Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview

LOUISE LABÉ
(ca. 1520-1566)

France
Poet

One of the finest lyric poets of the French Renaissance, Louise Labé was famous for her passionate love sonnets, her involvement in the cultural life of sixteenth-century Lyons, and her defense of these activities. She was both praised and attacked for writing love sonnets at a time when virtuous women did not declare their desire publicly in print.

Unfortunately, little is known about Labé's life. Scholars generally agree that she was born near Lyons, France, sometime around 1520 (between her parents' marriage in 1516 and her mother's death in 1523). Her father, Pierre Charly (also known as Labé), was a prosperous rope-maker; her mother, Etiennette, was his second wife. Labé had three brothers and a sister, as well as a half brother and a half sister from her father's third marriage. Labé's father provided her with an excellent education. She knew Latin, Italian, and probably Spanish and Greek, as well as conventionally feminine skills, such as needlework, spinning, weaving, and lute playing. Only a very small percentage of women were taught classical languages in this era, and most of them were from aristocratic families. Thus Labé's knowledge of Latin and Greek was not typical. One way that prominent nonnoble citizens like Labé's father could display their wealth and position was by training their children in aristocratic accomplishments and learning. Labé may have received her education from nuns at a nearby convent school ( La Déserte), to which her mother's family had contributed money. In one poem, Labé refers proudly to her considerable skill at horsemanship and arms, as well as needlework. Some scholars suggest that Labé may actually have taken part in a tournament in Lyons held for the future King Henry II in 1542. If true, Labé's actions were certainly extraordinary, for the women's role at such events was to watch the men perform and not to participate themselves.

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