Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, July 24, 2015

Louise Labé: La Belle Cordière (the "Beautiful Rope Maker")

Louise Labé (dedicatory letter, 24 July 1555)


Louise Labé was born in Lyon, probably between 1520 and 1522, the daughter of a fairly well-to-do rope maker, Pierre Charly, and his second wife, Etiennette Roybet (since she died in 1523, that makes the latest possible date for Louise's birth). 

An engraving of Labé,
from her 1555 
Œuvres
Interestingly, the name Labé came from a property owned by a previous husband of Pierre Charly's first wife, Guillemette Humbert--after his marriage to her, Pierre Charly assumed the name Labé, a name Louise adopted and retained, even after her marriage.

Although Pierre Charly (Labé) was himself illiterate, he was also an up-and-coming bourgeois citizen of Lyon, "a city at the crossroads of the burgeoning cultural Renaissance," and so he made sure to provide his daughter with the same kind of humanist education he provided his sons--she learned both classical and modern languages in addition to acquiring "feminine" skills like music and needlework.

At some point between 1542 and 1545, she was married to a wealthy rope maker, a marriage negotiated by her father. Although her marriage to Ennemond Perrin provided her with financial security, it did not provide her with intellectual companionship, certainly--but neither did it prevent her from participating in the literary community of Lyon. By 1555, a literary collection, including a lengthy prose debate between "folly and love," three extended elegies, and twenty-four sonnets, was published as Œuvres ("works").

Significantly, in her sonnets Labé rewrites the Petrarchan model, with its longing male lover who address a distant and elusive female beloved, and approaches the relationship from the perspective of a female lover and speaker. Hers is an abbreviated sequence--just twenty-four sonnets--but in them she both uses and subverts the conventional motifs. 

I've read zillions of sonnets (well, okay, if not zillions, then lots) that anatomize the bodies of female beloveds, praising, top to toe, their body parts--hair, foreheads, eyes, eyebrows, cheeks, lips, breasts. In her second sonnet, Labé takes apart the body of her male beloved--praising his brown eyes, and his "forehead, hair, arm, hand, and finger." 

In her eighth, she employs the oxymoron first employed by Petrarch in his Rime, "Pace non trovo, et non ò da fa guerra" (sonnet 134, "I find no peace, and I make no war") and remade by Sir Thomas Wyatt as "I find no peace, and all my war is done." Here is Labé's version, in which she omits the war-making of the Petrarchan original but maintains the other opposites of the Italian original: "I live, I die: I burn and also drown. / I'm utterly hot and all I feel is cold."

And, then, I love her version of Catullus 5, the poem to Lesbia where he famously writes, "Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred, / then another thousand, then a second hundred, / then yet another thousand more, then another hundred." Here's the opening Labé's eighteenth sonnet: "Kiss me again, rekiss me, and then kiss / me again, with your richest, most succulent / kiss. . . ."

But Labé seemed to struggle against the roles women had been traditionally assigned, even as she seemed to accept them, a tension made clear in the dedicatory letter that prefaces her collection. Labé dedicates her work "To M. C. D. B. L.," Madame Clémence de Bourges, Lionnoize, whom she addresses as "mademoiselle."  In this preface, Labé expresses her thankfulness that "men’s harsh laws no longer prevent women from applying themselves to study and learning." Nevertheless, she writes, 
. . . I cannot carry out on my own the sincere wish I have for our sex, to see it surpass or equal men not only in physical beauty, but in knowledge and virtue. I can do no more than urge virtuous ladies to raise their minds a bit above their distaffs and spindles, and to dedicate themselves to making the world that understand that if we are not made to be in command, we nevertheless should not be scorned as partners, in domestic as in public affairs, by those who rule and demand obedience.
I've used the date for this dedicatory letter--24 July 1555--as the occasion for today's post. Labé died on 11 April 1566--but after 1555, we hear nothing from her again.

Kirk Read's excellent biography of Louise Labé is available at Oxford Biographies; you can access it by clicking here. Reid's essay is followed by a good bibliography if you are looking for more information.

For Labé's work, I recommend Deborah Lesko Baker and Annie Finch's Louise Labé: Complete Poetry and Prose, a Bilingual Edition. I've used their translations in all of the quotations from Labé in this post.