Monday, January 3, 2011


Pope Joan

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Pope Joan with tiara as theWhore of Babylon.

Pope Joan is a legendary female Pope who supposedly reigned for a few years some time thought to be between 853 - 855 AD. The story first appeared in the writings of 13th-century chroniclers, and subsequently spread through Europe. It was widely believed for centuries, though modern historians and religious scholars[who?] consider it fictitious, perhaps deriving from historicized folklore regarding Roman monuments or from anti-papal satire.

The first mention of the female pope appears in the chronicle of Jean Pierier de Mailly, but the most popular and influential version was that interpolated into Martin of Troppau'sChronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum somewhat later in the 13th century. Most versions say that she was a talented and learned woman who disguised herself as a man, often at the behest of a lover. Due to her abilities she rises through the church hierarchy, eventually being chosen as pope. However, while riding on horseback one day, she gives birth to a child, thus revealing her sex. In most versions she dies shortly after, either by being killed by an angry mob, or from natural causes, and her memory is shunned by her successors.



[edit] Legend

The earliest mention of the female pope appears in the Dominican Jean de Mailly's chronicle of Metz, Chronica Universalis Mettensis, written in the early 13th century. In his telling, the female pope is not named, and the events are set in 1099. According to Jean:

Query. Concerning a certain Pope or rather female Pope, who is not set down in the list of Popes or Bishops of Rome, because she was a woman who disguised herself as a man and became, by her character and talents, a curial secretary, then a Cardinal and finally Pope. One day, while mounting a horse, she gave birth to a child. Immediately, by Roman justice, she was bound by the feet to a horse's tail and dragged and stoned by the people for half a league, and where she died, there she was buried, and at the place is written: 'Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum' [Oh Peter, Father of Fathers, Betray the childbearing of the woman Pope]. At the same time, the four-day fast called the "fast of the female Pope" was first established" (Jean de Mailly, Chronica Universalis Mettensis).

Jean de Mailly's story was picked up by his fellow Dominican Etienne de Bourbon, who adapted it for his work on the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost. However, the legend gained its greatest prominence when it appeared in the third recension of Martin of Opava's Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum later in the 13th century. This version, which may have been by Martin himself, is the first to attach a name to the figure, indicating that she was known as "John Anglicus" or "John of Mainz." It also changes the date from the 11th to the 9th century, indicating that Joan reigned between Leo IV and Benedict III in the 850s. According to the Chronicon:

John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was Pope for two years, seven months and four days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the Papacy of one month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers. There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and afterward in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students and audience. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city, and she was chosen for Pope. While Pope, however, she became pregnant by her companion. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St Peter's to the Lateran, in a lane once named Via Sacra (the sacred way) but now known as the "shunned street" between the Colisseum and St Clement's church. After her death, it is said she was buried in that same place. The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street and it is believed by many that this is done because of abhorrence of the event. Nor is she placed on the list of the Holy Pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter (Martin of Opava, Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum).

One version of the Chronicon gives an alternate fate for the female pope. According to this, she did not die immediately after her exposure as female, but was confined and deposed, after which she did many years of penance. Her son from the affair eventually became Bishop of Ostia, and had her interred in his cathedral when she died.

Other references to the female pope are attributed to earlier writers, though none appear in manuscripts which predate the Chronicon. The one most commonly cited is attached toAnastasius Bibliothecarius (d. 886), a compiler of Liber Pontificalis, who would have been a contemporary of the female Pope by the Chronicon's dating. However, the story is found in only one unreliable manuscript of Anastasius. This manuscript, in the Vatican Library, bears the relevant passage inserted as a footnote at the bottom of a page, out of sequence, and in a different hand, one that certainly dates from after the time of Martin von Troppau. This "witness" to the female Pope is likely to be based upon Martin's account, and certainly not a possible source for it. The same is true of Marianus Scotus's Chronicle of the Popes, a text written in the 11th century. Some manuscripts of it contain a brief mention of a female Pope named Joanna (the earliest source to attach to her the female form of the name), but all these manuscripts are, again, later than Martin's work. Earlier manuscripts do not contain the legend.

An untitled Popess on the "Rosenwald Sheet" of uncut Tarotwoodcut designs, late 15th-early 16th century (National Gallery, Washington)

[edit] Later development

From the mid-13th century onwards, the legend was widely disseminated and believed. Joan was used as an exemplum in Dominican preaching. Bartolomeo Platina, the scholar who was prefect of the Vatican Library, wrote his Vitæ Pontificum Platinæ historici liber de vita Christi ac omnium pontificum qui hactenus ducenti fuere et XX in 1479 at the behest of his patron, Pope Sixtus IV. The book contains the following account of the female Pope:

Pope John VIII: John, of English extraction, was born at Mentz (Mainz) and is said to have arrived at Popedom by evil art; for disguising herself like a man, whereas she was a woman, she went when young with her paramour, a learned man, to Athens, and made such progress in learning under the professors there that, coming to Rome, she met with few that could equal, much less go beyond her, even in the knowledge of the scriptures; and by her learned and ingenious readings and disputations, she acquired so great respect and authority that upon the death of Pope Leo IV (as Martin says) by common consent she was chosen Pope in his room. As she was going to the Lateran Church between the Colossean Theatre (so called from Nero's Colossus) and St. Clement's her travail came upon her, and she died upon the place, having sat two years, one month, and four days, and was buried there without any pomp. This story is vulgarly told, but by very uncertain and obscure authors, and therefore I have related it barely and in short, lest I should seem obstinate and pertinacious if I had admitted what is so generally talked. I had better mistake with the rest of the world, though it be certain, that what I have related may be thought not altogether incredible.

References to the female Pope abound in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about her in De Mulieribus Claris (1353).[1] The Chronicon of Adam of Usk (1404) gives her a name, Agnes, and furthermore mentions a statue in Rome which is said to be of her. This statue had never been mentioned by any earlier writer anywhere; presumably it was an actual statue that came to be taken to be of the female Pope. A late 14th-century edition of the Mirabilia Urbis Romae, a guidebook for pilgrims to Rome, tells readers that the female Pope's remains are buried at St. Peter's. It was around this time when a long series of busts of past Popes was made for the Duomo of Siena, which included one of the female Pope, named as "Johannes VIII, Foemina de Anglia" and included between Leo IV and Benedict III. At his trial in 1415, Jan Hus argued that the Church does not necessarily need a Pope, because during the Pontificate of "Pope Agnes" (as he also called her), it got on quite well. Hus's opponents at this trial insisted that his argument proved no such thing about the independence of the Church, but they did not dispute that there had been a female Pope at all.

The Tarot, which surfaced in the mid-15th century, includes a Papesse with its Pape (since the late 19th century called The High Priestess and the Hierophant in English). It is often suggested, with some plausibility although no real proof, that this image was inspired by the legend of the female Pope.

There were associated legends as well. In the 1290s the Dominican Robert of Uzès recounted a vision in which he saw the seat "where, it is said, the Pope is proved to be a man." By the 14th century, it was believed that two ancient marble seats, called the sedia stercoraria (literally the dung chair), which were used for enthroning new Popes in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, had holes in the seats that were used for determining the gender of the new Pope. It was said that the Pope would have to sit on one of the seats naked, while a committee ofCardinals peered through the hole from beneath. Not until the late 15th century, however, was it said that this peculiar practice was instituted in response to the scandal of the female pope.

Pope Joan has been associated with marvelous happenings. Giacomo Penzio (fl. 1495-1527), in a work falsely attributed to Petrarch (1304–74), wrote in his Chronica de le Vite de Pontefici et Imperadori Romani that after Pope Joan had been revealed as a woman: Brescia it rained blood for three days and nights. In France there appeared marvelous locusts which had six wings and very powerful teeth. They flew miraculously through the air, and all drowned in the British Sea. The golden bodies were rejected by the waves of the sea and corrupted the air, so that a great many people died (Francesco PetrarchChronica de le Vite de Pontefici et Imperadori Romani).

During the 16th century and beyond, various Protestant writers took up the Pope Joan legend in their anti-Catholic writings. In 1675, a book appeared in English entitled A Present for a Papist: Or the Life and Death of Pope Joan, Plainly Proving Out of the Printed Copies, and Manscriptes of Popish Writers and Others, That a Woman called JOAN, Was Really POPE of ROME, and Was There Deliver'd of a Bastard Son in the Open Street as She Went in Solemn Procession. The book describes, among other stories, an account of the purported Pope Joan giving birth to a son in plain view of all those around, accompanied by a detailed engraving showing a rather surprised looking baby peeking out from under the Pope's robes. The book was penned "By a LOVER of TRUTH, Denying Human Infallibility." According to the preface the author had been "many years since deceased" and was "highly preferred in the Church of Rome." Furthermore, the preface indicates that the book was first printed in 1602. Even in the 19th century, authors such as Ewaldus Kist and Karl Hasediscussed the story as a real occurrence. However, other Protestant writers, such as David Blondel and Gottfried Leibniz, rejected the story.

[edit] Analysis and critique of historicity

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.

Most modern scholars dismiss Pope Joan as a Medieval legend[2]. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes [3] acknowledges that this legend was widely believed for centuries, even among Catholic circles, but declares that there is "no contemporary evidence for a female Pope at any of the dates suggested for her reign," and goes on to say that "the known facts of the respective periods make it impossible to fit [a female Pope] in".

In 1587, Florimond de Raemond, a magistrate in the parlement de Bordeaux and an antiquary, published his first attempt to deconstruct the legend, Erreur Populaire de la Papesse Jeanne (also subsequently published under the title L'Anti-Papesse). The tract applied humanist techniques of textual criticism to the Pope Joan legend, with the broader intent of supplying sound historical principles to ecclesiastical history, and the legend began to come apart, detail by detail. Raemond's Erreur Populaire went through fifteen editions, as late as 1691 [4].

In 1601, Pope Clement VIII declared the legend of the female Pope to be untrue. The famous bust of her, inscribed Johannes VIII, Femina ex Anglia, which had been carved for the series of Papal figures in the Duomo di Siena about 1400 and was noted by travelers, was either destroyed or recarved and relabeled, replaced by a male figure, of Pope Zachary.[5]

The legend of Pope Joan was "effectively demolished" by David Blondel,[3] a mid-17th century Protestant historian, who suggested that Pope Joan's tale may have originated in a satire against Pope John XI, who died in his early 20s. Blondel, through detailed analysis of the claims and suggested timings, argued that no such events could have happened.

The Catholic Encyclopedia elaborates on the historical timeline problem:

"Between Leo IV and Benedict III, where Martinus Polonus places her, she cannot be inserted, because Leo IV died 17 July 855, and immediately after his death Benedict III was elected by the clergy and people of Rome; but owing to the setting up of an Antipope, in the person of the deposed Cardinal Anastasius, he was not consecrated until 29 September. Coins exist which bear both the image of Benedict III and of Emperor Lothair I, who died 28 September 855; therefore Benedict must have been recognized as Pope before the last-mentioned date. On 7 October 855, Benedict III issued a charter for the Abbey of Corvey. Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, informed Nicholas I that a messenger whom he had sent to Leo IV learned on his way of the death of this Pope, and therefore handed his petition to Benedict III, who decided it (Hincmar, ep. xl in P.L., CXXXVI, 85). All these witnesses prove the correctness of the dates given in the lives of Leo IV and Benedict III, and there was no interregnum between these two Popes, so that at this place there is no room for the alleged Popess."[6]

It is also notable that enemies of the Papacy in the 9th century make no mention of a female Pope. For example, Photius I of Constantinople, who became Patriarch in 858 and was deposed by Pope Nicholas I in 863, was understandably an enemy of the Pope. He vehemently asserted his own authority as Patriarch over that of the Pope in Rome, and would certainly have made the most of any scandal of that time regarding the Papacy; but he never mentions the story once in any of his voluminous writings. Indeed, at one point he mentions "Leo and Benedict, successively great priests of the Roman Church"[7].

Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe, authors of The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan, theorize that, if a female pope did exist, a more plausible time frame would be 1086–1108, when there were several Antipopes, and the reign of the legitimate Popes Victor III, Urban II and Paschal II was not always established in Rome, since the city was occupied by Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor, and later sacked by the Normans[7]. This also would agree more closely with the earliest known version of the legend, by Jean de Mailly, as he places the story in the year 1099. De Mailly's story was also acknowledged by his companion Stephen of Bourbon.

It has been argued[by whom?] that manuscripts and historical records were tampered with in the 17th century in support of the aforementioned decree of Pope Clement VIII. This claim, however, is highly unlikely:[original research?] either passages would have to be physically erased from manuscripts—something that obviously leaves marks—or the manuscripts would have to be completely destroyed and replaced with forgeries. Modern scholars can date manuscripts quite accurately on the basis of the materials used, handwriting styles, and so on; any such tampering or replacement would be easily detectable. What is more, it would have required an immense conspiratorial effort to remove Joan's name from all documents in everylibrary and monastery across Europe, a task almost impossible to carry out. Protestants of the time would have assuredly protected evidence in their possession that disparaged the Papacy, further increasing the obstacles to the successful completion of any such plot.

Against the weight of historical evidence to the contrary, the question remains as to why the Pope Joan story has been so often believed and revisited. Some, such as Philip Jenkins in The New Anti-Catholicism, have suggested that the periodic revival of what he calls this "anti-papal legend" has more to do with feminist and anti-Catholic wishful thinking than historical accuracy[8].

[edit] Related issues

The sedes stercoraria (defecation seats), the thrones with holes in it at St. John Lateran did indeed exist, and were used in the elevation of Pope Pascal II in 1099 (Boureau 1988). In fact, one is still in the Vatican Museums, another at the Musée du Louvre. They do indeed have a hole in the seat. The reason for the hole is disputed, but as both the seats and their holes predated the Pope Joan story, they clearly have nothing to do with a need to check the sex of a Pope. It has been speculated that they originally were Roman bidets or imperial birthing stools, which because of their age and imperial links were used in ceremonies by Popes intent on highlighting their own imperial claims (as they did also with their Latin title, Pontifex Maximus).[2]

Alain Boureau (Boureau 1988:23) quotes the humanist Jacopo d'Angelo de Scarparia who visited Rome in 1406 for the enthronement of Gregory XII in which the Pope sat briefly on two "pierced chairs" at the Lateran: "the vulgar tell the insane fable that he is touched to verify that he is indeed a man" a sign that this corollary of the Pope Joan legend was still current in the Roman street.

Medieval Popes, from the 13th century onwards, did indeed avoid the direct route between the Lateran and St Peter's, as Martin of Opava claimed. However, there is no evidence that this practice dated back any earlier, let alone that it originated in the 9th century as a deliberate rebuff to the memory of the female Pope. The origin of the practice is uncertain, but it is quite likely that it was maintained because of widespread belief in the Joan legend and that it was thought genuinely to date back to that period.

Although some Medieval writers referred to the female Pope as "John VIII," the real Pope John VIII reigned between 872 and 882, and his life does not resemble that of the fictional female Pope in any way.

