MADRID.- She is a legend of Renaissance poetry and feminism: a woman born into a humble family in Lyon, known in her time as a courtesan and author of some of the most dazzling erotic verses in Western tradition.
Louise Labe It has just finally entered La Pléiade, the collection of classics from the Gallimard publishing house that is a true canon of French letters. But the critical edition of his Complete works, by the prestigious specialist in the French sixteenth century Mireille Huchon, consecrates the thesis according to which Louise Labé was actually a pseudonym, a pen name behind which a group made up of some of the most distinguished male poets of the time was hiding.
It is as if, almost half a millennium ago, and in a period and a city that lived in intellectual and creative ferment, there had been a distant antecedent of Carmen Mola: the female pseudonym with which three men (the screenwriters Jorge Díaz, Agustín Martínez and Antonio Mercero) published fast-paced and bloodthirsty mystery novels since 2018. Last October Carmen Mola won the millionaire Planeta prize with the novel The beast, and thus the deception was revealed.
In the case of Louise Labé, it has been Professor Huchon who, after meticulous textual and archival detective work reflected in the Complete Works of Labé in La Pléiade, has concluded that Louise Labé is the literary construction of a group of notable poets from Lyon such as Maurice Scève or Pontus de Tyard. His thesis, anticipated in a 2006 essay, has unleashed the attacks of some seizièmistes —specialists in the French 16th century— who defend that the Belle Cordelera or the Sappho of Lyon, as she was known, really existed or that, at least , there is not enough evidence to conclude that she was a Carmen Mola of the Renaissance.
Professor Huchon, as soon as she picks up the phone to talk to El PAÍS, spontaneously mentions Carmen Mola. He had read the information about the case in the French press and immediately fell into the parallelism with Louise Labé. “At the end of the day, in both cases it is a kind of pseudonym,” he observes. And in both cases, several men were hiding behind a female identity.
But here the parallelism ends. Because Carmen Mola was a totally invented identity. In contrast, in sixteenth-century Lyon there was not exactly a Louise Labé, but a person named Loyse Labbé (with a Greek y and two bs), whose existence Huchon documents in detail (and includes in La Pléiade a document of a trial of the Inquisition in Salamanca in 1570 that describes her as “a rogue” and “a bad woman of a lion” [sic]). This Labbé, according to Huchon, is different from the Labé who appears as the author of a short work composed of the prose of madness debate and of Love, three elegies and 24 sonnets.
Huchon maintains: “The book, if we look at what was written under the name of Louise Labé, means knowing Latin and Greek and having an exceptional library at your disposal”. And he argues: “It is impossible that Loyse Labbé had this culture. She was the daughter of an illiterate roper: there are notarial documents that show that her father does not know how to sign. His mother died young and his stepmother didn’t know how to sign either. He grew up in an illiterate environment. How could she have acquired such a culture? In addition, later she married a rope maker who was also illiterate.
The idea is that everything, in Louise Labé and in her only book published in 1555, is artifice. It is the name, which evokes the “lips”, the “loa” and the “Laura” of Petrarca, a model for all the poets of the moment. And so is the content, which does not refer to the loves and heartbreaks of the real Bella Cordelera, but rather is a literary exercise full of allusions to ancient and classical poets —Sappho, Catullus, Ovid— and other contemporaries, and based on the poetic models in vogue in the Renaissance.
“She hadn’t published anything before, she didn’t publish anything else, the poetic intelligentsia began to praise her and then she disappeared like a meteor,” summarizes Huchon. “It cannot be described as a hoax, because I think that in the 16th century they realized that it was not Loyse Labbé who had written it, there were clues in the text. I think rather that it is a fiction, a collective game, an experimentation like the one that, in the modern world, the Oulipo could practice”, he adds in reference to the experimental workshop founded in the sixties and that had among its members Georges Perec and Italo Calvin.
“Louise attacked!” reads the page dedicated to the controversy on the website of the International Society for the Study of Women of the Ancient Regime. “Is this questioning justified?” reads. “Is it part of the great clerical tradition that consists of denying women the paternity of their works?”
In statements to The world, Professor Michèle Clément, responsible for a new edition of the works of Louis Labé in the GF collection of the Flammarion publishing house, disagrees that Loys Labbé’s social status would have prevented him from accessing the culture of Louise Labé, and says that this vision “is based on the social prejudice that a daughter, sister and wife of ropemakers could not be cultivated”.
“Mireille Huchon omits the possibility of a culture by impregnation, oralization, human frequentation, of a porosity between learned culture and common culture”, continues Clément. And he expresses his surprise that Gallimard “takes the side of commissioning someone who contests the existence of Louise Labé to edit this volume of La Pléiade”.
Regarding the possible paradox of publishing the complete works of Louise Labé if Louise Labé was a collective, Mireille Huchon replies, alluding to other names that could hide various authors: “It is not a paradox. The book exists. There are the poets of Louise Labé. In this case, could we not have Homer or Shakespeare in La Pléiade?