Renaissance and Reformation Louise Labé
by
Kirk D. Read
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0104

Introduction

Louise Labé (c. b. 1522–d. 1566) is the most well-known and celebrated woman writer of non-noble birth from the French Renaissance. While her published work (Œuvres, 1555) is modest in length, the variety of genres she employs (epistle, sonnet, elegy, prose dialogue), the robust evidence of her proto-feminist vocation, her strength of voice, and her mastery of Petrarchan and Neoplatonic conventions have made of her a hugely important figure in the literature of this period. Labé was born in the early 1520s to a family of wealthy rope makers in Lyon, a city at the crossroads of the burgeoning cultural Renaissance given its situation between Paris and Italy. Daughter of Pierre Charly and second wife Etienne Roybet who died shortly after Labé’s birth, Louise received an uncommonly thorough humanist education, most probably in a convent setting (Le couvent de la Déserte) where it is conjectured she may have been sent by her very young stepmother. The volume that Labé published with one of the premier printing houses of her day (Jean de Tournes) offers a stunning trove of evidence in both prose and poetry of a female writer’s negotiation of the literary and social conventions that challenged learned women of this time. The Œuvres are prefaced by the epistolary dedication to the young Lyonnais noblewoman, Clémence de Bourges, a manifesto for women’s participation in letters wherein she implores the ladies of Lyon to look above their distaffs and join the writer’s enterprise. This call to writing is followed by a much lengthier but no less fiercely gendered Débat de Folie et d’Amour (Debate of folly and love), a mythological play that enacts many of the epistle’s issues in allegorical form. Following the debate are three elegies and a sonnet cycle of twenty-four poems, all manifesting a deep engagement with contemporary literary conventions as told in a consciously feminine voice: In her poetic work Labé inscribes on several occasions her regional sisterhood (ô Dames Lionnoises). Labé’s final sonnet (and final words in the Œuvres) serves as both an entreaty and apology to the women she invites into her literary project. On the very next page begins the inscription of twenty-four homages to her by male contemporaries, an insurance policy of sorts, against the tide of scandal and criticism attached to her work and reputation. Their success continues to be the subject of some debate, as Louise Labé has endured centuries of both criticism and praise, culminating most recently in the proposition that her works were not at all hers but cooked up by a clever male collaborative. Such is the legacy of a powerful woman writer at odds with 16th-century social and literary conventions and norms of gender.

General Critical and Biographical Overviews

Given the scant amount of information that exists concerning the life of Louise Labé, biographers have generally written highly contextualized speculations about her life based on a variety of sources concerning the humanist milieu of the city of Lyon and Labé’s contemporaries—whence a plethora of somewhat misogynist stylings by writers overly reliant on (or enamored of) the fictions of her detractors. Lesko Baker’s excellent presentation and translation of Labé’s life and works in the definitive University of Chicago Other Voices series (Labé 2006) as well as the author’s earlier monograph tracing the entire trajectory of Labé’s complete works (Lesko Baker 1996, cited under Translated Editions (Complete and Selected Works)) are currently premier resources for Labé. Berriot 1985, an earlier treatment of Labé, is a bit more popular in tone and approach yet still useful and includes the complete works and other supporting documents. Cameron 1990 is a helpful introduction to Labé and her work as it takes up issues in and approaches to her writing in seriatim across the volume of her work. Chang 2009 on Labé and print culture as a gendered phenomenon is particularly useful in situating the author’s work within the material realities of her time. Lazard 2004 is the most recent and thorough biography of Labé by a revered scholar working in France. Martin 1999 is a supremely useful overview of Labé’s work that retraces the linear trajectory through the Œuvres to reveal a coherent and carefully crafted architecture to the work; O’Connor 1926, an early biography, while somewhat dated, is a useful early treatment of Labé and complements and informs later works. Rigolot 1997 is the most widely distributed and consulted version of Labé’s works to date. François Rigolot is considered one of the best-known and most authoritative Labé scholars; this work is a superb and sensitive treatment of this author not to be ignored.

  • Berriot, Karine. Louise Labé: La Belle Rebelle et le François nouveau, suivi des Œuvres complètes. Paris: Seuil, 1985.

    E-mail Citation »

    An extensive treatment of the life and works of Labé, written in a more popular style with a bit of poetic license to reconstitute a life from few historic details. Many references to her works as points of departure as well as contemporaries. Includes Labé’s complete works and last will and testament.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Concise introduction to Labé, helpful for undergraduate study in translation. A useful chronology is included.

  • Chang, Leah L. “Sapphic Desire and the Desire for Sappho: Είςώδάς Αοϊσης Ααβάιας and the Euvres de Louize Labé Loinnoize.” In Into Print: The Production of Female Authorship in Early Modern France. By Leah L. Chang, 100–138. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    This chapter of Chang’s recent book deals with the recently evoked problems of 16th-century printing practices, textual ownership, and textual authority as applied to the question of Labé’s female authorship.

  • Labé, Louise . Complete Poetry and Prose: A Bilingual Edition. Translated by Deborah Lesko Baker and Annie Finch. Edited by Deborah Lesko Baker. Other Voice in Early Modern Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226467160.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    A superb side-by-side edition of the entire works of Labé with excellent notations and commentary, each section of her works analyzed in the light of the most definitive scholarship in the field. Also see Translated Editions (Complete and Selected Works).

  • Lazard, Madeleine. Louise Labé. Paris: Fayard, 2004.

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    A thoroughly researched life of Labé by a well-known scholar of a number of Renaissance luminaries told in characteristically engaging, confident prose. Presented helpfully around the architecture of Labé’s Œuvres themselves.

  • Martin, Daniel. Signe(s) d’Amante: L’Agencement des Evvres de Louïze Labé Lionnoize. Paris: Champion, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    A thoughtful, close reading of the entirety of Labé’s work that Martin reveals to be a highly constructed literary creation, closely in tune with the references and movements of its time. Martin meticulously maps themes, intertexts, and formal aspects of the Œuvres in ways that honor and augment the wealth of Labé scholarship to date with his own particular structural approach.

  • O’Connor, Dorothy. Louise Labé: Sa vie et son oeuvre. Paris: Presses françaises, 1926.

    E-mail Citation »

    An excellent early work on the life, works, and milieu of Labé. This essay is divided into chapters on what can be gleaned of her life with attention to the city of Lyon as a particularly propitious provenance for a learned woman, followed by a concentrated study of Labé’s complete work. The study includes Labé’s last will and testament as well as other contemporaneous witnesses to her reputation. Reprinted in 1972 (Geneva, Switzerland: Slatkine).

  • Rigolot, François. Louise Labé Lyonnaise, ou, la renaissance au féminin. Paris: Champion, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    An excellent and definitive work by one of the best-known scholars working on Labé. By contrast with most other works tied to the structure of Labé’s publication, Rigolot develops a series of essays on tropes of female models and influences from the Early Modern period as they shed light on Labé and her literary enterprise: Sappho, Laura, Athena, Arachne, and Venus, among others.

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