A problem sometimes connected to the Pope Joan legend is the fact that there is no Pope John XX in any official list. It is sometimes said that this reflects a renumbering of the Popes to exclude the woman from history. Yet as historians have known since Louis Duchesne's critical edition of the Liber Pontificalis, this renumbering was actually due to a misunderstanding in the textual transmission of the official Papal lists, where in the course of the 11th century, in the time after John XIX, the entry on John XIV had been misread as being referring to two different Popes of this name, who then came to be distinguished as Iohannes XIV and Iohannes XIV bis ("John XIV the second"). The existence of a "second" Pope John XIV was widely accepted in the 13th century, and by consequence the numbering of Popes John XV through XIX was regarded as being erroneous. When Petrus Hispanus was elected Pope in 1276 and chose the Papal name John, he meant to correct this error in enumeration by skipping the number XX and having himself counted as John XXI, thus acknowledging the presumed existence of John XIV "bis" in the 10th century who had nothing to do with the alleged existence of a pope John (Joan) VIII in the 9th century.

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. ^ Ch. 99: "De Ioannae Anglica Papa;" it begins succinctly "Ioannes esto Vir nom,ine videbature, sexu tamen fœmina fuit."
  2. ^ Lord, Lewis (2000-07-24). "The lady was a pope: A bestseller revives the outlandish tale of Joan". U.S. News Online. U.S. News & World Report. Archived from the original on 2010-03-22. Retrieved 2010-03-22.
  3. ^ a b Kelly, J.N.D. (2005) [1988]. Oxford Dictionary of Popes. Oxford University Press. pp. 331–32. ISBN 0-19-861433-0.
  4. ^ Tinsley, Barbara Sher (Autumn 1987). "Pope Joan Polemic in Early Modern France: The Use and Disabuse of Myth". Sixteenth Century Journal 18 (3): 381–98. ISSN 0361-0160.
  5. ^ Stanford, Peter (1999). The She-Pope: a quest for the truth behind the mystery of Pope Joan. Arrow. ISBN 978-0749320676.
  6. ^ Kirsch, J.P. (1910). "Popess Joan". The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 2010-03-22.
  7. ^ a b Pardoe, Rosemary and Darroll (August 1988). "Chapter 3: 'Did Joan exist?'". The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan. The First Complete Documentation of the Facts behind the Legend. Crucible. ISBN 978-1852740139. Retrieved 2010-03-22.
  8. ^ Jenkins, Philip (2003-04-17). The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. Oxford University Press. p. 89. ISBN 0-19-515480-0.

[edit] References

[edit] Primary sources

[edit] Secondary sources

  • Donna Woolfolk Cross, Pope Joan Ballantine Books, ISBN 0-345-41626-0
  • Clement Wood, The Woman Who Was Pope, Wm. Faro, Inc., NYC 1931
  • Arturo Ortega Blake, Joanna Kobieta która zostala Papiezem", Edit. Philip Wilson, 2006 Published in Warszawa, ISBN 83-7236-208-4.
  • Alain Boureau, The Myth of Pope Joan, University Of Chicago Press, 2000 Published in Paris as La Papesse Jeanne. The standard account among historians.
  • Lawrence Durrell, The Curious History of Pope Joan. London: Derek Verschoyle, 1954. Freely translated from the Greek Papissa Joanna, 1886, by Emmanuel Rhoides.
  • Peter Stanford, The She-Pope. A Quest for the truth behind the Mystery of Pope Joan, Heineman, London 1998 ISBN 0-434-02458-9 Published in the US as The Legend of Pope Joan : In Search of the Truth, Henry Holt & Company, 1999. A popularized journalistic account.
  • 'Top 5 Myths About the Papacy' [1]

[edit] External links

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  1. I just saw the movie Pope Joan and was wondering if there's any truth to it. Thanks for this magnificently written article!

  2. Hi, Bidet. thanks for your comment.

    Yes, there is historical evidence for pope joan. I haven't seen the movie yet but may watch it at some stage.

    Obviously the catholic organisation will deny her existence.