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Pope Joan

A Dictionary of Popes

Appendix: Pope Joan

From the mid-13th to the 17th century the tradition that there had been a female pope, commonly but not invariably named Joan, at some date in the 9th, 10th, or 11th century, was almost universally accepted; it was still furnishing ammunition to attackers of the papacy and the Roman church in the late 19th century. The story first appears, between 1240 and 1250, in the Universal Chronicle of Metz attributed to the Dominican Jean de Mailly, according to which *Victor III (d. 1087) was succeeded by a talented woman who, disguised as a man, had worked her way up in the curia as a notary, and had eventually been promoted cardinal. She was betrayed when, mounting her horse, she gave birth to a child, and was ignominiously tied to the horse's tail, dragged round the city, and then stoned to death. The Dominican Stephen de Bourbon (d. c.1262) and the Franciscan of Erfurt who wrote (c.1265) the Chronicon minor give broadly similar accounts of the affair of the ‘popess’, the one placing it c.1100 and the other c.915. The tale was given definitive form, however, and very wide diffusion by the later editions of the immensely popular and influential Chronicle of Popes and Emperors by the Polish Dominican Martin of Troppau (d. 1297). According to these, *Leo IV (d. 855) was succeeded by one John Anglicus, who reigned two years, seven months, and four days, but was in fact a woman. A native of Mainz, she went as a girl, dressed in a man's clothes but escorted by her lover, to Athens, had a brilliant student career there, and then settled in Rome, where her lectures attracted such distinguished audiences and her life was so edifying that she was unanimously elected pope. Her imposture was finally exposed when, riding in procession from St Peter's to the Lateran, she gave birth to a child in a narrow street between the Colosseum and S. Clemente. She died on the spot and was buried there; because of the shameful episode, popes thereafter studiously avoided traversing the street. While Martin gives her name as John (i.e. Joan or Joanna in the feminine), other accounts call her Agnes, Gilberta, or Jutta, or leave her nameless.

The story, often embellished with fantastic details, was accepted without question in Catholic circles for centuries. It was taken up by humanists like Petrarch (d. 1374) and Boccaccio (d. 1375), and influenced iconography; Joan figures among the busts of popes placed c.1400 in Siena cathedral. Critics of the papal claims (e.g. John Huss at the council of Constance in 1415) were able to exploit the story without being contradicted. One enthusiastic writer, Mario Equicola of Alvito (near Caserta: d. 1525), even argued that Providence had used Joan’s elevation to demonstrate the equality of women with men. Catholic criticism of the legend became increasingly vocal from the middle of the 16th century, but it was a French Protestant, David Blondel (1590–1655), who effectively demolished it in treatises published at Amsterdam in 1647 and 1657. It scarcely needs painstaking refutation today, for not only is there no contemporary evidence for a female pope at any of the dates suggested for her reign, but the known facts of the respective periods make it impossible to fit one in. The origin of the story, however, has never been satisfactorily explained. Its kernel is generally taken to be an ancient Roman folk tale which was blown up by a number of circumstances needlessly taken to be suspicious—e.g. the deliberate avoidance of a certain street by papal processions (probably because of its narrowness), the discovery in it of an enigmatic statue taken to represent a woman suckling a child and of a puzzling inscription near by which could be twisted to support the legend, and the popular belief (from the late 13th century) that after his election a pope had to undergo tests that he was really of the male sex. It is likely, too, that the recollection that in the 10th century the papacy had been dominated by unscrupulous women like Theodora the Elder, Marozia, and the younger Theodora helped to give it currency.

Further Reading

MGSS 22: 428 (Martin of Troppau), 24: 184 (Chron. minor), 514 (Jean de Mailly)Find this resource:

    J.J. I. von Döllinger, Die Papstfabeln des Mittelalters (2nd edn., Stuttgart, 1890)Find this resource:

      É. Vacandard, Études de critique et d'histoire religieuse (Paris, 1909–23), iv. 13–39Find this resource:

        EC vi. 482–5 (F. Antonelli)Find this resource:

          J. Morris, Pope John VIII—An English Woman: Alias Pope Joan (London, 1985)Find this resource:

            P. Stanford, The She-Pope (London, 1998)Find this resource: