Woman’s Work(s): The Poetry of Louise Labé

Guest blog by Julianne Douglas

373px-Louise_Labé_by_Pierre_WoeiriotIn 1555, printer Jean de Tournes of Lyon published a small volume of poetry titled EVVRES (WORKS). This innocuous label belied the book’s audacity, for the collection—a proto-feminist dedicatory epistle, a lengthy dialogue between Love and Folly, three elegies, and twenty-four sonnets—was the first of its kind in France: a volume of poetry written by a woman of common status and published under her own name, splashed brazenly across the frontispiece: LOUÏZE LABÉ LIONNOIZE.

How did the daughter and, later, wife of obscure Lyonnais ropemakers rise to become the premiere female poet of the French Renaissance? Few women in sixteenth-century France could read or write; far fewer could lay claim to the classical education requisite for the writing of verse. The fortunate minority with access to private tutors or convent formation belonged overwhelmingly to the noble class.

Louise Labé could claim no such privilege, yet somehow she mastered not only written French, but Italian and Latin. So thoroughly did Labé assimilate the works of the ancients and those of her male peers that she transformed their tropes and techniques into a new poetic discourse, one that posited woman as the subject, rather than the object, of desire. A daring literary triumph—and one for which Louise would pay dearly for the rest of her life, with the coin of her reputation.

Louise_Labé_page_titre_1556Labé’s direct affront to the ideals of feminine modesty and reticence made censure inevitable. In the eyes of her contemporaries, a female author was little better than a prostitute. Both put their private selves on public display, one hawking her words, the other her body. Unlike female authors of the noble class, Labé had no powerful man to vouch for her purity, and she eschewed the protection a pseudonym or posthumous publication might afford.

Her participation in Lyon’s male literary circles birthed rumors of improper behavior that publication of the EVVRES appeared to validate. Vilified and disparaged as a courtesan by the general public, Labé nevertheless enjoyed the friendship and respect of her male colleagues, who praised her verse and learning in the two dozen poems of the “Hommage à Louise Labé” that rounds out the EVVRES.

Now regarded as a leading figure of French poetry, Labé achieved the objective her dedicatory epistle announced: to show men how wrong they’d been to deprive women of the honor and benefit the pursuit of knowledge provided. “[L]ift[ing her head] above the spindle,” Louise Labé dared to claim a public voice for herself and for all women brave  enough to speak.

Julianne12Julianne Douglas received a Ph.D in French literature from Princeton University, specializing in the sixteenth-century, and published an article on Labé’s Débat de Folie et d’Amour in the academic journal L’Esprit créateur. Her interest in Labé led her to write a novel about a fictional woman poet whose quest for publication unleashes a frenzy of revenge and recrimination in mid-sixteenth century Lyon. Visit her blog, Writing the Renaissance, for book reviews, articles on sixteenth-century history and literature, and excerpts of her work.


If you like historical fiction, check out my new novel The Greenest Branch, based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is out now in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces.

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