Born around 1520 in Lyon at the height of the Renaissance, Louise Labe was a female poet who wrote honestly about desire and eroticism, producing a small but enduring collection of sonnets which set her apart as a remarkable writer for the times. Brought up in a rich family – her father was a rope maker and she herself is often called La Belle Cordière – much of her history is a matter of conjecture, as is often the case with poets of the 15th and 16th centuries.
Though her parents were unable to read at all, Labe, probably because of her family’s financial position, was taught the classics and given a good education. This is supposed to have been gained at a local convent school. She led a colorful life, the rumor being that at one point she dressed as a man and joined the army of the future Henry II at the siege of Perpignan. Whilst her history is shrouded in legend and hearsay, there’s no doubt that Labe must be considered one of the most influential French poets of that era.
Her home town of Lyon was thought to be the cultural hub of the region and Labe quickly began to mix with other poets at the time, and her collection, Œuvres, was published around 1555. The work contains her own verses but also a number by other poets praising her ability. Little is known of her personal life but she may have been lovers with the poet Olivier de Magny although Labe is thought to have married another rope maker, Ennemond Perrin, in 1543, who was twenty years older than her.
Labe’s sonnets are noted for their strong and frank eroticism and became perhaps her most well-known works in the years following her death. Later study has also raised the specter that the works we know of as Labe’s were, in fact, written by prominent male poets of the time including de Magny and, the leading light of culture in Lyon at the time, Maurice Scève. Academic and writer Mereille Huchon recently raised an interesting hypothesis but her notion that Labe did not actually exist has been dismissed by other experts of the period.
Labe’s poems have a distinctive voice and, though she may have collaborated closely with the likes of Maurice Scève, it is in no way definitive that she was a fiction herself. Sometime after her death, Labe started to be linked with La Belle Cordière, a courtesan noted for her vibrant and largely controversial life and there has been debate as to whether the two were the same, much of which continues to this day.
There’s no doubt that Labe’s legend seemed to increase in the years after her passing. When plague struck Lyon in 1564, she fell ill a year later and passed away shortly after at the age of about 44. Whether she died of the disease is not recorded but she was buried on her estate in Parcieux-en-Dombes just outside the city.