Help support New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download or CD-ROM. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
The first who appears to have had cognizance of it was the Dominican chronicler Jean de Mailly (Archiv der Gesellschaft fur altere deutsche Geschichte, xii, 17 sq., 469 sq.) from whom another Dominican, Etienne de Bourbon (d. 1261), adopted the tale into his work on the "Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost."
In this account the alleged popess is placed about the year 1100, and no name is yet assigned her. The story runs that a very talented woman, dressed as a man, became notary to the Curia, then cardinal and finally pope; that one day this person went out on horseback, and on this occasion gave birth to a son; that she was then bound to the tail of a horse, dragged round the city, stoned to death by the mob, and was buried at the place where she died; and that an inscription was put up there as follows: "Petre pater patrum papissae prodito partum". In her reign, the story adds, the Ember days were introduced, called therefore the "fasts of the popess".
A different version appears in the third recension of the chronicle of Martin of Troppau (Martinus Polonus) possibly inserted by the author himself and not by a subsequent transcriber. Through this very popular work the tale became best known in the following form: After Leo IV (847-55) the Englishman John of Mainz (Johannes Anglicus, natione Moguntinus) occupied the papal chair two years, seven months and four days. He was, it is alleged, a woman. When a girl, she was taken to Athens in male clothes by her lover, and there made such progress in learning that no one was her equal. She came to Rome, where she taught science, and thereby attracted the attention of learned men. She enjoyed the greatest respect on account of her conduct and erudition, and was finally chosen as pope, but, becoming pregnant by one of her trusted attendants, she gave birth to a child during a procession from St. Peter's to the Lateran, somewhere between the Colosseum and St. Clement's. There she died almost immediately, and it is said she was buried at the same place. In their processions the popes always avoid this road; many believe that they do this out of abhorrence of that calamity.
Here occurs for the first time the name of Johanna (Joan) as that of the alleged popess. Martin of Troppau had lived at the Curia as papal chaplain and penitentiary (he died 1278), for which reason his papal history was widely read, and through him the tale obtained general acceptance. One manuscript of his chronicle relates in a different way the fate of the alleged popess: i.e., after her confinement Joan was immediately deposed, and did penance for many years. Her son, it is added, became Bishop of Ostia, and had her interred there after her death.
Later chroniclers even give the name which she bore as a girl; some call her Agnes, some Gilberta. Still further variations are found in the works of different chroniclers, e.g. in the "Universal Chronicle of Metz", written about 1250, and in subsequent editions of the twelfth (?) century "Mirabilia Urbis Romae". According to the latter, the popess was given the choice in a vision, of temporal disgrace or eternal punishment; she chose the former, and died at her confinement in the open street.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries this popess was already counted as an historical personage, whose existence no one doubted. She had her place among the carved busts which stood in Siena Cathedral. Under Clement VIII, and at his request, she was transformed into Pope Zacharias. The heretic Hus, in the defense of his false doctrine before the Council of Constance, referred to the popess, and no one offered to question the fact of her existence. She is not found in the "Liber Pontificalis" nor among the papal portraits in St. Paul's Outside the Walls, at Rome.
This alleged popess is a pure figment of the imagination. In the fifteenth century, after the awakening of historical criticism, a few scholars like Aeneas Silvius (Epist., I, 30) and Platina (Vitae Pontificum, No. 106) saw the untenableness of the story. Since the sixteenth century Catholic historians began to deny the existence of the popess, e.g., Onofrio Panvinio (Vitae Pontificum, Venice, 1557), Aventinus (Annales Boiorum, lib. IV), Baronius (Annales ad a. 879, n. 5), and others.
A few Protestants also, e.g., Blondel (Joanna Papissa, 1657) and Leibniz ("Flores sparsae in tumulum papissae" in "Bibliotheca Historica", Göttingen, 1758, 267 sq.), admitted that the popess never existed. Numerous Protestants, however, made use of the fable in their attacks on the papacy. Even in the nineteenth century, when the untenableness of the legend was recognized by all serious historians, a few Protestants (e.g. Kist, 1843; Suden, 1831; and Andrea, 1866) attempted, in an anti-Roman spirit, to prove the historical existence of the popess. Even Hase ("Kirchengesch.", II, 2nd ed., Leipzig, 1895, 81) could not refrain from a spiteful and absolutely unhistorical note on this subject.
The principal proofs of the entirely mythical character of the popess are:
Not one contemporaneous historical source among the papal histories knows anything about her; also, no mention is made of her until the middle of the thirteenth century. Now it is incredible that the appearance of a "popess", if it was an historical fact, would be noticed by none of the numerous historians from the tenth to the thirteenth century.
Between Leo IV and Benedict III, where Martinus Polonus places her, she cannot be inserted, because Leo IV died 17 July, 855, and immediately after his death Benedict III was elected by the clergy and people of Rome; but owing to the setting up of an antipope, in the person of the deposed Cardinal Anastasius, he was not consecrated until 29 September. Coins exist which bear both the image of Benedict III and of Emperor Lothair, who died 28 September, 855; therefore Benedict must have been recognized as pope before the last-mentioned date. On 7 October, 855, Benedict III issued a charter for the Abbey of Corvey. Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, informed Nicholas I that a messenger whom he had sent to Leo IV learned on his way of the death of this pope, and therefore handed his petition to Benedict III, who decided it (Hincmar, ep. xl in P.L., CXXXVI, 85). All these witnesses prove the correctness of the dates given in the lives of Leo IV and Benedict III, and there was no interregnum between these two popes, so that at this place there is no room for the alleged popess.
Further, is is even less probable that a popess could be inserted in the list of popes about 1100, between Victor III (1087) and Urban II (1088-99) or Paschal II (1099-1110), as is suggested by the chronicle of Jean de Mailly.
This fable of a Roman popess seems to have had an earlier counterpart at Constantinople. Indeed, in his letter to Michael Caerularius (1053), Leo IX says that he would not believe what he had heard, namely that the Church of Constantinople had already seen eunuchs, indeed even a woman, in its episcopal chair (Mansi "Concil.", XIX, 635 sq.).
Concerning the origin of the whole legend of Popess Joan, different hypotheses have been advanced.
Baronius (Annales ad a., 879, n. 5) conjectures that the much censured effeminate weaknesses of Pope John VIII (872-82) in dealing with the Greeks may have given rise to the story. Mai has shown (Nova Collectio Patr., I, Proleg., xlvii) that Photius of Constantinople (De Spir. Sanct. Myst., lxxxix) refers emphatically three times to this pope as "the Manly", as though he would remove from him the stigma of effeminacy.
Other historians point to the degradation of the papacy in the tenth century, when so many popes bore the name John; it seemed therefore a fitting name for the legendary popess. Thus Aventinus sees in the story a satire on John IX; Blondel, a satire on John XI; Panvinio (notae ad Platinam, De vitis Rom. Pont.) applies it to John XII, while Leander (Kirkengesch., II, 200) understands it as applicable generally to the baneful female influence on the papacy during the tenth century.
Other investigators endeavour to find in various occurrences and reports a more definite basis for the origin of this legend. Leo Allatius (Diss. Fab. de Joanna Papissa) connects it with the false prophetess Theota, condemned at the Synod of Mainz (847); Leibniz recalls the story that an alleged bishop Johannes Anglicus came to Rome and was there recognized as a woman. The legend has also been connected with the pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, e.g. by Karl Blascus ("Diatribe de Joanna Papissa", Naples, 1779), and Gfrörer (Kirchengesch., iii, 978).
Döllinger's explanation has met with more general approval ("Papstfabeln", Munich, 1863, 7-45). He recognizes the fable of Popess Joan as a survival of some local Roman folk-tale originally connected with certain ancient monuments and peculiar customs. An ancient statue discovered in the reign of Sixtus V, in a street near the Colosseum, which showed a figure with a child, was popularly considered to represent the popess. In the same street a monument was discovered with an inscription at the end of which occurred the well-known formula P.P.P. (proprie pecuniâ posuit) together with a prefixed name which read: Pap. (?Papirius) pater patrum. This could easily have given origin to the inscription mentioned by Jean de Mailly (see above). It was also observed that the pope did not pass along this street in solemn procession (perhaps on account of its narrowness). Further it was noticed that, on the occasion of his formal inauguration in front of the Lateran Basilica, the newly-elected pope always seated himself on a marble chair. This seat was an ancient bath-stool, of which there were many in Rome; it was merely made use of by the pope to rest himself. But the imagination of the vulgar took this to signify that the sex of the pope was thereby tested, in order to prevent any further instance of a woman attaining to the Chair of St. Peter.
Erroneous explanations — such as were often excogitated in the Middle Ages in connection with ancient monuments — and popular imagination are originally responsible for the fable of "Popess Joan" that uncritical chroniclers, since the middle of the thirteenth century, dignified by consigning it to their pages.
APA citation. (1910). Popess Joan. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08407a.htm
MLA citation. "Popess Joan." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08407a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Marie Jutras.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.