Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Abstinence Contrainte and Faux Semblant on their way to see Malebouche
  • Creator: Master of the Prayer Books of around 1500
  • Description:

    This image comes from a manuscript copy of the Roman de la Rose. Begun by Guillaume de Lorris in the 1220s and completed by Jean de Meun from 1269 to 1278, this classic courtly poem recounts the allegorical dream of an unnamed lover. The dream is about the romantic pursuit of a woman – the titular rose – and the trials and tribulations that occur during this pursuit. The image above depicts the characters Abstinence Contrainte (Forced Abstinence) and Faux Semblant (False Seeming or Fraud), in disguise, on their way to confront the character Male Bouche, whom they strangle later in the poem. In this particular scene, Abstinence Contrainte is dressed as a beguine and Faux Semblant, as a Franciscan friar. Faux Semblant has the traditional monk’s cowl, while Abstinence Contrainte is wearing a head cover and wimple that leave only her face visible. She is holding a rosary and carrying a book, while her companion has a book as well. The scene takes place in the countryside and the figures’ walking sticks convey the idea of a journey.

    The female character in this image is the allegorical figure otherwise known as Forced Abstinence. She abstains from both food and sex, and yet has somehow become pregnant by Faux Semblant, and her unborn child is the antichrist. In this particular image, Abstinence Contrainte is shown with a pallid face, which many scholars equate with a lack of color. In many medieval French manuscripts, characters with this type of pallid skin are often associated with wickedness and hypocrisy. This association of lack of color with evil is even addressed in the text of the Roman de la Rose. Abstinence Contrainte is described as having an appearance that was similar to one of the horses of the Apocalypse. The combination of the text and Abstinence Contrainte’s representation suggest that both the author and the artist are emphasizing the idea that Abstinence Contrainte is a malicious character.

    This particular image shows Abstinence Contrainte and Faux Semblant as pilgrims. The choice of a beguine identity as a disguise for Abstinence Contrainte is an interesting one, because it involves an ironic humor. Beguines, members of female semireligious communities, were sometimes considered to be the “perfect lovers” over whom Jesus Christ presided. Because beguines were able to lead lives in the secular world as opposed to nuns who were enclosed within the cloister, they served as a connection between human and spiritual love, and thus were perfect lovers. Abstinence Contrainte, however, is certainly not a perfect lover. Additionally, since beguines are not held to the same vows of celibacy that nuns are, it would not be outside the realm of possibility for Abstinence Contrainte to be pregnant. Wearing the disguise of a beguine is simultaneously perfect, and also ironic for Abstinence Contrainte because it allows her to be pregnant without serious scandal and gives her the appearance of being a perfect lover, and a deeply religious individual. The representation also draws upon a satirical tradition which portrayed beguines as irreligious opportunists, eager for sex, and far too talkative.

  • Source: British Library
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Beguines Clothing Franciscan Order Roman de la Rose Satire Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 15
  • Date: ca. 1490-1500
  • Related Work: Abstinence Contrainte and Faux Semblant speaking with Malebouche, from MS Harley 4425.
    Digitized images from MS Harley 4425. See the lower section of the page.
    Representations of Abstinence Contrainte in medieval manuscripts digitized in the Roman de la Rose Digital Library.
  • Current Location: British Library, Harley 4425, fol. 108
  • Original Location: Bruges
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Colors; Gold
  • Donor: Layman; Engelbert II, count of Nassau and Vianden
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 39.5/29/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Emmerson, Richard Kenneth and Ronald B. Herzman.  "The Apocalyptic Age of Hypocrisy: Faus Semblant and Amant in the Roman de la Rose."  Speculum, 62, 3. (1987):612-634;
      Heller, Sarah Grace. "Light as Glamour: The Luminescent Ideal of Beauty in the Roman de la Rose." Speculum 76, 4 (2011): 934-959;
    Kelly, Douglas. Internal Difference and Meanings in the Roman de la Rose. University of Wisconsin Press, 1995;
    Miller, Tanya Stabler. The Beguines of Medieval Paris: Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014;
    Rollo, David. Kiss My Relics: Hermaphroditic Fictions of the Middle Ages. University of Chicago Press, 2011.