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The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan

by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe


POPE JOAN, so the story goes, was a young woman who ruled the Church of Rome at some time during the Middle Ages. Almost everyone has heard her name but her history and legend, like the Wandering Jew's, are largely unknown. Her image has become familiar to many through the Female Pope (or High Priestess) card in the Major Trumps of the Tarot deck, and others will have read about her in the feminist press, although they will probably have gained little more than an impression of an ecclesiastical cover-up, plotted and executed on a grand scale. Some may have sat through the film Pope Joan, made in the 1970s, and perhaps thought that they were watching a faithful dramatization of the facts. But the widespread ignorance of the truth behind the Pope Joan story is understandable, for impartial commentary is hard to find. For too many years no detailed examination of her life has been available in English, and other languages have not been much better served.

We decided to try to rectify this situation after becoming aware that the total acceptance of the female pope's reality in many feminist publications was based on no firm foundation. We hoped that with careful research we might provide that foundation, but at the same time we were determined to be the first writers on the subject ever to set about the task without preconceived ideas, and to keep an open mind throughout. As agnostics with no strong feelings either for or against the Catholic Church, neither of us had an axe to grind.

This book sets out the results of our investigations, beginning with the earliest written accounts of the woman pontiff, and then following her story as it developed during the ensuing centuries. We look at how the almost universal belief in her slowly turned to disbelief, and how she came to be used both in the polemical arguments of the Reformation, and as a romantic figure in drama and fiction. The physical evidence in Rome, some of which still exists today, is also examined in detail. For what we believe to be the truth of the matter, however, we are drawn irresistibly away eastwards from Rome towards the Church at Constantinople. All is not as simple as it seems, and we think the following pages contain their full share of surprises.




After... Leo, John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was pope for two years, seven months and four days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the papacy of one month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers. There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and afterwards in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students and audience. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city, and she was the choice of all for pope. While pope, however, she became pregnant by her companion. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St Peter's to the Lateran, in a narrow lane between the Colisseum and St Clement's church. After her death, it is said she was buried in that same place. The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street and it is believed by many that this is done because of abhorrence of the event. Nor is she placed on the list of the holy pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter.(1)

So runs the traditional narrative of the life and death of the female pope, as recorded by Martin Polonus in the thirteenth century. Martin, a priest belonging to the Dominican Order of Friars, came from Troppau in Poland (and is frequently known as Martin von Troppau). Later he went to Rome and obtained appointment as a papal chaplain and penitentiary. His duties in the bureaucracy of the Church and in the absolution of penitents, must have left him ample time for leisure and study; so much so, that he was stimulated to take up that popular pastime of the Middle Ages, the compilation of a historical chronicle. No doubt the Vatican archives were useful to him in this task, although he did not always use his sources as carefully as he might have done. Nevertheless his Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatum soon became one of the most popular specimens of its kind, perhaps because Martin's position in the papal curia led people to regard his work as having quasi-official status, reflecting the authority and opinions of the Church itself. For whatever reason, his chronicle can almost be considered a 'best seller' of its time, with many copies being made and diffused throughout the whole of Europe. Some of them end around 1265, others some twelve years later, and evidently Martin continued compiling it until he was quite an old man. When he died in 1278, while on his way to take up a new appointment as Archbishop of Gnesen in Poland, he was well over seventy.

After his death many subsequent chroniclers had reason to be grateful to him, for they found his work a very convenient quarry of information, and in numerous cases they lifted their facts wholesale from it. So it is hardly surprising that later descriptions of the life of Pope Joan often follow Martin quite closely. We say 'Pope Joan', and nowadays this appellation is almost universally applied to the female pope, but it is worth noting that the only name mentioned by Martin is 'John Anglicus'. He does not give her a female name at all, and - as will become apparent - nor do any of the other authentic early versions of the story.

Pope Joan is said to have occupied the papal throne in the ninth century, following Leo IV who is listed in modern catalogues as ruling for eight years from 847 to 855; and preceding Benedict III whose dates are normally given as 855-8. She was of German origin, and studied in Athens before coming to Rome. After her elevation to the papacy, she reigned for two or perhaps three years and a number of months (the accounts vary), but then became pregnant by the companion with whom she had travelled from Germany. Martin Polonus, when referring to her lover for the second time, uses the word familiaris, which can be translated as a servant or member of a household as well as a companion. However, all of the most ancient writers who copied Martin seem to have been in no doubt as to the more sensible meaning in the context.

The unfortunate young woman finally suffered the humiliation of giving birth in the street, in full public view, thus bringing her pontificate and by implication her life to a sudden and dramatic end.

Most versions of the tale agree on these facts and add a variety of extra details to the basic elements. They then conclude by explaining that, because of the scandal involved, the popes always avoid the street where the birth took place, while going in procession between the Lateran Palace and St Peter's Basilica.

Martin Polonus wrote in the latter half of the thirteenth century, and the reign of Pope Joan was placed by him more than four hundred years before his own time. So unusual an episode of papal history, if it did indeed occur, must have left its mark on the documentary record at some point during the intervening centuries, and the question which immediately arises is, what were Martin's sources? Were there earlier accounts from which he copied, and if so how many of them still exist? Our initial task therefore is to locate the oldest references to the scandal of the woman who became pope.

First in time would appear to be the work of Joan's contemporary, Anastasius the Librarian. He was a learned and ambitious man of the ninth century, and to him is attributed the authorship of the Liber Pontificalis, a collection of papal biographies which in most editions extends as far as Nicholas I (858-67). Anastasius participated fully in the political intrigue which surrounded the papacy during his time, and we may be sure that when he was describing those popes who ruled in his lifetime, he was able to base his account on the solid foundation of his own experience and observation.

One early Vatican manuscript (2) of the Liber Pontificalis mentions Pope Joan, in words which are literally identical to those of Martin Polonus. However, the relevant section is in a hand different to that of the main text. It occupies the bottom of a page, where presumably there was space available for it, and in doing so it interrupts the narrative in the middle of the life of Leo IV. Details of Leo's rule then continue on the next page, so that the insertion is suspiciously out of sequence. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the account of the female pope in this particular edition is a late interpolation, probably of the fourteenth century, judging from the style of the handwriting, and certainly post-dating Martin. It can be of no help in our search for the origins of the story, as is also the case with a later version of the Liber, written in the fifteenth century. This one expands the text to include biographies of the popes up to the time of Eugenius IV (1431-47), and also inserts the woman pontiff between Leo IV and Benedict III. The fit, though, is an awkward one, and again there is a word for word correspondence with Martin.

The sad fact is that most copies of the Liber, including all the earliest examples, do not refer to the female pope. Leo IV is recorded as dying in 855, his successor being Benedict III, who was elected to the papacy 'because of his many and powerful holy works',(3) after a short interregnum of less than three months, during which a number of other candidates unsuccessfully promoted their own claims. One of these candidates was Anastasius himself, who had the support of Lothair, the reigning Holy Roman Emperor.

Some modern writers have suggested that early sources mentioning Pope Joan were subsequently censored to remove all record of her, but there is no evidence that the various manuscripts of the Liber Pontificalis were ever tampered with in order to delete such references. In most cases any alterations would be readily noticeable, although this is admittedly not so with a very few editions where the text ends with the death of Leo IV. Even these, however, do not seem to have been deliberately truncated; they merely represent an initial draft of the book to which Anastasius later added further information.

The only possible conclusion is that in the handful of copies where a section on the female pope is included, it is a later addition. The seventeenth century Protestant polemicists, who used Pope Joan in their anti-Catholic propaganda, were quite unaware of any edition of Anastasius' work which referred to her, and the fact that an apparent contemporary ignored her completely caused them considerable embarrassment. Alexander Cooke, for instance, writing in support of Joan's existence in 1610,(4) could only make the weak suggestion that Anastasius was notoriously unreliable: a cavil with little justification.

