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Louise Labé’s innovative views on love and literature in the Débat de Folie et d’Amour

Louise Labé is one of the most famous French poets of the Renaissance. Throughout her life, she published only one collection of poetry which includes a dedicatory epistle, a prose dialogue, 24 sonnets, and 24 poems in her honor written by other exponents of the School of Lyons which she was part of. If her lyric production has been studied extensively, her dialogue, the Débat de Folie et d’Amour, has been set aside. It is a very remarkable work, nonetheless. It tells the story of the conflict between Amour (Love) and Folie (Folly). They both attend a party organized by Jupiter. Folly arrives late and sees Love, who’s about to enter. Afraid of being judged, she goes first. An argument starts, at the end of which Folly plucks Love’s eyes out, making him blind. A trial follows. The love dimension is prevalent in the pages of the manuscript but, as it will be explained in this article, the Débat is a very complex text, where the theory of love hides a bigger discourse, dealing with metapoetry and ethics.

The social and ethical dimension of the text emerges from the choice of the debate. This popular medieval genre integrates different interlocutors, each one presenting a specific opinion. In Labé’s Débat, this is represented by the defense speeches of Apollo and Mercury, who defend Amour and Folie, respectively. During Labé’s epoch, the 16th century, debate’s popularity had already begun to decrease in favor of the Neoplatonic dialogue; its influence can be seen in the subject matter of the Débat, love (Cottrell, 1987). Nevertheless, some authors do not agree with this definition, no matter the title. The French professor Malenfant (2018) proposes “declamation” instead. Her theory is supported by the fact that this genre, contrary to those previously mentioned, focuses on a moral question that allows the writer to express themselves freely while showing their argumentative abilities. This development of opposing views surpasses the importance of reaching a resolution to the conflict. In this case, the cause of the conflict is the mutilation of Love. This episode creates a gap in time, separating an earlier stage, which corresponds to Amour’s true identity, and the present. This change concerns humans’ and gods’ lives as well (Cottrell, 1987). The generalization of the trauma lived by Love, in fact, coincides with the opposition between a past of order and a present of chaos. When he could see, Love would match couples in a (arguably) logical way: “pretty young girls” would fall in love with “handsome, young men” who returned their feelings (Cottrell, 1987). Consequently, Love’s blindness will cause significant changes in the world’s order. In Labe’s (1556) words, the result of this confusion will be “disorder and bad government” (translation mine) but also heterogeneity (Cottrell, 1987).

Figure 1: "Louise Labé" (Bégule, 1899).

If it is undeniable that Love at first is presented as the warrantor of order and, consequently, perfection, his powers are reduced throughout the pages. One of the facets of his perfection is associated to past unity, symbolized by the relationship between Love and his mother, Venus. From the beginning of the manuscript, the reader is made to understand that Love’s attributes, his arrow and his bow, are, in reality, his mother’s. The author Cottrell (1987) noticed that Love’s name is not even mentioned at the beginning; he is simply “Venus’s son”. (Labé, 1556) This harmony is disrupted by the intervention of a third component, Folly; in fact, in the last dialogue of the Débat, the judge, Jupiter, affirms that she will have to guide him for many years to come. Curiously enough, Mercury reveals that Love has always been accompanied by Folly, as he defines him “the craziest desire in the world” (Labé, 1556. Translation mine).

Somehow, the initial ability of Amour is progressively reduced, as the writer clarifies that he has flaws too. One of them concerns his blindness, which precedes, in part, Folly’s act. When he prepares to hit her, she disappears so that he cannot see her. Love complains about it, thinking that she has already deprived him of his sight (Cottrell, 1987). In the end, Love is not as perfect as he appears to be. Similarly, Folly’s value is restored, too. In his defense speech, the god Mercury traces the history of humanity and civilization showing how the most salient achievements are related to Folie. This view is specific to the Renaissance, a period characterized by a renovated faith in human possibilities, when people are capable of the most sensational discoveries: “[they can] measure the Sky, the Stars, the Seas, the Earth, spend all the time counting, […], learn thousand little questions, that are fool in themselves: they delight our soul nonetheless” (Labé, 1556. Translation mine).

