The Legend of Pope Joan, by Father Bertrand L Conway, CSP

The Lie of Pope JoanOne of the most common historical questions deposited in the Question Box during our missions to non-Catholics is the following: Was there not in the ninth century a female Pope? Time and time again has this fable been refuted, but like all fables calculated to discredit the Holy See, it is still part of the stock-in-trade of the unscholarly and unscrupulous anti-Catholic lecturer and writer. We propose in the present article to give a brief summary of a most detailed and thorough account of the origin, development, and falsity of this legend, which the Abbe Felix Vernet of the University of Lyons has lately written for the Dictionnaire Apologetique de la Foi Catholique.

It is now generally admitted by critical historians that the earliest authentic document referring to Pope Joan dates from the thirteenth century. The earlier texts such as the Liber Pontificalis (ninth century), Marianus Scotus (+1086), Sigeburt of Gembloux (+1112), Otto of Friesingen (+1158), Richard of Poitiers (c.1174), Godfrey of Viterbo (+1191), and Gervaise of Tillbury (c.1211) have all been proved interpolations of later centuries. The first four authentic references are John de Mailley’s Chronicle of Metz (c.1250), the De Diversis Materiis of Stephen de Bourbon (c.1261), the Chronica Minor of a Franciscan of Erfurt (1261), and the Chronicle of the Roman Pontiffs of Martin of Troppau (Polonus, 1279). The Abbe Vernet divides these eleven texts into two groups, the first dependent on the chronicle of Metz, and the second on the chronicle of Martin of Troppau. Each group gives a different version of the legend.

Group I – The chronicle of Metz puts the story tentatively as follows: “Query. With regard to a certain Pope, or Popess, because she was a woman who pretended to be a man. On account of his ability, he became in turn notary of the Curia, Cardinal, and Pope. One day while he was riding, he gave birth to a child. According to the Roman law, his feet were tied together, and he was dragged at a horse’s tail for half a league, while the people stoned him. He was buried on the spot where he died, and this inscription set up:

Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Par turn.
(“Peter, Father of Fathers, reveal the childbirth of the Popess.”)

During his pontificate the fast of the Ember Days, called the Popess’ fast, was instituted.” This account is recorded after the Pontificate of Victor III, who died in 1087.

Stephen of Bourbon adds but two details, viz., that she came to Rome from some other city, and that she became Cardinal and Pope by the devil’s aid. His inscription puts Parce in place of Petre, and Prodere in place of Prodito. He dates the event in 1100. The Franciscan of Erfurt briefly recites the same story, adding that the Popess was a beautiful woman, and that the devil himself revealed the fact that she was with child. He places the event in 915.

Group II – The popular medireval chronicle of Martin of Troppau (Polonus) is the origin of all the interpolated accounts of the female Pope in the Liber Pontificalis, Marianus Scotus, Sigeburt of Gembloux, Otto of Friesingen, Godfrey of Viterbo, and Gervaise of Tillbury.

According to Martin, Pope Joan succeeded Leo IV, who died in 855. His account runs as follows:

After the aforesaid Leo, John, an Englishman by descent, who came from Mainz, held the see two years, five months and four days, and the pontificate was vacant one month. He died at Rome. He, it is asserted, was a woman while Pope she became pregnant. But not knowing the time of her delivery, while going from Saint Peter’s to the Lateran, being taken in labor, she brought forth a child between the Coliseum and Saint Clement’s Church. And afterwards dying she was, it is said, buried in that place. And because the Lord Pope always turns aside from that way, there are some who are fully persuaded that it is done in detestation of the fact.

The interpolator of the Liber Pontificalis gives her reign as two years, one month and four days, while the author of the account in Marianus Scotus agrees with Martin of Troppau. The chronicle of Otto of Friesingen makes Pope John VII the female Pope, thus assigning the date 705. Perhaps he realized the impossibility of putting in Pope Joan between Leo IV and Benedict III.

How did the legend originate? At least ten different theories have been put forward since the seventeenth century to account for this legend, but the majority of them are most arbitrary and improbable.

  • Leo Allatius believed that the people made a Pope out of a pseudo-prophetess, Thiota, condemned by the Synod of Mainz in 847
  • Leibnitz held that a woman had been bishop once of some see outside of Rome
  • Blasco considered the legend an allegorical satire on the False Decretals
  • Suares, Bishop of Vaison, traced the legend to the wife of the anti-Pope, Pierre de Corbiere (1328)
  • Baronius thought the weakness of John VIII in dealing with Photius led the people to call him in mockery the woman Pope, and that the legend arose from a later chronicler taking the term literally
  • Wouters held a similar theory with regard to John VII and his dealings with the Council in Trullo (692)
  • Secchi considered the legend a mere fabrication of the Greeks at the time of the Photian schism

All these hypotheses are ruled out of court by the Abbe Vernet, who proposes three probable explanations.

  • Bellarmine in his treatise on the Pope mentions the letter of Pope Leo IX to Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, which protested against the consecration of eunuchs to the episcopate, and alluded to a rumor which had reached him that a woman had once been Patriarch. This letter proves conclusively that in 1054 the legend of the female Pope had not as yet arisen, otherwise the Greeks could easily have retorted by a tu quoque. The Abbe Lapotre and E. Bernheim both call attention to the tenth century Chronicon Salernitaniuii, which relates this story of the woman patriarch of Constantinople, and both see in it the germ of the legend of Pope Joan.
  • In the tenth century Rome was practically ruled by Theodora, wife of Theophylact, and her two daughters Marozia and Theodora. The four Popes named John, John X (+929), John XI (+936), John XII (+964), John XIII (+972), who reigned at this time were so dominated by them that it is easy to imagine the people saying: “We have women for Popes.” The Abbe Lapotre quotes a chronicle of Benedict of Saint Andrew, used by Martin of Troppau, which says that under John XI, Rome ” fell into the power of a woman (Marozia), and was governed by her.” Such a document, he adds, might easily account for the origin of the legend that a woman had really occupied the Holy See. He believes that his hypothesis is confirmed by the fact that the name Johanna is the feminine of John, and that Joan became Pope between a Leo and a Benedict. We know that Pope John XII was deposed by a Council held at Saint Peter’s under the patronage of the Emperor Otho, and was replaced by Leo VIII. Once Otho departed from Rome, John XII returned, and in a Council at the Lateran. he condemned Leo VIII and his adherents. At his death, 14 May 964, the Romans, passing over Leo VIII, chose Benedict V Pope.
  • It is certain that as late as the fifteenth century, there was a statue of a pagan goddess with a child in a narrow Roman street near Saint Clement’s Church on the way to the Lateran. This statue was removed to the Quirinal by Sixtus V, probably on account of the legends centring about it. This statue bore an inscription consisting of five letters, P. P. P. P. P. Lelievre, in the Revue des Questions Historiques interprets it as follows:

    Pater Patrum (a priest of Mithra)
    Propria Pecunia Posuit (erected this monument at his own expense).

    The populace, having a vague notion of a female Pope, deduced either from the woman Patriarch of Constantinople or the dominance of Marozia in the Rome of the tenth century, were not satisfied with this simple explanation, but interpreted these letters in the way we find recorded in the chronicle of Metz, viz.:

    Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum.

    When the Popes went in solemn procession from Saint Peter’s to the Lateran, they avoided passing along the street which leads from the Coliseum to Saint Clement’s. Some concluded that they did so out of very shame, because the statue of Pope Joan stood there, whereas the real reason was the extreme narrowness of the street.

It is interesting to note the variations of the legend in the course of history. While the main source of the two particular stories may be readily traced in every case, each writer seems to feel perfectly free to make additions and changes at will. In 1260 a Franciscan tells us in his Flores Temporum that the Popess was called John of England, although as a matter of fact she came from Mainz. We see at once the chronicler’s evident desire to reconcile the two contradictory accounts of Joan’s birth. In the main, he follows the text of Martin of Troppau, though he differs from him in a few details.

Boccaccio, in his De Claris Mnlieribus (+1375), makes the Popess a German named Gilberta. She studied in England, and succeeded, by the devil’s power, in becoming Pope.

Another variation of the legend by an unknown author relates that Joan was deposed, became a religious, and lived until her son became Bishop of Ostia. She wanted to be buried in the street, the Vicus Papissa, where her child had been born, but this was refused, and she was buried at Ostia.

Doellinger published a manuscript of the fourteenth century which declared that the Popess was named Glancia, and came from Thessaly. She became Pope under the name of Jutta and not John.

John Huss called the Popess Agnes, as we read in his fourteenth proposition, “The Church has been deceived in the person of (Popess) Agnes.” No one objected to this thesis at the time, for the fable of Pope Joan was generally admitted.

The legend in its various forms was very commonly believed for the three hundred years preceding the Reformation. Lenfant cites one hundred and fifty writers who mention it, and he does not enumerate them all. It was exploited by John Huss and William Occam, and by Gerson and his Gallican followers.

Martin of Troppau, the source from whom so many drew their versions of the legend, was the penitentiarius of five Popes. The Augustinian, Amaury d’Augier, chaplain of Urban V, made Joan the one hundred and tenth Pope, and Platina, the librarian of the Holy See under Sixtus IV, put her after Leo IV as the one hundred and sixth Pope. When the portraits of the Popes were placed in the Cathedral of Siena in 1400, the portrait of Pope Joan figured among them, despite the fact that Pius II, Pius III, and Marcellus II had been Archbishops of Siena. Her portrait was finally removed by the Grand Duke of Tuscany at the instance of Clement VIII, who substituted Pope Zachary (+752).

John de Torquemada and Adrian of Utrecht, afterwards Pope Adrian VI, admitted the legend without question, and Saint Antoninus of Florence, while doubting it himself, dared not come out openly against it. In fact, there is not a chronicle of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, published in Italy under the eyes of the Popes, which does not mention the existence of Pope Joan.

Since the Reformation, Protestant controversialists have often spoken of “the Popess Joan as the eternal shame of the Papacy.” The Centuriators of Magdebourg record it three times. We find it mentioned by a court preacher, Polycarp Leiser, Luke Osiander (1583), Samuel Huner (1596), Aretius of Berne (1574), Spanheim (1691), Lenfant (1736), etc. Lenfant’s Histoire de la Papesse Jeanne, published at Cologne in 1694, gives the legend in all its details.

Before the Reformation we find few Catholics questioning the fable of Pope Joan. The only ones that spoke in a hesitating manner were James de Maerlant (1300), the anonymous author of a life of Urban V, published by Baluze, Aeneas Piccolomini afterwards Pius II, Saint Antoninus of Florence, and Plantina in his Lives of the Popes. They had so small a following that the Franciscan Rioche declared that their denials went counter to the general opinion of Christendom.

One of the first to deny it emphatically was John Thurmayer, (Aventinus) in his Annales Boiorum (1554). He was not much of a Catholic, for Bayle calls him “a good Lutheran in disguise,” and his book was put on the Index of 1564. In 1568, Onofrio Panvinio devoted three pages of his edition of Platina’s Lives of the Popes to refute the legend, which, de Laval (1611) says, were sufficient to convince Protestants like Casaubon and de Thou. Bellarmine made use of the proofs of Panvinio in his De Romano Pontifice. The most complete refutation of the fable came from the pen of Florimond de Remond, a member of the French Parliament from Bordeaux. His book, The Anti-Christ and the Anti-Pope, although declamatory and full of digressions, showed clearly the inherent contradictions of the legend and its utter improbability. Baronius inserted a summary of it in his Annals.

Bayle in his Dictionary tells us that in the seventeenth century a number of Protestants began to deny this legend. Among them were Chamier, Dumonlin, Bochart, and particularly David Blondel (+1655). Two pamphlets by the last-named writer caused quite a stir among Protestant polemists, some of whom, like Spanheim and Lenfant, made a most strenuous effort to exploit the legend in the interests of Protestantism. The famous Leibnitz wrote against Spanheim, and Bayle in his Dictionary gave the story its quietus forever in the world of scholars. The eighteenth century rationalists took their cue from Bayle, as we may read in Voltaire. Among scholars to-day the legend is unanimously rejected.

The one argument conclusive against the fable of Pope Joan is the chronological argument. All the dates given for her pontificate are not only mutually contradictory, but are assigned to some other well-known Pope. The most commonly given date in the legend is 855, between Popes Leo IV and Benedict III. We know that Leo IV died 17 July 855, and that Benedict III was elected Pope a few days afterwards. On September 21st he was expelled from Rome by an anti-Pope, but returned soon after, took possession of his see, and was consecrated in the presence of the Emperor’s legates on September 29th. He was Pope until April, 858, as Garampi has shown in his dissertation, On the Silver Coin of Benedict III (Rome, 1749). Pope Nicholas I was consecrated on 24 April 858, so that we have only ten weeks unaccounted for in the interval between Leo IV and Nicholas I. It is impossible to locate in this century the so-called two years pontificate of Pope Joan. The other dates assigned – 915, 1087, and 1100 – are likewise historically impossible.

– the text of this e-book was first published in the September 1914 edition of The Catholic World