For the next chronicler who mentions or seems to mention the female pope, we have to leave the ninth century altogether and move on to the eleventh. The Benedictine Marianus Scotus (1028-86) was probably born, as his name implies, in Ireland, but he spent the last seventeen years of his life in the Abbey at Mainz; the same German town in which Joan is said to have been born less than 250 years previously. He, of all people, should have known about her, and sure enough, in some manuscripts of his Historiographi which describes events up to 1083, there is this entry under the year 854:

Pope Leo died, on the Kalends of August. He was succeeded by Joanna, a woman, who reigned for two years, five months and four days.(5)

However, the majority of copies of the chronicle do not include the lines, and unfortunately those which do are all comparatively late in date. The eighteenth century writer, Johannes Pistorius, in the course of research for his edition of the Historiographi, made arrangements to have the earliest copy he knew of checked. This was a manuscript in the library of Gemblours Abbey, written 'in very old characters'. The abbot himself examined the work and found that the passage in question was absent, both from the main text and from the margin.(6) Similarly, when all the most ancient editions of Marianus were collated together for the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, it was not to be found in any of them.(7)

When we reach the twelfth century, there are three writers who apparently refer to the female pope. The first chronologically is Sigebert of Gemblours, a Benedictine monk who was born in 1030 and died in 1112 or 1113. His history, the Chronographia, ends with the year 1112, and several late manuscripts of it include the following short account, under 854:

It is rumoured that this John was a woman, and known as such only to one companion [familiari], who embraced her and made her pregnant. She gave birth while Pope. Therefore certain people do not count her among the popes, for which reason she does not bear a number to her name.(8)

This section, obviously adapted from Martin Polonus, is usually written in the margin, and does not appear in any of the early copies. Most importantly, it is absent from a Gemblours manuscript, which there is good reason to believe may be a holograph copy by Sigebert himself.

The insertion comes immediately after a description of Norman atrocities under 853, and immediately before a reference to Benedict III, whose reign is also given as commencing in 854. There is clearly no room for Joan here, and none of the chroniclers who used Sigebert as their source in the ensuing 150 years knew anything of the interpolation.

Slightly later than Sigebert was Otto, the Bishop of Frisingen (Freising in Germany) and a close relative of the Holy Roman Emperors. He died in 1158 leaving seven books of chronicles, the last of which contains a catalogue of the Popes of Rome. In some versions of this, the word 'woman' is inserted after the name of Pope John VII, who ruled from 705 to 707. The earliest copies of the book take the list of pontiffs down as far as the Englishman, Hadrian IV (1154-9), during whose reign Otto died. These do not have the extra word however, for it appears only in the editions where the tabulation is extended to Leo X (1513) by a sixteenth century copyist. The likeliest explanation for this oddity is that the copyist, having heard of a female pope who ruled under the name of John, mistakenly appended the word 'woman' (foemina) to John VII after finding that there was no John between Leo IV and Benedict III. The error was an easy one to make, because Otto's list does not give any dates.

In the Pantheon of Gotfrid of Viterbo, a chaplain and secretary to the Imperial Court, Joan is returned to her more usual position. This work, which dates from approximately 1185, includes a cryptic note after Leo IV, stating that 'Joanna, the female pope, is not counted'.(9) Again the line is not present in any of the early manuscripts, and it is probable that Gotfrid knew nothing of the existence of any woman pontiff. Significantly in this connection, another chronicle by the same author, the Speculum Regum,(10) follows Leo IV by Benedict III with no reference at all to Pope Joan anywhere in the text.

It is quite clear, then, that although several records which mention the female pope appear to have existed prior to the thirteenth century, on closer examination they all turn out to have been altered at a later date to include her. In every case the most ancient texts can be shown to contain no account of such a woman, and indeed not a single one of the interpolations would seem to pre-date Martin Polonus. They are of no help in throwing light on the question of Martin's sources of information, and for this we shall have to look elsewhere.

Not until the middle of the thirteenth century, less than fifty years before Martin's Chronicon was written, do we start to find firm evidence indicating that the female pope was something more than a figment of Martin's imagination. For the first time material is available which does not prove, on further investigation, to have been added to old manuscripts later by over-enthusiastic readers or copyists.

