Sexual Fables

This article accompanies the fable
The Judgment of Paris



The Strange Tale of Louise Labé


In the century before Ninon de Lenclos, a strange figure emerges in the literary histories: Louise Labé, who was born in the early 1520s and who lived most of her life in Lyon, the French city most associated with the Renaissance.

Records show she was married in 1551 - aged almost 30, which seems late but rumors suggest he was much older. She wrote poetry and prose and associated with other literati at a salon - a hundred years before the salons described elsewhere in this chapter. Her Œuvres were printed in 1555 and included her most famous piece of that time, the prose work Debat de Folie et d'Amour (Debate Between Folly and Love), and her racy erotic sonnets. Her husband died in the late 1550s or early 1560s and she died a few years later in 1566.

Those are the dubious "facts" and that is also where the speculation starts. It came in three phases.

Louise-Labe

After her death Labé's reputation continued to rest on her career as a poet and prose writer but there were stories that in her youth she had dressed as a man and fought on horseback in battle and some identified her with the courtesan "la Belle Cordière," who was sufficiently notorious back then that even Jean Calvin condemned her as a whore. No doubt this hostility against Labé was because she published what some see as an early feminist manifesto and she lived her life and her loves just the way she pleased.

In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries she was rediscovered as both a writer and a Joan of Arc-like cross-dressing figure and she was celebrated in translations, plays, ballets and what not. In recent decades she has been rescued by feminist academics and included in the French education curriculum.

The third phase kicked off in 2006 with the thesis by French literature professor Mireille Huchon, who argued that Labé never existed and she was a fictional creation of the other Lyonnais literati. It's still a matter of some debate, of course, and there hardly can be any resolution to it...

 

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