The Fable of Pope Joan

“But avoid foolish and old wives’ fables.” – 1st Timothy 4:7

Every one is more or less familiar with the story of a female pope, which runs thus: Pope Leo IV died in 855, and in the catalogue of Popes Benedict III appears as his successor. This, claim the Joan story-tellers, is incorrect; for between Leo and Benedict the papal throne was for more than two years occupied by a woman. Her name is not permitted to appear in the list of popes, for the reason that historians devoted to the interests of the church desired to throw the veil of oblivion over so sacrilegious a scandal, and here, say they, is the true account of the affair.

On the death of Leo IV the clergy and people of Rome met to elect his successor, and they chose a young priest, a comparative stranger in Rome, who during his short residence there had acquired an immense reputation for learning and virtue, and who, on becoming pope, assumed the name of John VII, or, according to some, John VIII. (And it was the most convenient one to take. Before 855 there were seven popes named John, and at the period when the story began to spread there had been twenty-one.)

Now, the pope so elected was, in fact, a woman, the daughter of an English couple travelling in Germany. She was born in Fulda, where she grew up and was well educated. Disguised as a man, she entered the monastery at Fulda, where she remained undiscovered for years, and from which she eventually eloped with a monk. They fled to England, thence to France and Italy, and finally to Greece. They were both profoundly versed in all the science of the day, and went to Athens to study the literature and language of that country. Here the monk died. Giovanna (her name was also Gilberta or Agnes, according to the fancy of the writer) then left Athens and went to Rome, where her reputation for learning and the fame of her virtue soon spread. She gave public lectures and disputations, to which she attracted immense crowds of hearers, all delighted with her exemplary piety and astonished at her matchless learning. All the students of Rome, and even professors, flocked to hear her. On the death of Leo, she was elected pope by the clergy and people of Rome from among many men pre-eminent for their learning and virtue. After governing with great wisdom for more than two years – there being not the slightest suspicion of her sex – she left the Vatican on a certain festival at the head of the clergy to walk in procession to the Lateran; but on the way was seized with the pains of labour, and in the open street, amid the astounded bishops and clergy and surrounding concourse of people, then and there gave birth to a child – and died.

It was then determined that the pontiff in procession that desecrated street, and a statue was placed on the spot to perpetuate the infamy of the fact, and a certain ceremony, minutely described, was ordained to be observed at the consecration of all future popes, in order to prevent the possibility of any similar scandal.

Of course there are numerous versions of the narrative, infinitely varied in every detail, as is apt to be the case with any story starting from no place or person in particular and contributed to by everybody in general.

As told, this incident is supposed to fill every polemical Protestant with delight, and to fill convicted Catholics with what Carlyle calls “astonishment and unknown pangs”.

Now, granting every tittle of the story as related to be true, we see no good reason for delight on one side nor pangs on the other. We repeat, conceding its entire truth, there is nothing in the story that necessarily entails injury or disgrace on the Catholic Church. Why should it? Catholic morality and doctrine no not depend upon the personal qualities of popes. In this case, supposing the story true, who was elected pope? A man – as all concerned honestly believed – of acknowledged learning and virtue. There is no intrigue, no improper influence; and those who elected him had no shame in the imposture, but were victims, not the participators, of the deceit practised. The cunning and the imposture were all hers, and her crime consisted, not in being delivered in the streets, but in not have lived chastely. True, it was a scandalous accident; but the scandal could not add to the original immorality of which, in all the world, but two persons were guilty, and guilty in secret – for there is no pretence, in all the versions, that the outward life of the pretended she-pope was otherwise than blameless and even edifying. Those who elected her were totally ignorant of her sex – an ignorance entirely excusable – an error of fact brought about by artful imposture. To their honor be it said, that they recognized in their choice the sole merits of piety and learning, and wished to reward them.

But a female pope was once the head of the church! Dreadful reproach to come from those who call themselves Reformed, Evangelical, and Puritans, who have not only tolerated but established, even forced some queens and princesses to declare themselves Head of the Church or Defender of the Faith in their own denominations, and dispose of church dignities and benefices, and order other matters ecclesiastical according to their personal will and pleasure.

Let us now look into the story and examine the testimony on which it is founded. The popess is said to have reigned two years and more. Rome was then the greatest city and the very centre of the civilized world, and always full of strangers from all parts of the earth. The catastrophe of the discovery brought about by the street delivery took place under the eyes of a vast multitude of people, and must have been known on the same day to the entire city before the sun had set. An event so strange, so romantic, so astounding, so scandalous, concerning the most exalted personage in the world, must surely have been written about or chronicled by the Italians who were there, and reported by letter or word of mouth by foreigners to their friends at home, and found its way from a thousand sources into the writings of the time; for it must be remembered the pope, of all living men, was of especial interest to the class who at that period were in the habit of writing. Such testimony as this, being the evidence of eye-witnesses, would be the highest testimony, and would settle the fact beyond dispute. Where is it? Silence profound in our only answer. Nothing of the kind is on the record of that period. Ah! then in that case we must suppose the matter to have been temporarily hushed up, and we will consent to receive accounts written ten, twenty – well, we’ll not haggle about a score or two – of even fifty years later. Silence again! Not a scrap, not a solitary line can be found.

And so we travel through all the history which learning and industry have been able to rescue from the records of the past down to the end of the ninth century, and find the same unbroken silence.

We must then go to the tenth century, where the murder will surely out. Silence again, deep and profound, through all the long years from 900 to 1000, and all is blank as before!

And now we again go on beyond another half-century, still void of all mention of Pope Joan, until we reach the year 1058, just two hundred and three years after the assigned Joanide.

In that year a monk, Marianus Scotus, of the monastery of Fulda, commenced a universal chronicle, which was terminated in 1083. Somewhere between these dates, in recording the events of 855, he is said to have written, “Leo the Pope died on the 1st of August. To him succeeded John, who was a woman, and sat for two years, five months, and four days.” Only this and nothing more. Not a word of her age, origin, qualities, or circumstances of her death. So far it is not much of a story; but little by little, link by link, line by line, like unto the veridical and melodious narrative of The House that Jack built, we’ll contrive to make a good story of it yet.

The statement first appears in Marianus. So much is certain. For during the 17th century, when the Joan controversy raged, and cart-loads of books and pamphlets were written on the subject – a mere list o the titles of which would exceed the limits of this article – every library and collection in Europe was ransacked with the furious industry of which a polemic writer is alone capable, for every – even the smallest – fragment or thread connected with this subject. Nevertheless, this ransacking was neither so thorough nor so successful as during the present century; for as the learned Döllinger states, “it is only within forty years that all European collections of mediaeval manuscripts have been investigated with unprecedented care, every library, nook and corner thoroughly searched, and a surprising quantity of hitherto unknown historical documents brought to light.”

Comparing the so-called statement of Marianus with the latest sensational and circumstantial relation, it is plain that the story did not, like Minerva, spring full-armed into life, but that it is the result of a long and gradual growth, fostered by the genius of a long series of inventive chroniclers.

But where id the monk of Fulda get the story? Ah, here is an interesting episode. His chronicle was first printed at Basle (1559) from the text known as the Latomus manuscript. Its editor was John Herold, a Calvinist of note, who, in printing the passage in question, quietly left out the words of the original, “ut asseritur” – that is to say, “as report goes,” or “believe it who will” – thus changing the chronicler’s hearsay to a direct and positive assertion.

But the testimony o the Marianus chronicle comes to still greater grief. And here a word of explanation. The original manuscript of Marianus is not known to exist, but we have numerous copies of it, the respective ages of which are well ascertained. Döllinger mentions two of them well known in Germany to be the oldest in existence, in which not a word concerning the popess can be found. The copy in which it is found is of 1513, and the explanation as to its appearance there is simple. The passage in question was doubtless put in the margin by some ready or copyist, and be some later copyist inserted in the text. And so we return to the original dark silence in which we started.

A feeble attempt was made to claim that Sigbert of Gembloux, who died in 1113, had recorded the story; but it was triumphantly demonstrated that it was first added to his chronicle in an edition of 1513. The same attempt was made with Gottfried’s Pantheon and the chronicle of Otto von Freysingen, and also lamentably failed. In 1261 there died a certain Stephen of Bourbon, a French Dominican, who left a work in which he speaks of the popess, and says he got the statement from a chronicle which must have been that of Jean de Mailly, a brother Dominican.

To the year 1240 or 1250 may then be assigned, on the highest authority, the period when the Joan story first made its appearance in writing and in history – nearly four hundred years after its supposed date.

In 1261 an anonymous unedited chronicle, still preserved in the library of Saint Paul of Leipsic, state that “another false pope, name and date unknown, since she was a woman, as the Romans confess, of great beauty and learning, who concealed her sex and was elected pope. She became with child, and the demon in a consistory made the fact known to all by crying aloud to the pope:

“Papa Pater Patrum papissae pandito patrum,
Et tibi tunc edam de corpore quando recedam.”

Some chroniclers relate it differently, namely, that the pope undertook to exorcise a person possessed of an evil spirit, and on demanding of the devil when he would go out from the possessed person’s body, the evil one replied in Latin verses above given, that is to say, “O Pope! thou father of the fathers, declare the time of the pope’s parturition, and I will then tell you when I will go out from this body.”

The demon always was a fellow who had a keen eye for the fashions, and he appears to have indulged in alliterative Latin poetry precisely at the period when that sort of literary trifling was most in vogue among scholars who recreated themselves with such lines as

“Ruderibus rejectis Rufus Festus fieri fecit;”

or

“Roma Ruet Romuli Ferro Flammaque Fameque.”

A few years later, Martinus Polaccus or Polonus, Martin the Pole, who died in 1278, the author of a chronicle of popes and emperors down to 1207, says, “John of England, by nation of Mayence, sat 2 years, 5 months, and 4 days. It is said that this pope was a women.” The chronicle of Polonus is merely a synchronistic history o the popes and emperors in the form of dry biographical notices. Nevertheless, from the fact that he had lived many years in Rome and was intimate with the papal court his book had, to use a modern phrase, an immense run. It was translated into all the principal languages, and more extensively copied than any chronicle then existing. The number of copies (manuscript) still in existence far exceeds that of any other work of the kind, and this fact suggests an important reflection. Great stress is laid by some writers on the multitude of witnesses for Joan. But the multitude does not increase the proof when they but repeat one another, and they suspiciously testify in nearly the same words. “The advocates for Pope Joan,” says Gibbon, “produce one hundred and fifty witnesses, or rather echoes, of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. They bear testimony against themselves and the legend by multiplying the proof that so curious a story must have been repeated by writers of every description to whom it was known.”

(The tradition concerning the resignation of Pope Cyriacus was also widely spread by the same chronicle. The story ran that Pope Cyriacus resigned the pontificate in the year 238, and first took its rise a thousand years after that date. It was pure fiction, and was connected with the legend of Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins. No such pope as Cyriacus ever existed.

The various versions that copy one another must necessarily bear a strong family likeness. Their number can add nothing to their value as proof, and is no more conclusive than the endeavor to establish the doubted existence of a man by a great variety of portraits of him, all – as Whately so well remarks in his Historic Doubts “all striking likenesses of each other.”

In this case the most ancient testimony is posterior to the claimed occurrence some four hundred years, and is utterly inconsistent with the indisputable facts related by contemporary authors. The erudite Launoy, in his treatise De Auctoritate Negantis Argumenti, lays down the rule that a fact of a public nature not mentioned by any writer within two hundred years of its supposed occurrence is not to be believed. This is the same Launoy who waged war on the legends of the saints, claiming that much fabulous matter had crept into them. On this account he was called “Denicheur des Saints” – the Saint hunter or router – and the Abbé of Saint Roch used to say, “I am always profoundly polite to Launoy, for fear he will deprive me of Saint Roch.” The general rule (Launoy’s) so important in historical criticism is in perfect harmony with a great and leading principle of jurisprudence. In the Pope Joan incident the silence of all the writers of that age as to so remarkable a circumstance is to be fairly received as a, prerogative argument (Baconian philosophy) when set up against the numerous modern repetitions of the story. It may be taken as a general rule that the silence of contemporaries is the strongest argument against the truth of any given historical assertion, particularly when the fact asserted is strange and interesting, and this for the reason that man is ever prone to believe and recount the marvelous; and in the absence of early evidence, the testimony of later times is, for the same reason, only weaker. Now this is in strict accordance with the principle of English common law, which demands the highest and rejects hearsay and secondary evidence; for scores of witnesses may depose in vain that they have heard of such a fact; the eyewitness is the prerogative instance. This is the logic of evidence.

And now we find that what happened to Marianus Scotus also befell Polonus. He was entirely innocent of any mention of Joan! Passage exists in none of the oldest copies, and is wanting in all that follow the author’s close and methodical plan of giving one line to each year of a pope’s reign, so that, with fifty lines to the page as he wrote, each page covered precisely half a century. This method is entirely broken up in those manuscripts which contain the passage concerning Joan, and the rage to get the passage in was such that in one copy (the Heidelberg manuscript) Benedict III is left out entirely and Joan put in his place. Dr Döllinger and the learned Bayle concur in the opinion that the passage never had any existence in the original work of Polonus.

And just at this juncture the testimony of Tolomeo di Lucca (1312) is important. He wrote an ecclesiastical history, and names the popess with the remark that in all the histories and chronicles known to him, Benedict III succeeded Leo IV. The author was noted for learning and industry, and must necessarily have consulted every available authority, and yet nowhere did he find mention of Joan but in Polonus. In 1283, a versified chronicle of Maerlandt (a Dutchman) mentions Joan: “I am neither clear nor certain whether it is a truth or a fable; mention of it in chronicles of the popes is uncommon.”

And now, as we advance into the 14th century, as manuscripts multiply and one chronicler copies another, mention of Joan increases; and successively and in due order, and the malt, the rat, the cat, the dog, and all the rest appear in turn to make perfect the nursery ditty, so the statue, the street, the ceremony, and all the remaining features of the story come gradually out, until we have it in full and detailed description, and our popular papal “House that Jack built” is complete.

Then we have Geoffroy of Courlon, a Benedictine (1295), Bernard Guidonis and Leo von Orvieto, both Dominicans (1311), John of Paris, Dominican (first half of 14th century), and several others, all of whom take the story from Polonus.

In 1306 we get the statue from Siegfried, who thus contributes his quota, “At Rome, in a certain spot of the city, is still shown her statue in pontifical dress, together with the image of her child cut in marble in a wall.” Bayle says that Thierry di Niem (15th century) “adds out of his own head” the statue. But it appears that it was referred to 23 years earlier than Siegfried by Maerlandt, who says that the story as we read it is cut in stone and can be seen any day:

“En daer leget soe, als wyt lesen
Noch also up ten Steen ghehouwen,
Dat Men ane daer mag scouwen.”

Amalric di Angier wrote in 1362, and adds to the story her “teaching three years at Rome.” Petrarch repeats the version of Polonus. Boccacio also relates it, and was the first who at that period asserted her name was not known.

Jacopo de Acqui (1370) says that she reigned nineteen years.

Aimery du Peyrat, abbot of Moissac, who compiled a chronicle in 1399, puts “Johannes Anglicus” in the list of popes with the remark, “Some say that she was a woman.”

In 1450, Martin le Franc, in his Champion des Dames, expresses surprise that Providence should have permitted such a scandal as to allow the church to be governed by a wicked women.

“Comment endura Dieu, comment
Que femme ribaulde et prestresse
Eut l’Eglise en gouvernement?”

Hallam (Literature of Europe) mentions as among the remarkable among the Fastnacht’s Spiele (carnival plays) of Germany the apotheosis of Pope Joan, a tragic-comic legend, written about 1480. Bouterwek, in his History of German Poetry, also mentions it.

In 1481, “to swell the dose,” as Bayle says, the stool feature of the story first comes in.

In the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 (Astor Library copy) Joan is put down as Joannes Septimus, and the page ornamented (?) with a wood-cut of a woman with a child in her arms. It relates that she gained the pontificate by evil arts, “malis artibus.”

IN the beginning of the same century there was seen a bust of Joan among the collection of busts o the popes in the cathedral at Sienna. And, more astonishing still, the story was related in the Mirabilia urbis Romae, a sort of guide-book for strangers and pilgrims visiting Rome, editions of which were constantly reprinted for a period of 80 years, down to 1550!

In the middle of the 15th century we find the story related at full length by Felix Hammerlain, and later by John Bale, then Bishop of Ossory, who afterward became a Protestant. He pretty well completes the tale.

According to Tolomeo di Lucca, the Joan story in 1312 was nowhere found but in some few copies of Polonus. Nevertheless, it is notorious at that time countless lists and historical tables of popes were in existence, in none of which was there any trace of the popess.

Suddenly we find extraordinary industry exercised in multiplying and spreading the copies of Polonus containing the story, and in inserting it in other chronicles that did not contain it. As the editors of the Histoire Litteraire de France aptly remark:

“Nous ne saurions nous expliquer comment il se fair que ce soit precisement dans les rangs de cette fidele milice du saint-siege que se rencontrent les propagateurs les plus naifs, et peut-etre les inventeurs, d’une histoire si injurieuse a la papaute.”

“We cannot understand how it is that, precisely among the ranks of the faithful soldiers of the holy see, we find the most credulous propagators and, perhaps, inventors of a story so injurious to the papacy.

Dr Döllinger answers this by stating that those who appeared to be most active in the matter were Dominicans and Minorites, particularly the former, (Sie waren es ja, besonders die ersten.) This is specially to be remarked under the primacy of Boniface VIII, who was no friend of either order. The Dominican historians were particularly severe in their judgments on Boniface in the matter of his difficulty with Philip the Fair, and appear to dwell with satisfaction upon this period of the weakened authority of the papal see.

In 1610, Alexander Cooke published in London, Pope Ioane, a Dialogue Betweene a Protestant and a Papist, manifestly prouing that a woman called Ioane was Pope of Rome: against the surmises and objections made to the contrarie, etc. Cooke has a preface, “To the Popish or Catholicke reader – chuse whether name thou hast a mind to”; which is very handsome indeed of Mr Cooke.

The papist in the Dialogue has a dreadful time of it from one end of the book to the other, and Gregory VII is effectually settled by calling him “that firebrand of hell”. Bayle grimly disposes of Cooke’s work thus: “It has been better for his cause if he had kept silence.”

Discussion of the story comes even down to this (late 19th) century. In 1843 and 1845 two works appeared in Holland, one, by Professor Kist to prove the existence of Joan; the other, by Professor Wensing, to refute Kist. In 1845 was also published a very able work by Bianchi-Giovini: Esame critico degli atti e Documenti relativi alla favola della Papissa Giovanna, di A Bianchi-Giovini, Milano.

It is doubtful if in all the annals of literature there exists a more remarkable case of pure fable growing, by small and slow degrees through several centuries, until, in the shape of a received fact, it finally lodges in serious history. Taking its rise no one knows where or how, full 400 years after the period assigned to it, and stated at first in the baldest and thinnest manner possible, it goes on from century to century, gathering consistence, detail, and incident; requiring three centuries for its completion, and finally comes out the sensational affair we have related. All stories gain in time and travel, scandalous stories most of all. These last are particularly robust and long-lived. They appear to enjoy a freedom amounting to immunity. Just as certain noxious and foul-smelling animals frequently owe their life to the unwillingness men have to expose themselves to contact with them, so such stories, looked upon at first as merely scandalous and too contemptible for serious refutation, acquire, through impunity, an importance that, in the end, makes them seriously annoying. Then, too, well-meaning people thoughtlessly accept reports and repeat statements that, through mere iteration, are supposed to be well-founded. Let anyone, be his or her experience ever so small, look around and see how fully this is exemplified every day in real life.

Moreover, there was no dearth of writers in the middle ages who used, to the extent of license, the liberty of criticizing and blaming the papacy. By all such, the Joan story was invariably put forward by way of illustration; and they appear to have gone on unchecked until it was found that the open enemies of the church began to avail themselves of the scandal.

In 1451, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pius II), in conference with the Taborites of Bohemia, denied the story, and told Nicholas, their bishop, that “even in placing thus this woman, there had been neither error of faith nor of right, but ignorance of fact”. Aventinus, in Germany, and Onuphrius Pauvenius, in Italy, staggered the popularity of the story. Attention once drawn to the subject, and investigation commenced, its weakness was soon apparent, and testimony soon accumulated to crush it.

Ado, Archbishop of Vienne, France, who was at Rome in 866, has left a chronicle in which he says that Benedict III succeeded immediately to Leo IV.

Prudentius, Bishop of Troyes at the same period, testifies to the same fact.

In 855, the assigned Joanide period, there were in Rome four individuals who afterward successively became popes under the names Benedict III, Nicholas I, Adrian II, and John VIII. During the pretended papacy of Joan, these men were all either priests or deacons, and must have taken part in her election, and have been present at the catastrophe. Of all these popes there exist many and various writings, but not a word concerning the popess. On the contrary, they all represent Benedict III to have succeeded Leo IV.

Lupo, Abbot of Ferrieres, in a letter to Pope Benedict, says that he, the abbot, had been kindly received at Rome by his predecessor – Leo IV.

In a council held at Rome, in 1863, under Nicholas I, the pontiff speaks of his predecessors Leo and Benedict.

Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims, writing to Nicholas I, says that certain messengers sent by him to Leo IV had been met on their journey by news of that pontiff’s death, and had, on their arrival at Rome, found Benedict on the throne. Ten other contemporary writers are cited who all testify to the same immediate succession, and afford not the slightest hint of any story or tradition that can throw the least light on that of the female pope. “The time of Pope Joan,” says Gibbon, “is placed somewhat earlier than Theodora or Marozia; and the two years of her imaginary reign are forcibly inserted between Leo IV and Benedict III. But the contemporary Anastasius indissolubly links the death of Leo and the elevation of Benedict; and the accurate chronology of Pagi, Muratori, and Leibnitz fixes both events to the year 857.”

But there is no smoke without fire, it is said, and the wildest stories must have some cause, if not foundation. Let us see. Competent critics find the story to be a satire on John VIII. “Ob nimian ejus animi facilitatem et mollitudinem,” says Baronius, particularly in the affair with Photius, by whom John had suffered himself to be imposed upon. Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, was known to be a half-man, and yet so cunning as to over-reach John. Therefore, they said John was a woman, called him Joanna, instead of Joannes, that tone of butter raillery constantly indulged in by the Roman Pasquins and Marforios, and this raillery, naturally enough, in course o time came to be taken for truth.

And again: Pope John X, elected in 914, was said to have been raised by the power and influence of Theodora, a women of talent and unscrupulous intrigue. In 931, John, the son of Marozia and Duke Alberic, and grandson of Theodora, was said to be a mere puppet in the hands of his mother. “Their reign,” (Theodora and Marozia) says Gibbon, “may have suggested to the darker ages the fable of a female pope.”

Again, in 956, a grandson of the same Marozia was raised to the papal chair as John XII. He renounced the dress and decencies of his profession, and his life was so scandalous that he was degraded by a synod. Onuphrius Pauvinius and Liutprand are quoted to show that a woman, Joan, had such influence over him that he loaded her with riches. She is said to have died in child-bed. (At this period the church was as yet without the advantage of the great reform effected by Gregory VII in 1073, and the choice of a pope by the bishops or cardinals was ratified or rejected by the Roman people who were, too often at that time, the dupes or tools of such men as the marquises of Tuscany and the counts of Tusculum who, says Gibbon, “held the apostolic see in a long and disgraceful servitude.”)

Long series of years preceding and following these events were anything but times of pleasantness and peace to the successors to Saint Peter. Even Gibbon says, “The Roman pontiffs of the 9th and 10th centuries were insulted, imprisoned and murdered by their tyrants, and such was their indigence, after the loss and usurpation of the ecclesiastical patrimonies, that they could neither support the state of a prince nor exercise the charity of a priest.”

Now, with such materials as these, a Pope Joan story is easily constructed; for, with the license of speech that has always existed in Rome in the form of pasquinades, it is more than likely to have been satirically remarked by the Romans under one or all of the three popes John, that Rome had a popess instead of a pope, and that the chair of Saint Peter was virtually occupied by a female. These things would be repeated from mouth to mouth by men who, according to their temper and ability, would comment on them with bitter scoff, irreverent comment, snarling sneer, or ribald leer, and they might readily have been received as matter of fact assertions by German and other strangers in Rome.

Carried home and spread by wandering monks and soldiers, it is only wonderful that they did not sooner come to the surface in some such fable as the one under consideration. Diffused among the people, and acquiring a certain degree of consistency by dint of repetition through two centuries, it finally reached the ear of the individual who inserted it in the Marianus chronicle in the for of an on dit, and so he put it down “ut asseritur” – “they say”.

Certain it is that no such story was known in Italy until it was spread from German chroniclers, and the absurdity was too monstrous to pass into contemporary history even in a foreign country.

But, it is answered, by Coeffetau and others, we do not hear of it for so many years afterward because the church exerted its omnipotent authority to hush up the story. There needs but slight knowledge of human nature to decide that such an attempt would have only served to spread and intensify the scandal. As Bayle wisely remarks, “People do not so expose their authority by prohibitions which are not of a nature to be observed, and which, so far from shutting their mouth, rather excite an itching desire to speak.”

Then, too, it is claimed that for a period of several hundred years after 855, writers and chroniclers, by agreement, tacit or express, not only maintained a profound silence on the subject of the scandal, but, in all Christian countries of the world, conspired to altar the order of papal succession, forge chronicles, and falsify historical records. And yet those who use their argument tell us that in the city of Rome, under papal authority, a statue was erected, an order issued, turning aside processions from their time-consecrated itinerary, and customs as remarkable for their indecency as their novelty were introduced, in order to perpetuate the memory of the very same events tyrannical edicts were issued to conceal and blot out! Comment is not needed.

The total silence of contemporary writers, and the immense chasm of two hundred years (taking the earliest date claimed) between the event and its first mention, was, of course, found fatal. Consequently, an attempt was made to prop up the story by assertion that it was chronicled by Anastasius the Librarian, who lived in Rome at the alleged Joannic period, was present at the election of all the popes from 844 to 882, and must, therefore, have been a witness of the catastrophe of 855. The testimony of such a witness would certainly be valuable – indeed, irrefutable. Accordingly, a manuscript of the 14th century, a copy of the Anastasian manuscript, was produced in which mention was made of Pope Joan. But this mention was attended with three suspicious circumstances. First, it was qualified by an “ut dicitur”, that is, “as is said”. Anastasius would scarcely need an on dit to qualify his own testimony concerning an event that took place under his own eyes, and must have morally convulsed all Rome. Secondly, it was not in the text, but in a marginal note. Thirdly, and fatally, the entire sentence was in the very words of the Polonus chronicle. Naturally enough, it was found singular that Anastasius, writing in the 9th century, should use the identical phrasing of Polonus was was posterior to him by 400 years.

But, in addition t these reasons, Anastasius gives a circumstantial account of the election of Benedict III to succeed Leo IV, absolutely filling up the space needed for Joan. In view of all which the critical Bayle is moved to exclaim, “Therefore I say what relates to this woman (Joan) is spurious, and comes from another hand.” A zealous Protestant, Sarrurius, writes to his co-religionist, Salmasius (the same who had a controversy with Milton), after examining the Anastasian manuscript, “The story of the she-pope has been tacked to it by one who had misused his time.” And Gibbon says, “A most palpable forgery is the passage of Pope Joan which has been foisted into some manuscripts and editions of the Roman Anastasius.”