Jean de Mailly, a French Dominican at Metz near the German border, is best known for his collection of the Lives of the Saints. He also wrote most of the Chronica Universalis Mettensis which dates from approximately 1250 and gives what is almost certainly the earliest authentic account of the woman who became known as Pope Joan. In contrast to Martin Polonus' version of events, it places her at the end of the eleventh century. Under the year 1099 the following paragraph appears, as an integral part of the text:

Query. Concerning a certain pope or rather female pope, who is not set down in the list of popes or bishops of Rome, because she was a woman who disguised herself as a man and became, by her character and talents, a curial secretary, then a cardinal and finally pope. One day, while mounting a horse, she gave birth to a child. Immediately, by Roman justice, she was bound by the feet to a horse's tail and dragged and stoned by the people for half a league. And where she died, there she was buried, and at the place is written: Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum [O Peter, Father of Fathers, Betray the childbearing of the woman pope]. At the same time, the four-day fast called the 'fast of the female pope' was first established.(11)

Jean de Mailly's work achieved little renown. It was, however, acknowledged as a source by Stephen of Bourbon, also a French Dominican, who died in 1261. In his treatise, De Diversis Materiis Praedicabilibus, Stephen relates the same facts as in the Chronica Universalis, although he clothes them in words of his own and expresses his outrage somewhat more forcefully. The date which he gives for the events is slightly later than that suggested by Jean de Mailly, but this difference is hardly significant, especially since neither author seems entirely sure of the exact year of the female pontiff's ascendency. Stephen's version of the affair reads in full:

But an occurrence of wonderful audacity or rather insanity happened around AD 1100, as is related in the chronicles. A certain woman, learned and well versed in the notary's art, assuming male clothing and pretending to be a man, came to Rome. Through her diligence as well as her learning in letters, she was appointed as a curial secretary. Afterwards, under the Devil's direction, she was made a cardinal and finally pope. Having become pregnant she gave birth while mounting [a horse]. But when Roman justice was informed of it, she was dragged outside the city, bound by her feet to the hooves of a horse, and for half a league she was stoned by the people. And where she died, there she was buried, and upon a stone placed above her, this line was written: Parce, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodere Partum [Forbear, Father of Fathers, to betray the childbearing of the female pope]. Behold how such rash presumptuousness leads to so vile an end.(12)

The idea that Joan's success was due to the Devil's intervention rather than solely to her own talents seems to have been first thought of by Stephen, but it arose again quite independently in subsequent centuries and was elaborated on by several other writers.

If Joan became pontiff in or around 1099 then what of Paschal II who is normally said to have ascended the papal throne in that year? The Chronica Universalis solves this problem neatly by moving him to 1106, thus implying that the female pope ruled for a full seven years before meeting her terrible end. There is no suggestion here of the two or three year reign as noted by Martin, and this is not the only matter on which he and the others disagree. The late eleventh century date given for Pope Joan may, perhaps, be thought more acceptable than Martin's mid-ninth century, if only because it brings her to within 150 years of the chroniclers themselves: a gap which poses far fewer difficulties than the long one between the 850s and the time of Martin. We will return to this question later.

Martin also adds numerous new background details to the earlier accounts. His female pontiff is given a title, 'John Anglicus', instead of remaining nameless, and her German origins are mentioned for the first time. Her trip to Athens with her lover, and her studies in that city, seem to have been entirely the invention of Martin, but here he surely allowed his imagination to get the better of him. Athens in the ninth (or the eleventh) century was by no means a centre of great learning.

There are, on the other hand, some points in the Jean de Mailly version which Martin completely ignores. The manner of Joan's death, by the traditional Roman method of execution which involved being dragged through the streets behind a horse, is omitted from Martin's chronicle, as is the inscription set up on the spot where she died, and the four-day fast instituted in her memory. This fast, it must be said, has proved completely untraceable.

Aside from the alternative date given for the reign of the female pope, probably the most important feature of the earlier histories is the memorial stone, whose inscription is variously reported as Petre, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum and Parce, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodere Partum. Although the two phrases differ only slightly, Stephen of Bourbon's alteration of Petre to Parce actually serves to reverse the meaning of Jean de Mailly's original, thus demonstrating how uncertain the reading really was. It might reasonably be expected that so tangible a proof of the existence of Pope Joan would have been remarked upon by most writers on the subject, but in fact, apart from the two Dominicans, the only other person to do so was a Flemish monk, Van Maerlant, who noted the inscribed stone 'that can be inspected at the place' in his Spiegel Historical of about 1283.(13) Not only does Martin disregard the relic, but so do all the later commentators. It seems to have been forgotten very rapidly, along with the other factors peculiar to the Jean de Mailly narrative. Nevertheless, before the success of Martin Polonus' Chronicon had completely swept away the memory of the other version of Joan's life, two further writers made use of the phrase inscribed on the stone, in a surprising and totally different context.

The first was a Franciscan friar of Erfurt in Germany, whose identity is unknown. His Chronica Minor was written in about the year 1265, but the section dealing with the female pope is evidently a slightly more recent addition: it has no connection at all with the paragraphs immediately before and after it, which are concerned with Pope Formosus (891-6), his successor Boniface VI (896) and the ruling Emperor, Arnulf. However, the interpolation appears to have been inserted very soon after the original text was finished and it may even have been put in as an afterthought by the initial compiler himself. The fact that it owes nothing whatever to the account given by Martin Polonus is strong evidence for its early date, and for the supposition that it preceded Martin by several years.

The placing of the section at the end of the ninth century was purely arbitrary, as its vague beginning makes clear:

There was another false pope, whose name and year are unknown. For she was a woman, as is acknowledged by the Romans, and of refined appearance, great learning and hypocritically of high conduct. She disguised herself in the clothes of a man, and eventually was elected to the papacy. While pope she became pregnant, and when she was carrying, the [or a] demon openly published the fact to all in the public court, by crying this verse to the pope: Papa, Pater Patrum, Papisse Pandito Partum [O Pope, Father of Fathers, disclose the childbearing of the woman pope].(14)

The inclusion of a demon in the passage is most odd, and the reference to it is not altogether comprehensible. The implication is definitely not that it was in league with the female pontiff, in fact quite the opposite: when the slightly amended quotation from the inscribed stone (as given by Jean de Mailly rather than Stephen of Bourbon) is placed in the mouth of an evil spirit, it serves only to betray Joan to the world.

There is a certain ambiguity in the wording which can be interpreted to imply either that the demon was a completely separate entity, or that it was the Pope's unborn child, speaking from within her womb. As with Jean de Mailly's account, we are not told who made Joan pregnant, or even whether it was a human agency at all. Perhaps the intention was to suggest an infernal provenance for the baby.

The supernatural theme obviously appealed to the writer or writers of another German chronicle, the Flores Temporum, which charts the history of the papacy up to about 1290. Some manuscripts of this work are ascribed to a Franciscan friar, Martinus Minorita, and others to Hermannus Januensis (of Genoa), but the truth would seem to be that one man alone was responsible for the composition, while the second only copied and extended it. Opinions differ as to which of the two was the original author.

The main acknowledged source for the chronicle is Martin Polonus, and his influence is conspicuous in the paragraph about Pope Joan which appears in all the known manuscripts. Like Martin it names the woman 'John Anglicus', and places her reign between those of Leo IV and Benedict III, tidily making room by moving Benedict from the usual 855 to 857. Her anachronistic studies in Athens are mentioned, as well as the notorious shunned street where she met her end. But also included is another version of the demon episode, and it is an improvement on the one in the Chronica Minor as far as clarity is concerned. Here, the devil in question inhabits a human body; a demoniac brought before her, perhaps for a miraculous cure:

A female pope, AD 854, ruled for three years and five months. She is said to have been named John Anglicus and to have been born in Margam. She was led to Athens in the clothes of a man by her lover, and studied there, becoming highly proficient in various branches of knowledge. Afterwards, she went to Rome and taught the liberal arts, and had great masters as her students. She became so distinguished in the city for her life and learning that she was elected pope, but she was made pregnant by her previously mentioned lover [predicto amasio]. At this time a demoniac was questioned on oath as to the time the demon would depart. The devil responded in verse: Papa, Pater Patrum, Papisse Pandito Partum. Et tibi tunc edam, de corpore quando recedam [O Pope, Father of Fathers, disclose the childbearing of the woman pope. And then, I will make known to you the time when I will depart from the body]. Finally, she died in childbirth between the Colisseum and the church of St Peter. Therefore the popes always avoid that street.(15)

Whatever the nature of the demon was, there is no doubt that the creature's object was the betrayal of the pontiff. Later we will see that this is a point of some importance.