The revaluation of Folly, as has been mentioned before, coincides with the transition from the celebration of unity to the celebration of difference and exchange between opposites. Similarly, the text itself does not have a closed structure: its ending, as is the case for various 16th century’s publications, is open. Jupiter’s resolution, in fact, is to postpone the actual verdict to a remote future. In that respect, it is interesting to note that it is Folly, not Love, who tries to overcome the differences between her and her rival, to find parity (Baldridge, 1989). This aspect is crucial, because it reveals Labé’s vision of social relations between men and women.

Figure 2: "La Primavera"(Botticelli, 1480).

In the past, Love’s order coincided with a specific social hierarchy, as shown in the first paragraph. As a consequence, Folly’s intrusion constitutes a menace for it. It is no surprise that, contrary to Mercury, Apollo excludes her from his ideal of civilization. In this manuscript, her role is worsened as she is identified with the cause of Love’s blindness. No other writer before has attributed this fault to her (Aaserød, 2020). This serves as a pretext for Labé’s considerations on female/male relationships.

In the first sections of the text, Folly constantly refers to the fact that she is a woman, showing a deep awareness of the other characters’ (who are all men) prejudices. For instance, Love does not recognize her at first; she is, as he defines her, “an unknown woman” (Labé, 1556. Translation mine). When they start arguing, Folly herself claims: “Let me go, do not stop me: it would be a shame for you to argue with a woman”. Similarly, the defense speeches are charged with stereotypes associated to the female sex, like sorcière (witch) (Labé, 1556). The very personification of Folly into a woman is another cliché, relying on the association of the female sex with irrationality. From this perspective, Folly’s behavior is very subtle because as she highlights her flaws, she underlines the gap between her weakness and Love’s omnipotence. Yet, as has been shown, his omnipotence is only apparent, and the reader cannot help but notice through this very contrast that the gap is illusory.

One could also argue that Love’s unawareness of his fragility is another form of blindness, which Folly helps manifest in a concrete way. This understated behavior is counterbalanced by her claim to be defended in front of a judge who will not consider who she is, but her actions. In the meantime, she asks for another person’s defense because she knows that a man’s words will be considered more reliable. Eventually, Folly states her superiority during the trial, whilst recognizing her relationship with Love as equal: “If you were the only one to make people love, what would your glory be if I did not manifest that love through thousands of inventions?” (Labé, 1556. Translation mine). However, this form of equality is not recognized by professor and author Kotler (2010) who reckons that this is yet another strategy to impose her superiority.

Figure 3: "Amor Sacro e Amor Profano" (Vecellio, 1515-1516).

Likewise, Folly’s characterization throughout the text is given a bigger space than that of Love. As a matter of fact, Mercury's and Apollo's defense speeches are not even. Undoubtedly, the trial develops in a way that favors Folly over Love. Mercury’s words and Jupiter’s conciliatory ideas prevail over Apollo’s; his role is still recognized, but the direction of the text suggests the writer’s preference for Folie. Surprisingly, the resolution consists in a compromise between the two parts. In fact, Jupiter says: “Folly will guide blind Love and will conduct him wherever he likes” (Labé, 1556. Translation and emphasis mine). Love’s freedom of action may have been reduced; he can choose where she can guide him, nonetheless. The reflection eventually expands to analyze social customs form a wider perspective. Human contradictions are highlighted through Folly’s main feature: laughter (Aaserød, 2020). The strangeness of human habits is hilarious to both the Gods in the Débat and the public who reads it. Folly laughing for what is apparently commonplace is another way of subverting social conventions. Aaserød (2020), author of Penser quelque folie, supposes that the introduction of Folly into the Pantheon provokes a change of God’s ideals as well, making this place more inclusive. Yet, the speeches of Apollo and Mercury are charged with references not only to society, but to literature as well. Considering this, Labé’s message of inclusion could be more specific, and refer to the possibilities that women have to enter the world of poetry.

Overall, Labé’s theories apply to love and literature, as well as society at large. The way Folie acts and stands for herself during her trial represents an invitation to female readers. Its objective is to subvert social conventions, establish equal relationships and find a place in the literary world. Significantly, when Apollo excludes Folly from civilization, Mercury reclaims her inclusion; Aaserød (2020) describes this as an attempt to reconciliate old and new values in the domains of love and literature, another way of promoting change.

