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Pope Joan was a mythical female pope who allegedly reigned for a few years some time during the Middle Ages. The story first appeared in 13th-century chronicles, and was subsequently spread and embellished throughout Europe. It was widely believed for centuries, though most modern historians consider it fictitious, perhaps deriving from historicized folklore regarding Roman monuments or from anti-papal satire.
The first mention of the mythical female pope appears in the chronicle of Jean de Mailly, but the most popular and influential version was that interpolated into Martin of Opava's Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum, later in the 13th century. Most versions of her story describe her as a talented and learned woman who disguises herself as a man, often at the behest of a lover. In the most common accounts, due to her abilities, she rises through the church hierarchy, eventually being elected pope; however, while riding on horseback, she gives birth, thus exposing her sex. In most versions, she dies shortly after, either being killed by an angry mob or from natural causes. Her memory is then shunned by her successors.
The earliest mention of the fictional 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 Stephen of 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 (edited revision) 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 Colosseum 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 alternative fate for the female pope. According to this, she did not die immediately after her exposure, but was confined and deposed, after which she did many years of penance. Her son from the affair eventually became Bishop of Ostia, and ordered her entombment in his cathedral when she died.
Other references to the female pope are attributed to earlier writers, though none appears in manuscripts that predate the Chronicon. The one most commonly cited is Anastasius Bibliothecarius (d. 886), a compiler of Liber Pontificalis, who was 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. It is out of sequence, and in a different hand, one that dates from after the time of Martin of Opava. This "witness" to the female pope is likely to be based upon Martin's account, and 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 of its manuscripts contain a brief mention of a female pope named Johanna (the earliest source to attach to her the female form of the name), but all these manuscripts are later than Martin's work. Earlier manuscripts do not contain the legend.
Some versions of the legend suggest that subsequent popes were subjected to an examination whereby, having sat on a dung chair containing a hole called sedia stercoraria, a cardinal had to reach up and establish that the new pope had testicles, before announcing "Duos habet et bene pendentes" ("He has two, and they dangle nicely"), or "habet" ("he has 'em") for short.
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." 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:
... in 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 (Giacomo Penzio Chronica de le Vite de Pontefici et Imperadori Romani).
From the mid-13th century onward, 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). The Chronicon of Adam of Usk (1404) gives her a name, Agnes, and furthermore mentions a statue in Rome that 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.
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.
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, that of Pope Zachary.
The legend of Pope Joan was "effectively demolished" by David Blondel, 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 16th-century Italian historian Onofrio Panvinio, commenting on one of Bartolomeo Platina's works that refer to Pope Joan, theorized that the story of Pope Joan may have originated from tales of Pope John XII; John reportedly had many mistresses, including one called Joan, who was very influential in Rome during his pontificate.
At the time of the Reformation, various Protestant writers took up the Pope Joan legend in their anti-Catholic writings, and the Catholics responded with their own polemic. According to Pierre Gustave Brunet,
Divers auteurs se sont, au seizième et au dix-septième siècle, occupés de la papesse Jeanne mais c'était au point de vue de la polémique engagée entre les partisans de la réforme luthérienne ou calviniste et les apologistes de catholocisme.
Various authors, in the 16th and 17th centuries, occupied themselves with Pope Joan, but it was from the point of view of the polemic engaged in between the partisans of Lutheran or Calvinist reform and the apologists of Catholicism.
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". Alain Boreau attributed the work to Alexander Cooke in his book, The Myth of Pope Joan.  Furthermore, the preface indicates that the book was first printed in 1602. Even in the 19th century, authors such as Ewaldus Kist and Karl Hase discussed the story as a real occurrence. However, other Protestant writers, such as David Blondel and Gottfried Leibniz, rejected the story.
Most modern scholars dismiss Pope Joan as a Medieval legend. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes 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".
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, 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.
It is also notable that enemies of the papacy in the 9th century make no mention of a female pope. For example, Photios I of Constantinople, who became Patriarch in 858 and was deposed by Pope Nicholas I in 863, was an enemy of the pope. He vehemently asserted his own authority as patriarch over that of the pope in Rome, and would 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 of The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan, theorize that if a female pope did exist, a more plausible time frame is 1086 and 1108, when there were several antipopes; during this time 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. This also agrees with the earliest known version of the legend, by Jean de Mailly, as he places the story in the year 1099. De Mailly's "account" was acknowledged by his companion Stephen of Bourbon.
Against the weight of historical evidence to the contrary, the question remains as to why the Pope Joan story has been popular and widely believed. Philip Jenkins in The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice suggests 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.
The sede stercoraria, the throne with a hole in the seat, now at St. John Lateran (the formal residence of the popes and center of Catholicism), is to be considered. This and other toilet-like chairs were used in the consecration of Pope Pascal II in 1099 (Boureau 1988). In fact, one is still in the Vatican Museums, another at the Musée du Louvre. The reason for the configuration of the chair is disputed. 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).
Alain Boureau (Boureau 1988:23) quotes the humanist Jacopo d'Angelo de Scarparia, who visited Rome in 1406 for the enthronement of Gregory XII. 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 onward, 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. 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 it was thought genuinely to date back to that period.
Although some medieval writers referred to the female pope as "John VIII", a genuine Pope John VIII reigned between 872 and 882. Due to the Dark Ages lack of records, confusion often reigns in the evaluation of events.
A problem sometimes connected to the Pope Joan legend is the fact that there is no Pope John XX in any list. It is said this reflects a renumbering of the popes to exclude Joan from history. Historians have known since Louis Duchesne's critical edition of the Liber Pontificalis that the "renumbering" was actually due to a misunderstanding in the textual transmission of the official papal lists. In the course of the 11th century, in the time after John XIX, the entry for John XIV had been misread as referring to two different popes of this name. These two popes 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, hence 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 decided to correct this error by skipping the number XX. He numbered himself John XXI, thus acknowledging the presumed existence of John XIV "bis" in the 10th century.
Pope Joan has remained a popular subject for fictional works. Plays include Ludwig Achim von Arnim's Päpstin Johanna (1813), a fragment by Bertolt Brecht (in Werke. Bd. 10), and a monodrama, Pausin Johanna by Cees van der Pluijm (1996). Pope Joan also appears as a character in Caryl Churchill's 1982 play Top Girls.
The Greek author Emmanuel Rhoides' 1866 novel The Papess Joanne was admired by Mark Twain and Alfred Jarry, and freely translated by Lawrence Durrell as The Curious History of Pope Joan (1954). The American Donna Woolfolk Cross's 1996 historical romance Pope Joan was recently made into a German musical as well as the movie described below. Other novels include Wilhelm Smets's Das Mährchen von der Päpstin Johanna auf’s Neue erörtert (1829), Marjorie Bowen's Black Magic (1909), Ludwig Gorm's Päpstin Johanna (1912), and Yves Bichet's La Papesse Jeanne (2005).
There have been two films based on the story of Pope Joan. Pope Joan (1972), directed by Michael Anderson, was titled The Devil's Imposter in the USA. In 2009 it was recut to include more of John Briley's original script and released as She... who would be Pope. In the same year another film with the title Pope Joan was released, this one a German, British, Italian and Spanish production directed by Sönke Wortmann and produced by Bernd Eichinger, based on Cross's novel.
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