With regard to the early chronicle manuscript, it must be borne in mind that it was common for their readers (owners) to write additions in the margin. A professional copyist – the publisher of those days – usually incorporated the marginal notes with the text. Books were then, of course, dear and scarce, and readers frequently put in the margin the supplements another book would furnish them, rather than buy two books. Then again – for men are alike in all ages – those who purchased valuable books wanted, as they want today, the fullest edition, with all the latest emendations. So a chronicle with the Joan story would always be more saleable than one without it.

But one of the strongest presumptions against the truth of the story is seen in the profound silence of the Greek writers of the period (9th to 15th century). All of them who sided with Photius were bitterly hostile to Rome, and the question of the supremacy of the pope was precisely the vital one between Rome and Constantinople. They would have been only too glad to get hold of such a scandal. Numbers of Greeks were in Rome in 855, and if such a catastrophe as the Joanine had occurred, they must have known it. “On writers of the 9th and 10th centuries,” says Gibbon, “the recent event would have flashed with a double force. Would Photius have spared such a reproach? Would Liutprand have missed such a scandal?”

We have disposed of the absurdity o the supposition that the power and discipline of the church were so great as to enforce secrecy concerning the Joan affair. But – even granting the truth of this assertion – that power and discipline would avail naught with strangers who were Greeks and schismatics. In 863, only eight years after the alleged Joanide, the Greek schism broke out under Photius, who was excommunicated by Nicholas I. There was no period from 855 to 863 when there were not numbers of Greeks in the city o Rome – learned Greeks, too. Many of them agreed with Photius, who claimed that the transfer of the imperial residence, by the emperors, from Rome to Constantinople, at the same time transferred the primacy and its privileges. Yet not only can no allusion to any such story be found in any Greek writer of that century, but there is found in Photius himself no less than three distinct and positive assertions that Benedict III succeeded Leo IV.

The Greek schism became permanent in 1053 under Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, who undertook to excommunicate the legates of the pope. With Cerularius, as with Photius, the papal supremacy was the main question, and neither he nor Photius would have failed to make capital of the Joan fable, had they ever heard of it. So also with all the Byzantine writers, and they were numerous. It was not until the 15th century that the first mention of the story was made by one of them (Chalcocondylas), an Athenian of the 15th century who, in his De Rebus Turcicis, states the case very singularly: “Formerly a woman was in the papal chair, her sex not being manifest, because the men in Italy, and indeed in all countries of the West, are closely shaved.” It is true that Barlaam, a Greek writer, mentioned it in the 14th century, but Barlaam was living in Italy when he wrote his book.

And now, as we reach the so-called Reformation period, we find the tale invested with a value and important it had never before assumed. It was kept constantly on active duty without relief, and compelled to do fatiguing service in a thousand controversial battles and skirmishes. Angry and over-zealous Protestants found it a hand thing to have in their polemical house. And, although the more judicious cared not to use it, the story was generally retained. Spanheim and Lenfant endeavored to think it a worthy weapon, and even Mosheim affects to cherish suspicion as to its falsity. Jewell, one of Elizabeth’s bishops (1560) seriously, and with great show of learning, espoused Joan’s claims to existence.

Nor were answers wanting; and including those who had previously written on the subject, it was fully confuted by Aventinus, Onuphrius Pauvinius, Bellarmine, Serrarius, George Sherer, Robert Parsons, Florimond de Remond, Allatius, and many others.

The first Protestant to cast doubt on the fable was David Blondel. A minister of the Reformed Church, Professor of History at Amsterdam, in 1630 he was held by his co-religionists to be a prodigy of learning in languages, theology, and ecclesiastical history. In his Pable de la Papesse Jeanne, with invicible logic and an intelligent application of the true canons of historical criticism, he demonstrates the absence of foundation for the story, the tottering and stuttering weakness of its early years, the suspicions which stand around its cradle; and instead of disputing how far the Pope Joan story was believed or credited in this or that century, shows that by her own contemporaries she was never heard of at all; the whole story being, he says, “an inlaid piece of work embellished with time.” Blondel was bitterly assailed by all sections of Protestantism, and accused of “bribery and corruption,” the question being asked, “How much has the pope given him?” Blondel’s work brought out a crowd of writers in defense o Joan, foremost among whom was the Protestant Des Marets or Maresius, whose labours in turn called out the Cenotaphium Papessae Joannae by the learned Jesuit Labbe, the celebrity of whose name drew forth a phalanx of writers in reply.

But the worst for Joanna was yet to come. Another Protestant, undeterred by the abuse showered upon Blondel, gave Joan her coup de grace. This was the learned Bayle, who, with rigid and judicial impartiality, sums up the essence of all that had been advanced on either side, and shows unanswerably the altogether insufficient grounds on which the entire story rests. More was not needed. Nevertheless, Eckhard and Leibnitz followed Bayle in the extinguishing process, and made it disreputable for any scholar of respectability to advocate the convicted falsehood.

There was no dearth of other Protestant protests against Joan. Casaubon, the most learned of the so-called reformers, laughed at the fable. So did Thuanus. Justis Lipsius said of it, “Revera fabella est haud longe ab audacia et ineptis poetarum.” (“In truth, it is a fable not much differing from the boldness and silly stories of the poets.”) Schookius, professor at Groningem, totally disbelieved it. Dr Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, said, “I don’t believe the history of Pope Joan,” and gives his reasons. So, also, Dr Bristow. Very pertinent was the reflection of Jurieu ( fanatical Protestant if ever there was one – the same noted for his controversy with Bayle, who was a “friend of the family” – so much so, indeed, as to cause the remark that Jurieu discovered many hidden things in the Apocalypse, but could not see what was going on in his own household), in his Apology for the Reformation, “I don’t think we are much concerned to prove the truth of this story of Pope Joan.”

The erudite Anglican, Dr Cave, says, “Nothing helped more to make that Chronicle (Polonus) famous than the much talked of fable of Pope Joan. For my own part, I am thoroughly convinced that it is a mere fable, and that it has been thrust into Martin’s chronicle, especially since it is wanting in most of the old manuscripts.”

Hallam calls it a fable. Ranke passes it over in contempuous silence. So also does Sismondi; and Gibbon fairly pulverizes it with scorn.

A favourite polemical arsenal for Episcopalians is found in the works of Jewell, so-called Bishop of Salisbury. Let them be warned against leaning on him concerning the Joan story. Listen how quietly yet how effectually both Joan and Jewell are disposed of by Henry Hart Milman, D.D., Dean of Saint Paul’s, in his History of Latin Christianity: “The eight years of Leo’s papacy were chiefly occupied in restoring the plundered and desecrated churches of the two apostles, and adorning Rome.

The succession to Leo IV was contested between Benedict III, who commanded the suffrages of the clergy and people, and Anastasius, who, at the head of an armed faction, seized the Lateran (September 855), stripped Benedict of his pontifical robes, and awaited the confirmation of his violent ursurpation by the imperial legates, whose influence he thought he had secured. But the commissioners, after strict investigation, decided in favour of Benedict. Anastasius was expelled with disgrace from the Lateran, and his rival consecrated in the presence of the emperor’s representatives.” (29 September 855) Like Ranke, Milman also passes over the Joan story with contemptuous silence.

In his Papst-Fabeln des Mittelalters, the learned Dr Döllinger has exhausted the erudition of the subject, and not only demonstrated the utter unworthiness of the invention, but – what is for the first time done by him – points out the causes or sources of all the separate portions of the narrative. Thus, the statue story arose from the fact that in the same street in which was found a grace or monumental stone, of the inscription on which the letters P.P.P. could be deciphered, there was also seen a statue of a man or women with a child. It was simply an ancient statue of a heathen priest, with an attendant boy holding in his hand a palm-leaf. The P.P.P. on the grave-stone, as all antiquarians agreed, merely stood for Propria Pecunia Posuit (erected at his own expense); but as the marvellous only was sought for, the three P’s were first cooly duplicated and then made to stand for the words of the line already referred to – Papa Patrum, etc. – much in the same way as Mr Johnathan Oldbuck insisted that A.D.L.L., on a utensil of imaginary antiquity he had found, stood for Agricola Dicivit Libens Lubens when it actually meant Aiken Drum’s Lang Landle.

The controversy concerning the existence of Joan may be considered as long since substantially closed, and Joan, or Agnes, or Gilberta, or Ione as she is called in English (London, 1612) edition of Philip Morney’s Mysterie of Iniquitie, to stand convicted as an impostor, or, more properly speaking, a non-entity. Her story is long since banished from all respectable society, although it contrives to keep up a disreputable and precarious existence in the outskirts and waste places of vagrant literature. We are even informed that it may be found printed under the auspices and sponsorship of societies and individuals considered respectable. If this be true, it is for their sakes to be regretted; and we beg leave severally to admonish the societies and individuals in question, in the words of the apostle: “Avoid foolish and old wives’ fables: and exercise thyself to piety.”

– from the April 1869 edition of The Catholic World, author not listed