Labé, Louise (c. 1523–1566)
Labé, Louise (c. 1523–1566)
French Renaissance poet (considered scandalous by some of her contemporaries), who is remembered for her sonnets celebrating the pain and delight of love. Name variations: Louise Labe; Loise or Louize Labé; Charlin, also seen as Charlieu, de Charlieu, Charliu, Charly, Charlie, Cheylieu, Charrieu; Labé also seen as Labbé, L'Abbé, Labe, Labbyt; La Belle Cordière or La Belle Cordiere (The Beautiful Ropemaker); La Dame au Luth (The Lady with the Lute). Pronunciation: LAH-bay. Born Louise Charlin between 1515 and 1526 in Lyons, France; died in the second half of February 1566 in Lyons; one of four children of Pierre de Charlie also seen as Pierre Charlin (ropemaker or, more probably, rope merchant) and second wife Etiennette Roybert also seen as Etiennette, veuve (widow) Deschamps; was taught embroidery, music, languages (Latin, Italian, Spanish), plus riding and fencing; married Ennemond Perrin, before 1545; no children.
Involved as co-conspirator in an attempted murder trial (1552); was permitted to publish her works (1554); began a love affair with Olivier de Magny (1554); wrote letter to Mademoiselle Clémence de Bourges (1555); saw first publication of her works by
Jean de Tournes (1555); cited by Calvin as an example of a bad woman (1561); wrote testament (1565).
In the early 16th century, when Louise Labé was born, Lyons was a vibrant, flourishing city which equaled or even surpassed Paris in certain areas. During the wars with Italy, Lyons was more prosperous than any other French town and was often home to the court. There were two major industries at the heart of the city's boom—silk and printing. Of its 60,000 inhabitants, 6,000 made silk, and the trade itself sponsored four annual two-week fairs which brought in visitors from all over the Continent. Lyons' printers were considered among the best in Europe, and the publishers themselves were often authors. Lyons was also a great banking center. This combination of economic and social prosperity, accompanied by an exchange of ideas as well as money, led to an intellectual excitement which made the municipality a center of learning and literary production. Lyons' affluence attracted a number of foreigners as well. The city became home to Germans, Dutch, Spaniards, and Italians—especially Florentines. The Florentine population became so strong both economically and politically that Lyons became known as "Florence françoyse" (French Florence).
Italy was the cradle of the Renaissance, but Lyons, through Italian contacts, was also a Renaissance city by the 15th century. After 1515, commercial and cultural connections with Italy multiplied rapidly. The city became the home or at least a frequent stopping place for such French writers as Rabelais, Étienne Dolet, Antoine Héroët, and Jacques Peletier. Margaret of Angoulême , a politically powerful author, spent a great deal of time in Lyons and cultivated the spread of culture there.
Probably the most liberating aspect of Lyons was the absence of Parliament and the Sorbonne. Those two bodies managed to squash many of the more progressive movements in Paris. Parliament was primarily concerned with maintaining the status quo, and the Sorbonne was quick to see heresy in anything new. Lyons became the center of the progressive part of France—a city of liberty and tolerance relatively untouched by the troubles of the time. This same period saw the growth of the Reform movement which eventually led to the civil wars that started in 1562, but Lyons remained for a long time a city of new ideas and cultural growth. It also had its fair share of literary salons (See Salonnières).
The honor which learning will obtain for us will be entirely our own: and it can not be taken from us, not by the slyness of a thief, not by numerous enemies, not by length of time.
Held by women in private homes, each literary salon usually had a special day of the week when visitors would gather to hear the latest poetry or other work by one or more of the members. Literary works and movements were discussed, and an author's fortune could be made or broken by the salons. The end result was that women gained a new prominence. Since women held these salons which became the center of a brilliant cultural life, it was they who directed and controlled what happened. They were not only hosts, however. There were numerous women-poets whose names have come down to us but whose works have disappeared.
Lyons was at the head of a feminist movement intent on liberating women both culturally and socially. Louise Labé's letter to her friend Mme Clémence de Bourges was a feminist manifesto, urging women to further their educations.
Since the time has come, Mademoiselle, that the severe laws of men no longer prevent women from applying themselves to sciences and disciplines, it seems to me that those who have that facility should employ that worthy freedom … to study these and to show men the wrong they did us…; and if one of us should reach such a level as to be able to put down her conceptions in writing, she should do it carefully and not disdain fame and make of it an adornment rather than [the] chains, rings, and sumptuous clothes, which we can only really count as ours through the use we make of them. … The honor which learning will obtain for us will be entirely our own: and it can not be taken from us, not by the slyness of a thief, not by numerous enemies, not by length of time.
As well as trying to obtain more freedom for women, the literary movement in Lyons encouraged the use of French as a literary medium. Until the 16th century, Latin was considered the only language one could use for serious literature. Even before Joachim Du Bellay wrote his defense of the French language, French was being used in Lyons to write what was considered noble poetry—sonnets and elegies. By writing in French rather than Latin, authors broke with authority. Rebelling against the "tyranny of the past," they were reaffirming their freedom and the autonomy of the individual.
Louise Labé was born Louise Charlin, the daughter of Pierre Charlin and his second wife Etiennette Roybert. Labé's exact date of birth is unknown, but most place it some time between 1515 and 1526. Even her place of birth is uncertain, but it is commonly thought that she was born in a district of Lyons called La Gela, probably located near present-day Morel Square, where her mother had a small property. Her father, a ropemaker (cordier), or more likely a rope merchant, was an uneducated man, though comfortably well off. This wealth allowed him to educate his fifth child, Louise, beyond her station in life. It is known that she learned the usual things a French girl of her day was taught, including embroidery, dance, and music. In addition, she had a fine classical education, studying poetry and Latin, Italian, and Spanish. She also excelled in riding, archery, and fencing, fields usually reserved for male members of the family. Beautiful and charming, she soon became known as "La Belle Cordière," the Beautiful Ropemaker.
According to the anonymous author of the work Louenges, Labé rejected the advances of an old Roman poet who went off to die in Spain. She then supposedly fell in love with a mysterious warrior who passed through Lyons, about whom nothing is known. Some claim that the object of her infatuation was the future king of France, Henry II, who was on his way to Perpignan in 1542, but there are no records to substantiate this. As well, biographies written after Labé's death report that she dressed as a man and participated in the siege of Perpignan where she was known as "Capitaine Loys," but these stories have also never been confirmed. None of her contemporaries mention her participation in the siege except the author of Louenges who describes her prowess there. This allusion may refer not to the actual siege of Perpignan but to a tournament put on by the young people of Lyons to entertain Henry and his troops on their way to the siege. Only one of her contemporaries, Antoine du Verdier, mentions that she was called "Capitaine Loys," probably because of her fencing and riding abilities.
This legend of Labé as a warrior-poet continued for centuries. Sainte-Beuve describes a battalion in the Lyons national guard which, in 1790, was stationed in the street "Belle-Cordière" and which put her name and picture on its flag. She was thus turned into a heroine of liberty, not just for women but for everyone.
Known facts skip from 1542 to April 2, 1551, when Labé bought a house adjacent to that of her husband Ennemond Perrin. Historians speculate that she had married Perrin, a wealthy ropemaker or rope merchant like her father, between 1540 and 1545. Born in 1500, Perrin was much older than Labé, and, after 1551, there are no records bearing his name. "Since she was independently wealthy and felt comfortable in her talents, beauty and manner," writes Bettina Knapp , "she felt free and unconstrained in her relationship with her husband. He, in turn, allowed her great independence of spirit and deed, quite unusual for the day." In the 16th century, marriage was often a social arrangement, having nothing to do with love and happiness.
Labé's name appears again in 1552 in the proceedings of a trial held in Geneva. On July 15th, Jean Yvard, who had lived in Lyons, claimed that his wife Antonia Rosset , a cousin and neighbor of Labé's, had tried to poison him. Two witnesses gave depositions supporting Yvard. Philibert Serrasin claimed that Yvard's wife was constantly with a certain "Belle Cordière" and that the two of them had plotted the poisoning together. A man named Robinet said that Antonia behaved very badly from a moral standpoint and that it was because of her friendship with her cousin the "Belle Cordière." The trial was interrupted by Yvard's death the following December 15.
During this, the most well-documented period of Labé's life, she seems to have been at the center of the intellectual and cultural society of Lyons. Her salon was open to poets, scholars, and knights, as well as other women who lived in Lyons or were passing through. Labé sumptuously entertained some of the most famous writers of her time, including Lyonnese poets Maurice Scève, Claude Taillemont, Charles Fontaine, Pontus de Tyard, Pernette du Guillet , and Jeanne Gaillardes . Writes Knapp:
The warm hues of tapestried walls, the comfortable furnishings and the ebullient personality of the hostess created congenial gatherings. Tea was usually served along with exquisite confections, after which all present participated actively in conversations about the literary trends of the day. Castigating their contemporaries, the didactic and prosaic rhyme-makers, these Lyonnese poets turned to Petrarch, and to his master, Plato, for inspiration. To the admiration of the assembled, Scève would recite Petrarch's sonnets from memory. Pernette might sing love chants accompanying herself on the lute; Pontus de Tyard would read his latest creations. Books were frequently drawn out of Labé's well-stocked library to substantiate a fine point in Plato's Symposium.
On March 13, 1554, Labé was granted a privilège du Roi, permission to have her works published, and Jean de Tournes would print them for her the following year.
du Guillet, Pernette (c. 1520–1545)
French poet. Born around 1520 in Lyons; died in 1545.
One of the emancipated women of Lyons, Pernette du Guillet was influenced by poet Maurice Scève, who was in love with her. She died at an early age and left behind several short, noteworthy poems.
As Labé herself claims in her second elegy, she had plenty of admirers. She was, after all, a beautiful and educated woman. Her success provoked envy—not only from some men who were resentful of her success as an author but also from some women who were jealous of her beauty, charm, and freedom. In 1554, it is thought that she started a love affair with Olivier de Magny, by then a poet of some repute. While he was traveling to Italy in the entourage of Jean d'Avanson, French envoy to the Holy See, de Magny stopped in Lyons and attended Labé's circle. It is thought that they fell in love with each other and with each other's writings; there is a strong similarity between one of his sonnets and one of hers. There are also allusions to Labé and her gardens in Olivier's verses. While de Magny was in Italy, Labé encouraged the attentions of Claude de Rubys, a brilliant young lawyer from Lyons, but looked forward to her "amorous reunion" with de Magny. In 1559, Olivier showed up unexpectedly, learned of Rubys, and furiously penned an odious ode addressed to E. Perrin (Labé's husband); in it, he insults both Perrin and Labé in a scandalous manner. Although it is highly probable that Labé and de Magny's love affair took place, the particulars are lost to history. In the 19th century, Prosper Blanchemain fabricated a story about the lovers, but that is merely a tale of what may have happened and is not based on facts. In any case, the ode shows a definite rupture in any friendship, real or imagined. De Magny was not the only one incensed. The jilted Rubys would later refer to Labé, in his The History of Lyons, as Loyse L'Abbé, "one of the most notorious courtesans of her time."
Shortly afterwards, her husband died, and a wealthy widowhood granted her some autonomy. Labé may have found the public gossip and slander too much to deal with, because she withdrew into relative obscurity. In 1561, the Protestant reformer John Calvin spoke of her as a plebeia meretrix (vulgar harlot) in his case against the Catholic priest Gabriel de Saconay. Calvin accused Saconay of inviting women who dressed as men, like the "Belle Cordière," to dine with him. Another anonymous piece, the Chanson Nouvelle, describes Labé as a woman who bestowed her favors on anybody and everybody.
In addition to Labé's personal concerns, religious tensions were also coming to a head, and the tolerance Lyons' citizens had enjoyed would soon end. The city was occupied in 1562 by the Protestants, whose austere lifestyles inhibited the literary movement. Then, in 1565, the plague struck. Lyons, like Louise, had gone through its golden age. The spirit of the young poets in the early part of the 16th century was lost in the disillusionment evoked by wars and pestilence. A morbid reluctance to rebel or quarrel with the status quo began to grip Lyons as it did the rest of France.
It appears that Labé retired to a semi-private life in her villa at Parcieu, where she probably remained except for intermittent trips to Lyons. She reappears on April 28, 1565, sick in bed at the home of a friend in Lyons, Thomas Fortini, dictating her last will and testament. Whether or not she had the plague, she did recover.
Not much is known about Thomas Fortini and their relationship. He was born in Florence in 1513, and lived in Lyons from 1551 until some time before 1572; he may have left as early as 1569 (his name appears several times in the notary records between 1557 and 1559). It is possible that he took Labé's unpublished poems back to Italy with him, but this is mere speculation since none have come to light. In the last years of her life, he helped Labé organize her affairs and advised her on the acquisition of several properties. After her death, he would be less careful with her wealth. She named him as the executor of her estate—a task which he accomplished quite well—and granted him the usufruct (the right to benefit from her estate) of a large portion of her wealth. The charity which was to inherit the wealth after Fortini's death became concerned about his management of the inheritance, took him to court, and had the usufruct annulled.
Labé's last few years are not well documented. Even the exact date of her death is unknown. It has been placed as late as April 1566, but recent research by Georges Tricou seems to prove that it took place before the second half of February 1566. With her beauty fading, the death of her husband and some friends, and the changing times—civil war was brewing and religious debates were raging—Labé may have withdrawn to spend her last years pleasantly, dividing her time between her place in the country and Lyons. According to her will, she had plenty of money and was on good terms with her brother's family (she left a substantial inheritance to her nephew).
All that has truly come down to us, apart from her works, are a glimpse of her public persona during her glory days, the praises of some, and the slanderous accusations of a religious leader, a few (unrequited) men, and an anonymous complaint. It is the contradictory nature of these documents that make it so difficult to find the true Louise Labé. Some describe her as honest and virtuous while others paint her as an immoral wanton. Neither all good nor all bad, she was probably a free and independent woman who had enough wealth to do as she pleased and was educated enough to realize it. Her poems, which include 24 sonnets, three elegies, and a "Debate Between Folly and Love," show her to be passionate, but even her detractors, who claim she was of easy virtue, report that she entertained only cultured and courteous men. What is truly important is her distinct and distinguished work, though seemingly influenced by her contemporaries Clément Marot and Maurice Scève. In her verse, we meet an intense being whose love songs have survived over 400 years. "Her full-throated cry," writes Knapp, "is expressed throughout her work on a variety of levels, ranging from the Platonically abstract and idealized perfection to the bitterness of reality. She is constantly confronted and perplexed by the dichotomy between the physical and spiritual world: the interplay of both on her wellbeing." We meet a feminist who encouraged her fellow women to get an education and to be proud of their accomplishments. Her "lust for life was so powerful," writes Knapp, "her desire for learning so pronounced, that she reflected the very spirit of sixteenth-century France." Louise Labé's work continues to speak to those who love truth and beauty and to those who fight for equality and recognition.
Berriot, Karine. Louise Labé: La belle rebelle et le François nouveau. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1985.
Bourgeois, Louis. Louise Labé (1523?–1566) et les poètes lyonnais de son temps. Lyons: Editions Lyonnaises d'Art et d'Histoire, 1994.
Brée, Germaine. Women Writers in France. NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1973.
Cameron, Keith. Louise Labé: Renaissance Poet and Feminist. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1990.
Giudici, Enzo. Louise Labé—Oeuvres Complètes. Geneva: Librairie Droz S.A., 1981.
——. Louise Labé Essai. Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo s.p.a., 1981.
Knapp, Bettina L. "Louise Labé: Renaissance Woman," in Women and Literature. Vol. 7, no. 1. Winter 1979.
Labé, Louise. Euvres de Louize Labé lionnoize. Edited by Jean de Tournes. Lyons: Jean de Tournes, 1555.
——. Oeuvres de Louise Labé. Edited by Charles Boy. Paris: A. Lemerre, 1887.
Pedron, François. Louise Labé: La femme d'amour. Paris: Fayard, 1984.
Lisa Wolffe , Assistant Professor, Louisiana Scholars' College, Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, Louisiana