Pope Joan

by S. Baring-Gould1

Introduction by Margot H. King



It is a curious fact - and testimony to Jung's perceptive genius - how certain legends lodge deeply in the collective unconscious. Distentangling fact from fiction in these legends is one of the jobs of the historian. If, despite proof that the legend is false, the tale continues to circulate, the inescapable conclusion must be that there is something in the story which answers some deep-seated need in the minds of the audience.

Such a legend is that of Pope Joan which has resurfaced in our time and presented as historical fact by those who would use the story as ammunition in the feminist battle.2 The author of the following account makes the point that, in the late nineteenth century, the tale had been finally been recognized as the literary/historical fraud it was. The case as presented by Baring-Gould remains as valid today as it did a hundred years ago. No ulterior motive can be imputed to him. As a High Church Anglican minister who had little sympathy with Roman Catholicism, Baring-Gould cannot be accused of whitewashing either the hierarchy or the papacy itself.

That a tale of a woman who ascends to the highest position in the hierarchy unsettles those who wish to retain the ecclesiastic status quo cannot be doubted - perhaps not a bad thing! However the proponents for the ordination of women must surely weaken their case if they have recourse to materials which have been proven false. To base their case on Reformation polemics or on arguments from silence simply confuses the issue.

A more profitable approach to the tale of Pope Joan is to acknowledge the undeniable fact that the strength of legends lies in their appeal to basic needs in the human psyche. Baring-Gould's theory that the legend is a variant on the image of the great Whore of Revelation is a possible interpretation. There is, however, an alternative reading, one which, while less appealing to historians of the feminist persuasion, provides yet another example of theology.

For a mediaeval audience, Joan's assumption of male clothing would have caused no comment since stories such as these had had a long tradition.3 Even Joan's entry into the hierarchy would, presumably, have elicited gasps of wonder and, perhaps, awe at her courage. Her moral character, however, is another matter and this, surely, casts a completely different light on the story. Within a mediaeval context, a furtive love affair with a nameless lover was not (as it is, perhaps, today) a matter of indifference. Such behaviour could only have been labelled fornication and, as a result, the moral integrity of the protagonist discredited. This is not high öromance in the tradition of Tristan and Iseult or of Lancelot and Guinevere. Nor is it a story of high bravery and heroic deeds. Rather it is a cautionary tale about one of the daughters of Eve. Joan, it would seem, was unable to control that irresistable lust which, for mediaeval theologians, was the tragic flaw with which the second sex was forever ömarked. It was this carnality - not the assumption of a papal tiara - which brought about Joan's downfall and which provides the dramatic focus of the tale. This interpretation, when united with Baring-Gould's theory that Joan is personification of the Whore of Babylon, surely is more logical than to see the story as yet another indication of the attempt to exclude women from the hierarchy!

-Margot King


Pope Joan

The earliest writer supposed to mention Pope Joan is Anastasius the Librarian, a contemporary (d. 886); next to him is Marianus Scotus, who in his chronicle inserts the following passage: “A.D. 854, Lotharii 14, Joanna, a woman, succeeded Leo, and reigned two years, five months, and four days.” Marianus Scotus died A.D. 1086. The same story is inserted in the valuable chronicle of Sigebert de Gemblours (d. 5th Oct. 1112): “It is reported that this John was a female, and that she conceived by one of her servants. The Pope, becoming pregnant, gave birth to a child, wherefore some do not number her among the Pontiffs.” Hence the story spread among the mediaeval chroniclers, who were great plagiarists. Otto of Frisingen and Gotfrid of Viterbo mention the Lady-Pope in their histories, and Martin Polonus gives details as follows: “After Leo IV. John Anglus, a native of Metz, reigned two years five months, and four days. And the pontificate was vacant for a month. He died in Rome. He is related to have been a female, and, when a girl, to have accompanied her sweetheart in male costume to Athens; there she advanced in various sciences, and none could be found to equal her. So, after having studied for three years in Rome, she had great masters for her pupils and hearers. And when there arose a high opinion in the city of her virtue and knowledge, she was unanimously elected Pope. But during her papacy she became in the family way by a familiar. Not knowing the time of birth, as she was on her way from S. Peter's to the Lateran she had a painful delivery, between the Coliseum and S. Clement's Church, in the street. Having died after, it is said that she was buried on the spot, and therefore the Lord Pope always turns aside from that way, and it is supposed by some, out of detestation for what happened there. Nor on that account is she placed in the catalogue of the Holy Pontiffs, not only on account of her sex, but also because of the horribleness of the circumstance.”

Certainly a story at all scandalous crescit eundo.

