might have of a lovely courtesan.

    There is only one existing portrait of Labé that was drawn in her lifetime, an engraving made by Pierre Wœriot in Lyon in 1555 (when Labé was between 39 and 43 years of age), now held in the Bibliothèque Nationale. In August 1871 an artist named Mr. Danguin made a pencil drawing based on this engraving, but he "softened" the appearance of the poet. Another artist, Mr. Dubouchet, then based his portrait of Louise on this second-hand drawing, and further altered her appearance. Dubouchet's portrait, begun in 1872 and finished in 1873, was published in early 1874 by the maison Eudes publishing house in Paris. Several hundred prints were taken from Dubouchet's work, so that the "falsified" version is now much more widely available than the more faithful original. An informative account of the portrait's history can be found in Félix Desvernay's "Note au sujet de deux Portraits de Louise Labé, dite la Belle Cordière." Desvernay notes: "In Wœriot 's drawing the eyes have a firm gaze and reveal an enigmatic expression of cleverness; in the Dubouchet etching they are softened, vaporized in a sense…. Dubouchet, naturally, in order to make the model more attractive and charming, has corrected all [the original model's imperfections]. Wœriot drew Louise as she was, as he had seen her, in Lyon, in the glory of her male beauty, energetic….[…] Dubouchet, on the other hand, was only able to represent her as he wished her to be…" (Desvernay, 53-54)

    This rejuvenated, softened portrait is the one that appears in the greatest number of publications regarding Labé, for example in Berriot, Guillot, Sommers and Warnke. It graces the cover of Women and Literature, Vol. 7 #1 (Winter 1979). In Zamaron it is presented in frontispiece as the original. Zamaron in fact confides that he became interested in the author after he saw the portrait (the revised one) which illustrated an article about Labé: "I will not hide the fact that the article was accompanied by the reproduction of a very pretty woman and that indeed it was quite suitable to fall in love with the poet as well as with the woman." (Zamaron, 9)

    The manipulation of the portrait may seem a minor concern, but it is part of the appropriation of the woman by her biographers and critics in order to align her looks with their preferences. By presenting Labés features altered in such a manner as to bring her appearance more in line with what one expects of a "courtesan," the false portrait reinforces the public's likelihood to accept the legend as truth. It also attracts the attention to her physical attributes and detracts from her authorial achievements. It is not that a very beautiful woman cannot be an intellectual; it is that the picture of an "intellectual-looking" woman seems to disturb the myth of Labé as a woman whose only concern in life was love. So the picture gets "interpreted" to suit the myth.


    Sources and Resources

    Bibliography--Works consulted

    Atchity, Kenneth J. and Rosemary McKenna, ed. The Renaissance Reader. Harper Collins, 1996

    Attending to Early Modern Women. Amussen, Susan D. and Adele Seeff, eds. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1978.

    Baker, Deborah Lesko. The Subject of Desire: Petrarchan Poetics and the Female Voice in Louise Labé. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1996.

    Berriot, Karine. Louise Labé et le François nouveau, suivi des Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Seuil, 1985.

    Blanchard, Harold Hooper. Prose and Poetry of the Continental Renaissance in Translation. New York: Longmans, Green, 1955.

    Boy, Charles. Oeuvres de Louise Labé, publiées par Charles Boy. Vol. II: Recherches sur la vie et les oeuvres de Louise Labé. Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1887.

    Brion, Marcel. Les Amantes: Diotima, Marianna Alcoforado, Frédérique Brion, Charlotte Stieglitz, Louise Labé. Paris: Albin Michel, 1941.

    Cameron, Keith. Louise Labé: Renaissance Poet and Feminist. New York: Berg, 1990.

    Cross, Tom Peete and Clark H. Slover, eds. Heath Readings in the Literature of Europe. Boston, New York: Heath,1933

    Darmesteter, A. & Hatzfeld, Adolphe. Le seizième siècle en France: Tableau de la littérature et de la langue. Paris: Librairie Delagrave, 1928.

    Dassonville, Michel."Louise Labé et le genre élégiaque" in Pre-Pléïade Poetry. Jerry C. Nash, ed. Lexington: French Forum Publishers, 1985.

    Desvernay, Félix. "Note au sujet de deux portraits de Louise Labé, dite la Belle Cordière." Étude biographique et bibliographique sur Claudius Brouchoud, suivie ... d'une note sur deux portraits de Louise Labé dite la Belle Cordière. Lyon: Imprimerie A.Waltener et Cie. 1887. 51-61

    Durant, Will. The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300-1564. The Story of Civilization, Part VI. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.

    Faguet, Emile. Seizième siècle: études littéraires. Paris: Boivin, 1949.

    Feugère, Léon. Les femmes poëtes au XVIè siècle. Paris: Didier, 1860.

    Freccero, Carla. "Gender Ideologies, Women Writers, and the Problem of Patronage in Early Modern Italy and France: Issues and Frameworks." in Reading the Renaissance: Culture, Poetics, and Drama. Jonathan Hart, ed. New York, London: Garland, 1996.

    Gooley, Ruth A. The Metaphor of the Kiss in Renaissance Poetry. New York: Peter Lang, 1993

    Guidici, Enzo. "Note sur la fortune posthume de Louise Labé." Bibliothèque d'humanisme et Renaissance. 41.2 (1979): 349-50.

    Guillot, Gérard. Louise Labé.Poitiers: Pierre Seghers, 1962.

    Hanisch, Gertrude S. Love Elegies of the Renaissance: Marot, Louise Labé and Ronsard. Stanford French and Italian Studies. 15. Saratoga: Anma Libri, 1979.

    Haydn, Hiram Collins and John Charles Nelson, eds. A Renaissance Treasury. Garden City: Doubleday, 1953.

    Knapp, Bettina. "Louise Labé: Renaissance Woman (1522-1566)" Women and Literature, 7 (1979): 12-23.

    Kreilsheimer, A.J. and W.A. Coupe. The Continental Renaissance 1500-1600. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

    Kritzman, Lawrence D. The Rhetoric of Sexuality and the Literature of the French Renaissance.Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press,1991.

    Labé, Louise. Oeuvres de Louise Labé Lyonnaise. Paris: Seheur, 1927.

    __________. Oeuvres complètes. Edition critique et commentée par Enzo Guidici. Genève: Librairie Droz, 1981.

    Lacour, Paul. Les amazones microform/par Paul Lacour. Paris: Perrin,1901.

    Levin, Carole and Jeanie Watson. Ambiguous Realities: Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987

    Locke, Louis G. , J.P. Kirby, M.E. Porter, eds. Literature of Western Civilization. 3rd. ed. New York: Ronald Press, 1952.

    Mayer, Gustave. Louise Labé, ou, la Belle Cordière: épisode lyonnais en trois actes, quatre tableaux. Lyon: Perrin,1847.

    Nash, Jerry C. "Louise Labé and Learned Levity." Romance Notes 21 (1980). 227-33.

    O'Connor, Dorothy. Louise Labé, sa vie et son oeuvre. Paris: Les Presses françaises, 1926.

    Prescott, Anne Lake. "Through the Cultural Chunnel: The (Robert)Greeneing of Louise Labé." Opening the Borders: Inclusivity in Early Modern Studies. Herman, Peter C., ed. 1999. 133-149.

    Prine, Jeanne. "Louise Labé, Poet of Lyon." Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation. Wilson, Katharina, ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. 132-157.

    Randall, Catherine. "Positioning Herself: A Renaissance-Reformation Diptych." Attending to Early Modern Women, Susan D. and Adele Seeff, eds. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1978.

    Richardson, Lula McDowell. The Forerunners of Feminism in French Literature of the Renaissance From Christine de Pisan to Marie de Gournay. New York, London: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1973.

    Rigolot, François. Louise Labé Lyonnaise, ou la Renaissance au féminin. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1997.

    Ross, James Bruce and Mary Martin McLaughlin, ed. Portable Renaissance Reader. New York: Viking Press, 1968.

    Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women's Writing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

    Sommers, Paula. "Louise Labé: The Body in the Text." Renaissance Women Writers: French Texts/American Contexts. Ed. Anne R. Larsen and Colette H. Winn. Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1994. 85-98.

    Tilley, A. The Literature of the French Renaissance. New York: Hafner, 1959.

    Warner, Charles Dudley, ed. Library of the World's Best Literature, Ancient and Modern, in 46 volumes. Vol. 43. New York: J.A. Hill, 1902.

    Warnke, Frank J. Three Women Poets: Renaissance and Baroque. Louise Labé, Gaspara Stampa, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1987.

    Weber, Henri. La création poétique au XVIe siècle en France de Maurice Scève à Agrippa d'Aubigné. Paris, Nizet, 1955.

    Zamaron, Fernand. Louise Labé, Dame de franchise. Paris: Nizet, 1968.


    Due to the recent surge of interest in Louise Labé, a complete bibliography of works relating to her would fill a volume. Please consult the Bibliographies drawn by Rigolot and Baker for a more complete list of related works.

    Warnke provides good side-by-side translations of eleven sonnets and elegies II and III. For a faithful translation of the Debate Between Folly and Love please see the following work: Cox, Edwin Marion. The Debate Between Folly and Cupid: Written by Louise Labé of Lyons about 1550 and now first completely done into English. London: Williams & Norgate, Ltd., 1925.

    All Labé's works in French and a selection of sonnets translated in various languages are [were - ed.] available from the following website: http://www.eleves.ens.fr:8080/home/coulmont/labe.html. This website also displays the two portraits.

    Another website has translated two of Labé's sonnets into Spanish. It displays the 1874 version of Louise Labé's portrait, done with colors: http://www.bibliele.com/CILHT/FRANCIA/femrenli.html

    The creator of this site, Yvonne Finnegan, wishes to thank: the staff of the University of Maryland McKeldin Library's Rare Collection for providing photocopies from a rare and precious volume (Desvernay); Michael Skinner of MITH (Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities) and Michel Soudée for their patience and expertise in scanning and downloading pictures; and Professor Fuegi for his inspiring work.

    The music is from the CD "BetweenTwo Hearts: Renaissance Dances for Lute" Dorian Recordings DOR-90225. Ronn McFarlane, Flute. "Saltarello" by Joanambrosio Dalza (1508); and "Puisquen deux coeurs" by Pierre Attaingnant, pub. (1530).

    Illustration credits:Color Fresco by Fasolo: Musical Scene, detail. Caldogno, Villa Caldogno Pagello. Reproduced from Litterature 2e. Parpais, Jacques and Colette Parpais, ed. Paris: Hachette Lycees, 1991. Page 39. Plan de Lyon vers 1550. Le quartier ou habitait Louise Labe from Guillot, p.34. Evvres. Title page of 1555 edition from Zamaron, plate between pages 88 and 89. Anonymous, Les Evangiles des quenouilles (The Distaff Gospels) from Attending to Early Modern women p.133. Lyon au XVIe siecle Etching by Petit Bernard, published in La Saulnaye by Maurice Sceve. From Guillot, page 19. Fleuron reproduced from Seheur (p. 171).

    All translations from the original French were done by the creator of the site.


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