Mythical Pope Joan: Ruler of the Papacy

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The Myth of Pope Joan by Alain Boureau
The Myth of Pope Joan by Alain Boureau

Mythical Pope Joan - The Legend

The Legend of Pope Joannes Anglicus: Separating Fact from Fiction

For centuries, the legend of Pope Joannes Anglicus, also known as Pope Joan, has captured the imagination of scholars and laypeople alike. According to some accounts, Pope Joan was the only female pope in history, who disguised herself as a man to ascend to the papacy. However, other sources deny the existence of Pope Joannes Anglicus altogether. In this article, we will explore the legend of Pope Joan and attempt to separate fact from fiction.

The Origins of the Legend

The earliest known reference to Pope Joan can be found in the chronicle of the Dominican friar Jean de Mailly, written in the 13th century. According to his account, a woman named Joan disguised herself as a man and rose through the church ranks to become a pope. However, during a procession through Rome, she went into labor and gave birth in the street, revealing her true identity to the horrified onlookers. She was subsequently dragged through the streets and stoned to death.

The Popularity of the Legend

The legend of Pope Joan quickly gained popularity throughout Europe, and numerous accounts of her life and death were written in the following centuries. Some versions of the story depict Joan as a brilliant scholar and charismatic leader, while others portray her as a wicked and passionate woman who brought shame to the papacy. Despite the discrepancies in these accounts, the legend of Pope Joan continued to capture the imagination of the public.

The Skeptics’ View

However, not everyone accepted the legend of Pope Joan as fact. In the 16th century, Protestant writers began to question the veracity of the story, arguing that it was a fabrication created by the Catholic Church’s enemies to discredit the papacy. They pointed to the lack of contemporary evidence for Pope Joan’s existence and the inconsistencies in the various accounts of her life.

Modern Scholarship

In more recent times, scholars have attempted to separate fact from fiction in the legend of Pope Joan. While there is no contemporary evidence for her existence, some historians argue that it is possible that a woman may have disguised herself as a man and risen through the ranks of the church in the early Middle Ages. Others point to the political climate of the time, which was marked by power struggles and intrigue, as a possible explanation for the creation of the legend.

The Evidence for Pope Joannes Anglicus

Illustrated manuscript depicting Pope Joan with the papal tiara. Bibliothèque nationale de France, c. 1560

Illustrated manuscript depicting Pope Joan with the papal tiara. Bibliothèque nationale de France, c. 1560

The existence of Pope Joannes Anglicus, also known as Pope Joan, has been a subject of debate among scholars and historians for centuries. While some consider her to be a mythical figure, others believe that there is enough evidence to support her existence. Let’s take a closer look at the evidence that supports Pope Joan’s existence.

Chronicles and Annals

The medieval chronicles and annals that mention Pope Joan date from the 13th to the 16th centuries, several centuries after the supposed reign of Pope Joannes Anglicus. These sources describe a female pope who was elected in the 9th century and reigned for several years before being discovered as a woman and deposed. Some of these accounts are more plausible than others and seem to be based on genuine historical sources.

Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum

One of the earliest and most detailed accounts of Pope Joan comes from the Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum, a medieval chronicle that dates from the early 13th century. The chronicle was written by an anonymous author and covers the period from the creation of the world to the year 1252. It includes a detailed account of the supposed reign of Pope Joan, who is described as a woman who disguised herself as a man and became pope.

According to the Chronicon, Pope Joan was born in Mainz, Germany, and was educated in Athens before traveling to Rome disguised as a man. She eventually rose through the ranks of the church and was elected pope, taking the name John Anglicus. She reigned for several years before her true gender was revealed during a procession when she gave birth to a child.

The account in the Chronicon is one of the most detailed and comprehensive accounts of Pope Joan’s reign, and it includes a number of anecdotes and details about her life and papacy. The author of the chronicle cites several historical sources, including the Liber Pontificalis, a collection of biographies of the popes that dates back to the 6th century.

While the account in the Chronicon is often cited as evidence for Pope Joan’s existence, it is important to note that the chronicle was written centuries after the supposed reign of Pope Joan. Moreover, the author of the chronicle is unknown, and the account may be based on earlier sources that have since been lost or destroyed. Nonetheless, the Chronicon remains an important and influential account of the legend of Pope Joan, and it has contributed significantly to the ongoing debate about her existence.

Liber Pontificalis and the Annales Fildenses

The Liber Pontificalis is a collection of biographies of the popes, beginning with St. Peter and continuing until the 15th century. Although the Liber Pontificalis was compiled in the 6th century, some of the biographies were added much later, and it is unclear who the authors were. Despite this, the Liber Pontificalis remains a valuable source of information about the popes of the early Christian church.

The biography of Pope Joan in the Liber Pontificalis is short and matter-of-fact, merely stating that “John VIII, a woman, reigned for two years, five months, and four days”. This straightforward account suggests that the author of this particular biography believed that Pope Joan was a real person.

The Annales Fuldenses: A Contemporary Account?

The Annales Fuldenses is a series of annals that were compiled by the monks of Fulda Abbey in Germany in the 9th century. These annals provide a contemporary account of many events of the time, including the reign of Pope Leo IV, who is believed to have succeeded Pope Joan.

The Annales Fuldenses mention Pope Joan only briefly, stating that “Leo was ordained in the place of John, who is said to have been a woman”. This short statement suggests that the author of the Annales Fuldenses believed that Pope Joan was a real person, but it also leaves many questions unanswered.

The Siena Cathedral Fresco

The fresco in the Siena Cathedral in Italy is one of the most significant pieces of evidence in the debate surrounding the existence of Pope Joan. The fresco, which dates back to the 14th century, depicts a female pope sitting on a throne, wearing the papal tiara and carrying the papal cross. She is surrounded by cardinals, and the inscription on the fresco reads “Johannes VIII, Femina ex Anglia” (John VIII, an Englishwoman).

While some scholars argue that the fresco may be a reference to another pope or an allegory, others view it as evidence that Pope Joan did exist. The fact that the fresco has been restored several times over the centuries makes it difficult to determine if the inscription is original or if it was added later. However, the inscription is still visible today, and it has been cited by some as proof that Pope Joan was a historical figure.

The Siena Cathedral fresco is not the only artwork that depicts a female pope. There are also several other works of art, including manuscripts and woodcuts, that show a female pope, sometimes referred to as Pope Johanna. However, the Siena Cathedral fresco is perhaps the most significant piece of evidence, as it is the only one that specifically refers to a female pope named John.

Other Sources

In addition to the medieval chronicles and the Siena Cathedral fresco, other sources also support Pope Joan’s existence. For instance, the 13th-century “Chronicle of Popes and Emperors” includes an entry for Pope John VIII, who was said to have been followed by “Pope Joan.” Furthermore, in the 15th century, the writer Martin Polonus referred to Pope Joan in his work “Chronicle of the Popes.” These additional sources reinforce the idea that Pope Joan may have existed.

In conclusion, while the evidence for Pope Joan’s existence may not be entirely conclusive, it is clear that there are several sources that support her story. As such, the question of whether Pope Joan was a real historical figure or merely a myth continues to fascinate and intrigue scholars and historians to this day.

 

The Evidence Against Pope Joannes Anglicus

The History of the Life of Pope Joan, From her Birth to her Death (1675)

The History of the Life of Pope Joan, From her Birth to her Death (1675)

Inconsistencies in the various accounts of Pope Joan’s life and reign are another significant factor that undermines the story of her existence. While the basic narrative of a female pope who disguised herself as a man and ascended to the papacy remains the same across different versions of the legend, the details and specifics of her story vary widely depending on the source.

Different Dates and Locations

Some versions of the story place Pope Joan’s papacy in the 9th century, specifically between the years 855 and 858, during the reign of Pope Leo IV. However, other sources suggest that she lived much later, during the 11th or 12th centuries. These later dates would place her papacy several hundred years after the supposed reign of Leo IV and raise questions about how she could have been forgotten by contemporary sources.

Another inconsistency in the legend of Pope Joan is the varying locations attributed to her papacy. While some accounts suggest that she reigned in Rome, others place her rule in Germany or France. This raises questions about the legitimacy of her supposed papacy, as the pope is traditionally seen as the bishop of Rome and the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Details of Her Life and Reign

One of the most glaring discrepancies is the conflicting stories about her pregnancy and childbirth. According to some sources, Pope Joan gave birth to a child during a papal procession in the streets of Rome, exposing her true gender and resulting in her death by stoning. Other accounts suggest that she died in childbirth and was buried in secret to conceal her gender.

The different versions of Pope Joan’s reign are also a source of confusion and uncertainty. Some sources claim that she ruled for only a few months before her true identity was discovered and she was deposed, while others suggest that she remained pope for several years before being forced to step down. There are also discrepancies in the details of her papacy, with some sources claiming that she made significant reforms and others suggesting that her reign was largely unremarkable.

No Consensus Among Scholars

Perhaps most significant of all is the fact that there is no consensus among scholars about which version of the story of Pope Joan is the most accurate. While some scholars have attempted to piece together a cohesive narrative based on the available sources, others argue that the inconsistencies and contradictions in the various accounts make it impossible to know the truth about Pope Joan’s life.

Conclusion

The inconsistencies in the various accounts of Pope Joan’s life and reign pose a significant challenge to the story of her existence. Different sources offer different dates, locations, and details about her life, and there is no consensus among scholars about which version of the story is the most accurate. While the basic narrative of a female pope who disguised herself as a man remains the same, the lack of coherence and consistency in the legend makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide whether they believe in the legend of Pope Joan or not.

 

Featured Image

Pope Joan giving birth

Pope Joan giving birth

The woodcut from the German translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris, which depicts Pope Joan giving birth, is a fascinating historical artifact that has sparked much debate and speculation over the years. According to legend, Pope Joan was a female pope who disguised herself as a man in order to ascend to the papacy. The woodcut shows her giving birth while seated on a throne, surrounded by cardinals and other officials.

While the story of Pope Joan is widely regarded as a myth by many scholars, the woodcut is nevertheless a fascinating piece of art that captures the imagination of viewers. It provides a glimpse into the popular beliefs and attitudes of the time when it was created, reflecting the prevailing fascination with the idea of a female pope.

Moreover, the woodcut is an excellent example of the importance of visual media in conveying historical ideas and narratives. It provides a visual representation of a story that would otherwise be difficult to imagine, and it helps to bring the legend of Pope Joan to life in a vivid and compelling way.

Overall, the woodcut of Pope Joan giving birth is a valuable historical artifact that provides insight into the popular beliefs and attitudes of the time, and it continues to fascinate and inspire viewers to this day.

 

Sources

  • Jansen, Katherine Ludwig. The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages. Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • Smith, Bonnie G. “A Gendered Myth: Pope Joan in Early Modern England.” Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 22, no. 2, 1991, pp. 235–250.
  • Rubin, Miri. “Gender and the Papacy: Joan, Papessa or Pope?” History Workshop Journal, no. 42, 1996, pp. 1–16.
  • Bokenkotter, Thomas. A Concise History of the Catholic Church. Doubleday, 1990.
  • Habig, Marion A., editor. The Franciscan Book of Saints. Franciscan Herald Press, 1959.

 

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