William Ocham alludes to the story, Thomas de Elmham (1422) quaintly observes, “A.D. 855. Joannes. Iste non computatus. Foemina fuit” [John. This one is not counted. S/he was a woman]; and John Huss, only too happy to believe it, provides the lady with a name, and asserts that she was baptized Agnes, or, as he will have it with a strong aspirate, Hagnes.
Others, however, insist upon her name having been Gilberta, and some stout Germans, not relishing the notion of her being a daughter of Fatherland, palm her off on England.

As soon as we arrive at Reformation times the German and French Protestants fasten on the story with the utmost avidity, and add little touches of their own, and draw conclusions galling enough to the Roman See, illustrating their accounts with wood engravings vigorous and graphic, but hardly decent. One of these represents the event in a peculiarly startling manner. The procession of bishops with the Host and tapers is sweeping along, when suddenly the cross-bearer before the triple-crowned and vested Pope starts aside to witness the unexpected arrival. This engraving, which it is quite impossible for me to reproduce, is in a curious little book, entitled “Puerperium Johannis Papae 8, 1530.”

Stephen Blanch, in his “Urbis Romae Mirabilia,” says that an angel of heaven appeared to Joan before the event, and asked her to choose whether she should prefer burning eternally in hell, or having her confinement in public; with sense which does her credit, she chose the latter. The Protestant writers were not satisfied that the father of the unhappy baby should have been a servant: some made him a Cardinal, and others the devil himself. According to an eminent Dutch minister, it is immaterial whether the child be fathered on Satan or a monk: at all events, the former took a lively interest in the youthful Antichrist, and, on the occasion of his birth, was seen and heard fluttering overhead, crowing and chanting in an unmusical voice the Sibyline verses announcing the birth of the Arch-persecutor:-

Papa, pater patrum, Papissae pandito partum

Et tibi tunc eadem de corpore quando recedam!

which lines, as being perhaps the only ones known to be of diabolic composition, are deserving of preservation.

The Reformers, in order to reconcile dates, were put to the somewhat perplexing necessity of moving Pope Joan to their own times, or else of giving to the youthful Antichrist an age of seven hundred years.

It need hardly be stated that the whole story of Pope Joan is fabulous, and rests on not the slightest historical foundation. It was probably a Greek invention to throw discredit on the papal hierarchy, first circulated more than two hundred years after the date of the supposed Pope. Even Martin Polonus (A.D. 1282), who is the first to give the details, does so merely on popular report.

The great champions of the myth were the Protestants of the sixteenth century. A paper war was waged upon the subject, and finally the whole story was proved conclusively to be utterly destitute of historical truth. A melancholy example of the blindness of party feeling and prejudice is seen in Mosheim, who assumes the truth of the ridiculous story, and gravely inserts it in his Ecclesiastical History:

Between Leo IV, who died 855, and Benedict III, a woman, who concealed her sex and assumed the name of John, it is said, opened her way to the Pontifical throne by her learning and genius, and governed the Church for a time. She is commonly called the Papess Joan. During the five subsequent centuries the witnesses to this extraordinary event are without number; nor did any one, prior to the Reformation by Luther, regard the thing as either incredible or disgraceful to the Church.

Now for two centuries there is not an allusion to be found to the events. The only passage which can be found is a universally acknowledged interpolation of the Lives of the Popes by Anastasius Bibliothecarius, and this interpolation is stated in the first printed edition by Busaeus, Mogunt. 1602, to be only found in two MS. copies.

Mosheim is false again in asserting that no one prior to the Reformation regarded the thing as either incredible or disgraceful. Bart. Platina, in his Lives of the Popes, written before Luther was born, after relating the story, says

These things which I relate are popular reports, but derived from uncertain and obscure authors, which I have therefore inserted briefly and baldly, lest I should seem to omit obstinately and pertinaciously what most people assert.

Thus the facts were justly doubted by Platina on the legitimate grounds that they rested on popular gossip, and not on reliable history. Anastasius the Librarian, contemporary of the alleged circumstance, is the first cited as evidence to there having been a Papess. This testimony is however open to serious objection. The MSS. of the works of Anastasius do not uniformly contain the fable. Panvini, who wrote additions to Platina, De Vitis Romanorum Pontificum, assures us that

in old books of the lives of the Popes, written by Damasus, by the Librarian, and by Pandulph de Pisa, there is no mention of this woman: only on the margin, betwixt Leo IV and Benedict III, this fable in characters altogether distinct from the text.

Blondel, the great Protestant writer, who ruined the case of the Decretals, says that he examined a MS. of Anastasius in the Royal Library at Paris, and found the story of Pope Joan inserted in such a manner as to convince him that it was a later interpolation. He says

Having read and re-read it, I found that the elogium of the pretended Papess is taken from the words of Martinus Polonus, penitenciary to Innocent IV, and Archbishop of Cosenza, an author four hundred years later than Anastasius, and much more given to all these kinds of fables.4

His reasons for thinking are that the style is not that of the Librarian, but similar to that of Martin Polonus; also that the insertion interferes with the text of the chronicle, and bears evidence of clumsy piecing.

In the elogiums of Leo IV and Benedict III, as given to us in the manuscript of the Bibliotheque Royale, swelled with the romance of the Papess, the same expressions occur as in the Mayence edition; when it follows that (according to the intention of Anastasius, violated by the rashness of those who have mingled with it their idle dreams) it is absolutely impossible that any one could have been Pope between Leo IV and Benedict III, for he says:- "After the prelate Leo was withdrawn from this world, at once (mox) al the clergy, the nobles, and people of Rome hastened to elect Benedict; and at once (illico) they sought him, praying in the Titular Church of S. Callixtus, and having seated him on the pontifical throne, and signed the decree of his election, they sent him to the very-invincible Augusti Lothair and Louis, and the first of these died on 29 September, 855, just seventy-four days after the death of Pope Leo.

Sarran, a zealous and learned Protestant, formed the same opinion of the Pope-Joan fable, and he gives as his reason for believing it not to have stood in the original copies of Anastasius, that it is there inserted with the words, “It is said that,” or “we are assured that,” expressions inconsistent with the fact that Anastasius was a contemporary resident in Rome.5

Martianus Scotus, the next authority cited for the story of Pope Joan, died in 1086. He was a monk of S. Martin of Cologne, then of Fulda, and lastly, of S. Alban's at Metz. How could he have obtained reliable information, or seen documents upon which to ground his assertion? The words in which the tale is alluded to in his Chronicle vary in different MSS., in some the fact is asserted plainly; in others, it is founded on an ut asseritur; and other MS. copies have not the passage in them at all. This looks as though the Pope-Joan passage were an interpolation. Next to Marianus Scotus comes Sigebert de Gemblours, who died 1112. We have evidence conclusive that his Chronicle has been tampered with in this particular. The Gemblours MS., which was either written by Sigebert himself, or was a copy made from his, does not allude to Pope Joan. Several other early copies have not the passage. Guillaume de Nangiac, who wrote a Chronicle to the year 1302, transcribed, and absorbed into his work, the more ancient chronicle of Sigebert. The copy used by Guillaume de Nangiac must have been without the disputed paragraph, for it is not to be found in his work. We are therefore reduced to Martin Polonus (d. 1279), placing more than four centuries between him and the event he records.

The final development of this extraordinary story by German and French Protestant controversialists may not prove uninteresting.

Joan was the daughter of an English missionary who left England to preach the Gospel to the recently converted Saxons. She was born at Engelheim and, according to different authors, she was christened Agnes, Gerberta, Joanna, Margaret, Isabel, Dorothy, or Jutt - the last must have been a nickname surely! She early distinguished herself for genius and love of letters. A young monk of Fulda having conceived for her a violent passion, which she returned with ardour, she deserted her parents, dressed herself in male attire, and in the sacred precincts of Fulda divided her affections between the youthful monk and the musty books of the monastic library. Not satisfied with the restraints of conventual life, nor finding the library sufficiently well provided with books of abstruse science, she eloped with her young man, and after visiting England, France, and Italy, she brought him to Athens, where she addicted herself with unflagging devotion to her literary pursuits. Wearied out by his journey, the monk expired in the arms of the blue-stocking who had influenced his life for evil, <Editor's note: Baring-Gould was, after all, a product of his generation!> and the young lady of so many aliases was for a while inconsolable. She left Athens and repaired to Rome. There she opened a school, and acquired such a reputation for learning and feigned sanctity that, on the death of Leo IV, she was unanimously elected Pope. For two years and five months, under the name of John VII, she filled the papal chair with reputation, no one suspecting her sex. But having taken a fancy to one of the cardinals, by him she became pregnant. At length arrived the time of Rogation procession. Whilst passing the street between the amphitheatre and S. Clement's, she was seized with violent pains, fell to the ground amidst the crowd, and whilst her attendants ministered to her, was delivered of a son. Some say the child and mother died on the spot, some that she survived but was incarcerated, some that the child was spirited away to be the Antichrist of the last days. A marble monument representing the papess with her baby was erected on the spot, which was declared to be accursed to all ages.

I have little doubt myself that Pope Joan is an impersonification of the great whore of Revelation, seated on the seven hills, and is the popular expression of the idea prevalent from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, that the mystery of iniquity was somehow working in the papal court. The scandal of the Antipopes, the utter worldliness and pride of others, the spiritual fornication with the kings of the earth, along with the words of Revelation prophesying the advent of an adulterous woman who should rule over the imperial city, and her connexionB much as the floating uncertainty as to the significance of our Lord's words, “There be some standing here which shall not taste of death till they see the kingdom of God,” condensed into the myth of the Wandering Jew.