Folly, in Labé’s terms, is the preparatory stage of creativity. In this work, it is personified into a woman. While analyzing the poet’s vision of literature, it is important to retain that she stresses the sexual identity of both characters thoroughly. At the very beginning of the Débat, Folly even insists that it is up to her to go first. What is even more significant, is that, after a few difficult attempts and obstacles, she actually goes first. In this passage, Labé is trying to convey a particular message. To comprehend it, it is important to compare to the previous text of her collection. In the dedicatory epistle, she had already explained that women have the same rights as men to write, (Labé, 1556) a message that is further developed in the Débat. Thus, after having analyzed Labé’s social vision, it is important to focus on her vision of literature more in depth.

Figure 4: "Épître dédicatoire à M.C.D.B.L." (Labé, 1555).

Male characters constantly point at women’s flaws in their speeches. According to them, they cannot resist passion, love and desire. Still, Labé believes, it is this very weakness that motivates their writing: “they write and sing their passions” (Labé, 1556. Translation mine). Writing is described as an utterly subjective process. It requires one to assume their feelings and open themselves to the other person. Baldridge (1989), professor of French at the Wichita State University, defines this process as a form of “metamorphosis”. Further in the dialogue, Love’s role in writing is also explained. To understand that, it is important to specify the influence of Neoplatonism. This movement developed in the 15th century in Italy and eventually spread all over Europe. It was characterized by the rediscovery of Plato’s Symposium and a specific vision of love, which is highly influent in Labé’s poetic. According to this view, love and creation coincide, because the former heightens the human spirit. Just like Amour and Folie impersonate two aspects of literary creation, Apollo and Mercury also represent two different visions. For the former, it is the classic poet Orpheus who is at the origin of civilization. His poetic production is related to his desire to communicate his feelings. As the god of sun puts it: “As soon as men start to love, they start writing” (Labé, 1556. Translation mine). Conversely, Mercury believes that it is not love, but passion that is at the heart of writing, a feeling that he describes as the “folie d’amour”. Because folly is strictly associated not only to writing but to women as well, it is impossible to identify it in a specific literary tradition, as all of them were inaccessible to writers of the female sex (Aaserød, 2020). However, he compares women to Orpheus for his singing of passion. Lastly, it can be said that Love and Folly impersonate two different types of literature: one based on imitation (Love), the other on innovation (Folly).

Limiting Louise Labé’s Débat de Folie et d’Amour to a simple reinterpretation of the myth of love would be a mistake. The topic of love allows her to convey a specific moral and social message that breaks with the conventions of her time. Her concern for justice is evident from the choice of the genre, whereas her original opinions appear from her reversal of the categories of order and chaos. Simultaneously, Love and Folly’s strengths and weaknesses are harmonized. The conflict between the two characters as well as the quest for a resolution symbolizes the difference between men’s and women’s roles within the social and the cultural world, as well as Labé’s wish to reverse such norms. This triad, formed by women, society and literature, composes the structure of the debate as well as the core of the poet's personal view of the world.

Bibliographical References

Aaserød, A. (2020). « Penser quelque folie ». Réception, auctorialité et poétique de Louise Labé. Oslo : Universitetet I Oslo

Baldridge, W. (1989). La présence de Folie dans les « Œuvres » de Louise Labé. Renaissance and Reformation, 13(4), pp.371-379,

Cottrell, R.D. (1987). The problematics of opposition in Louise Labé’s Débat de Folie et d’Amour. French Forum, 12(1), pp.27-42,

Kotler, É. (2010). Pour dessus lui plus de credit avoir : de quelques stratégies de la manipulation dans les œuvres de Louise Labé. Modèles linguistiques, 61, pp.189-206,

Labé, L. (1556). Euvres de Louïze Labé Lionnoize . Revues & corrigees par ladite dame. Lyon : Jean de Tournes

Malenfant, M.C. (2018). L’ambiguité finale du Débat de Folie et d’Amour de Louise Labé ou du pouvoir de l’éloquence de Mercure. L’écriture des femmes à la Renaissance Française, 18, pp.105-131,

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Bégule, L., (1899). Louise Labé. Musées Gadagne.

Figure 2: Botticelli, S., (1480). La Primavera. Gallerie degli Uffizi.

Figure 3: Vecellio, T., (1515-1516). Amor Sacro e Amor Profano. Galleria Borghese.

Figure 4: Labé, L., (1555). Épître dédicatoire à M.C.D.B.L. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.


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Debora Ricci

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