The insistence of the author that Joan was born in a place called Margam illustrates the difficulty which a number of writers had in coming to terms with the statement of Martin Polonus that her name was 'John English', but that she came from Mainz (Iohannes Anglicus nacione Maguntinus). The obvious explanation is that Joan, although born in Mainz, was the daughter of English parents, and most commentators were content with this assumption. There was, after all, a substantial colony of Irish clergy in and around Cologne in the ninth century, and Cologne is not so very far down-river from Mainz. One of the usual routes between the British Isles and Rome was through the Rhineland, and undoubtedly Mainz saw the coming and going of numerous British travellers.

In the fifteenth century, however, Felix Haemerlein suggested an alternative origin for the word Anglicus - that Joan had merely been educated in England.(16) A few people eliminated her German birth altogether, achieving this in a variety of ways. The famous Italian humanist Giovanni Boccaccio, for instance, completely discounted the possibility and hinted that those who disagreed with him were in grave error. His female pope spends her entire life, until her trip to Rome, in England.(17) The approach of the author of the Flores Temporum was slightly different. He altered Maguntinus (Mainz) to Margantinus (Margam), a change which also appears in one or two copies of Martin Polonus. The Cistercian Abbey of Margam was not actually in England but nearby in Wales, and its ruins are still to be seen today, a few miles south of Port Talbot in Glamorgan. Unfortunately Robert, Duke of Gloucester, did not found the abbey until 1147, making it much too late to have any relevance to our subject, regardless of whether Pope Joan reigned in the 850s or around 1100.

There was yet another version of the troublesome phrase, which was favoured by Amalric Augerii in the fourteenth century. By adding one word and modifying another, he managed to produce something quite new: Iohannes Anglicus natione dictus Magnanimus (John, of English birth, called The Courageous).(18) But this unjustified and unnecessary variation never became popular.

Van Maerlant's Spiegel Historical was the last chronicle to borrow directly from Jean de Mailly or Stephen of Bourbon. Neither of their works was widely disseminated, and such manuscripts as existed then lay gathering dust in libraries and archives for 500 years before finally coming to light again in the nineteenth century. The Chronica Minor of Erfurt and the Flores Temporum fared only a little better, although a few later authors had access to one or the other. Such was clearly the case with Theodoric Engelhusius, whose Chronicon of 1426 includes a woman pope who 'reigned for five years', supposedly between Leo III (795-816) called 'Leo IV', and Stephen V (816-17) called 'Stephen IV'. Theodoric adds, rather tersely summarizing his sources:

She was named John Anglicus. She is not counted among the popes. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son in procession, at which time a demon in the air [in aere] said, Papa Patrum Papissae Pandito Partum.(19)

Meanwhile no obscurity faced the writings of Martin Polonus. The popularity of his Chronicon went from strength to strength, and today almost all important libraries have several manuscript copies of it. The Bodleian Library at Oxford, for example, possesses more than a dozen, all of them dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

At this point Martin's reference to Pope Joan needs to be re-examined more critically. All of the early copies of the Chronicon are very carefully laid out with fifty lines to the page, one line being allocated to each year of the papal reign. The female pope, then, should appear fairly close to the top of the page covering the years 851-900, and her entry should fill no more than three lines. Obviously it would be impossible to fit a passage of nearly one hundred and fifty words (as it is in the original Latin) into such a confined space, and most manuscripts are forced to allow her a full seven lines. As a consequence the set format of the chronicle, elsewhere strictly adhered to, is severely disrupted. The copyists, when faced with this problem, attempted to solve it in a number of different ways. One Hamburg codex, written after 1302, simply omits Benedict III altogether. Much more drastic methods are used in another where an entire two pages are revised, with the pontiffs from Gregory IV (827-44) to Nicholas I (858-67) having their reigns shortened in order to make the requisite room.(20)

Did the difficulty arise merely because the history of Joan exceeded its allotted space? The evidence of several of the earliest manuscripts indicates otherwise, for it would seem that no space whatever was allotted to her in the original version of the Chronicon, as written by Martin Polonus himself. Martin compiled two editions of his work, the first reaching down to the time of Clement IV (1265-8), and the second to Nicholas III (1277-80). The latter, completed shortly before Martin's death in 1278, exactly followed the format of the former, adding only some notes on the extra years. A number of early copies of both versions do not include a reference, either long or short, to Pope Joan. They each list Leo IV as ruling for eight years from 847, after which Benedict III immediately succeeds in 855. The formal layout of the work does, of course, mean that any later erasure would be quite obvious, but there is no sign of it here. In fact quite the reverse is true: in a few cases it is clear that there has been an attempt to insert the paragraph on the woman pontiff into an already existing text. There are examples where it appears in the bottom margin of the page dealing with the years 801-50, thus breaking up the description of Pope Leo's reign, and others where it is placed in the side margin.

Since Martin took such a pride in the organized nature of the Chronicon, it is highly unlikely that he would have mangled it so badly at one point, and one point only, in order to insinuate Pope Joan into the chronology. The conclusion is inevitable; that the passage is an interpolation, almost certainly not from the pen of Martin, and most probably inserted some time after his death. However, we do know that the female pope took her place in the Chronicon very soon after it had been completed, and that within thirty years of Martin's death the majority of manuscripts were including her. The writer of the previously mentioned Flores Temporum, had access to such a copy around 1290, as did the French monk Gaufridus de Collone in about 1295, and the person who produced an edition of the English Flores Historiarum at the monastery of St Benet Holme in Norfolk, around the year 1304. Earlier versions of this latter chronicle, which dates back as far as 1265 and is attributed to `Matthew of Westminster', know nothing of Pope Joan, but the Norfolk copy features a slightly abbreviated transcript of the familiar account, ending with the words, 'Thus Martinus'.(21)

By 1312 the added section in the Chronicon was widely assumed to be genuine. In this year Tolomeo of Lucca wrote, 'All whom I surveyed, except Martinus, relate that Benedict III was after Leo IV. However, Martinus Polonus counts John Anglicus VIII.'(22) Tolomeo, along with most of his contemporaries, was completely ignorant of the handful of authors prior to Martin who discussed the female pope. He was also mistaken in his claim that Martin numbers her 'John VIII'. On the contrary, the interpolator of Martin insists that she was not 'placed on the list of the holy pontiffs'. Nevertheless, the title of 'John VIII' for Joan became popular among those writers, from Tolomeo onwards, who recognized her as an official occupant of the papal throne. A few others, when counting up the various popes named John prior to Joan's era, came to a slightly different total and gave her the name of 'John VII'. But there was never any general agreement, and 200 years later, in about 1490, the Westphalian Werner Rolevinck was by no means a lone voice when he echoed the words of the Chronicon, saying 'Nor is she placed on the list of the pontiffs'.(23) Undoubtedly this is the simplest and most acceptable solution, avoiding as it does the problems presented by the well-documented existence of another John VII (705-7) and another John VIII (872-82).

The greatest danger in allocating a number to the woman pontiff is, of course, that she is then liable to be confused with the real pope of the same title. This did indeed happen from time to time, for example in an anonymous history of Erfurt, which states:

During the reign of Charles, Pope John held a synod in Erfurt, while Hildebert was Archbishop of Mainz, in the year 880. Note, this pope was a woman, and numbered 8 if counted among the others.(24)

This Historia Erphesfordensis was compiled in the middle of the thirteenth century, but the interpolation (from 'Note' onwards) must have been added some time afterwards by a copyist who believed that the female pope was called John VIII. Obviously if Pope Joan ruled in the 850s she cannot have held a synod in 880, but whether such an assembly was held by the real John VIII during his pontificate is a different matter. Perhaps there was some confusion with the Council of Erfurt which took place in 932 while Hildebert was Archbishop of Cologne and the eleventh Pope John ruled in Rome. The possibility that John VIII might himself have been a woman is one which will be considered in another chapter.

As we have seen, although the version of the Pope Joan story interpolated into Martin Polonus' Chronicon was the one which caught the popular imagination, and was picked up and elaborated on by later writers, there were other thirteenth century chroniclers who also made reference to a female pope. However, it has proved impossible to trace her in sources compiled prior to that century, and our search so far has not been as fruitful as we might have hoped. Before taking up the question of whether a woman did or did not become the supreme pontiff at some period, we can gain further insight into the story by examining its subsequent development.

Notes & References:
(For the full titles and a key to abbreviations, see Bibliography)

(1) Martin Polonus, Chron. Pont. et Imp.; MGH:SS, XXII, p.428.

(2) Vatican MS 3762. See Louis Duchesne, Étude sur le 'