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Pope Joanis a legendary femalePopewho 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 fromanti-papalsatire.
The first mention of the female pope appears in the chronicle ofJean Pierier de Mailly, but the most popular and influential version was that interpolated intoMartin of Troppau'sChronicon Pontificum et Imperatorumsomewhat 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.
The earliest mention of the female pope appears in theDominicanJean de Mailly's chronicle ofMetz,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 aCardinaland 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 ahorse'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' [OhPeter, 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 DominicanEtienne de Bourbon, who adapted it for his work on theSeven Gifts of the Holy Ghost. However, the legend gained its greatest prominence when it appeared in the third recension ofMartin of Opava'sChronicon Pontificum et Imperatorumlater 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 ofMainz." It also changes the date from the 11th to the 9th century, indicating that Joan reigned betweenLeo IVandBenedict IIIin the 850s. According to theChronicon:
John Anglicus, born atMainz, was Pope for two years, seven months and four days, and died inRome, after which there was avacancy in the Papacyof one month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led toAthensdressed 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 inRome, 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 fromSt Peter'sto theLateran, in a lane once named Via Sacra (the sacred way) but now known as the "shunned street" between theColisseumandSt 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 theChronicongives 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 becameBishop 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 theChronicon. The one most commonly cited is attached toAnastasius Bibliothecarius(d. 886), a compiler ofLiber Pontificalis, who would have been a contemporary of the female Pope by theChronicon's dating. However, the story is found in only one unreliable manuscript of Anastasius. This manuscript, in theVatican 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 ofMartin 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 ofMarianus Scotus'sChronicle 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 untitledPopesson the "Rosenwald Sheet" of uncutTarotwoodcut designs, late 15th-early 16th century (National Gallery, Washington)
From the mid-13th century onwards, the legend was widely disseminated and believed. Joan was used as anexempluminDominicanpreaching.Bartolomeo Platina, the scholar who was prefect of the Vatican Library, wrote hisVitæ Pontificum Platinæ historici liber de vita Christi ac omnium pontificum qui hactenus ducenti fuere et XXin 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, toAthens, 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 ofPope Leo IV(as Martin says) by common consent she was chosen Pope in his room. As she was going to the Lateran Church between theColossean Theatre(so called fromNero'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 laterMiddle AgesandRenaissance.Giovanni Boccacciowrote about her inDe Mulieribus Claris(1353).TheChroniconofAdam 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 theMirabilia 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 theDuomo 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 Husargued 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.
TheTarot, which surfaced in the mid-15th century, includes aPapessewith itsPape(since the late 19th century calledThe High Priestessand theHierophantin 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 theDominicanRobert of Uzèsrecounted 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 thesedia stercoraria(literally thedungchair), which were used for enthroning new Popes in theBasilica 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 ofCardinalspeered 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 toPetrarch(1304–74), wrote in hisChronica de le Vite de Pontefici et Imperadori Romanithat after Pope Joan had been revealed as a woman:
...in Brescia it rained blood for three days and nights. InFrancethere 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, variousProtestantwriters took up the Pope Joan legend in their anti-Catholic writings. In 1675, a book appeared in English entitledA 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 andKarl Hasediscussed the story as a real occurrence. However, other Protestant writers, such asDavid BlondelandGottfried Leibniz, rejected the story.
Most modern scholars dismiss Pope Joan as a Medievallegend. TheOxford Dictionary of Popesacknowledges 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 theparlementde Bordeaux and anantiquary, published his first attempt to deconstruct the legend,Erreur Populaire de la Papesse Jeanne(also subsequently published under the titleL'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'sErreur Populairewent through fifteen editions, as late as 1691.
In 1601,Pope Clement VIIIdeclared the legend of the female Pope to be untrue. The famous bust of her, inscribedJohannes VIII, Femina ex Anglia,which had been carved for the series of Papal figures in theDuomo di Sienaabout 1400 and was noted by travelers, was either destroyed or recarved and relabeled, replaced by a male figure, ofPope Zachary.
The legend of Pope Joan was "effectively demolished" byDavid Blondel,a mid-17th centuryProtestanthistorian, who suggested that Pope Joan's tale may have originated in a satire againstPope 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.
"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 anAntipope, 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 EmperorLothair 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 nointerregnumbetween these two Popes, so that at this place there is no room for the alleged Popess."
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 becamePatriarchin 858 and was deposed byPope Nicholas Iin 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".
Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe, authors ofThe 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 PopesVictor III,Urban IIandPaschal IIwas not always established inRome, since the city was occupied byHenry IV, Holy Roman Emperor, and later sacked by theNormans. This also would agree more closely with the earliest known version of the legend, byJean de Mailly, as he places the story in the year 1099. De Mailly's story was also acknowledged by his companionStephen 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. Modernscholarscan date manuscripts quite accurately on the basis of thematerialsused,handwritingstyles, and so on; any such tampering or replacement would be easily detectable. What is more, it would have required an immenseconspiratorialeffort to remove Joan's name from all documents in everylibraryandmonasteryacrossEurope, a task almost impossible to carry out.Protestantsof 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.
Thesedes stercoraria(defecation seats), the thrones with holes in it at St. John Lateran did indeed exist, and were used in the elevation ofPope Pascal IIin 1099 (Boureau 1988). In fact, one is still in theVatican Museums, another at theMusée 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 Romanbidetsor 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 theirLatintitle,Pontifex Maximus).
Alain Boureau (Boureau 1988:23) quotes the humanist Jacopo d'Angelo de Scarparia who visited Rome in 1406 for the enthronement ofGregory XIIin 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 realPope John VIIIreigned 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 noPope John XXin 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 sinceLouis Duchesne's critical edition of theLiber 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 afterJohn XIX, the entry onJohn XIVhad been misread as being referring to two different Popes of this name, who then came to be distinguished asIohannes XIVandIohannes 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 asJohn 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.
Peter Stanford,The She-Pope. A Quest for the truth behind the Mystery of Pope Joan, Heineman, London 1998ISBN 0-434-02458-9Published in the US asThe Legend of Pope Joan : In Search of the Truth, Henry Holt & Company, 1999. A popularized journalistic account.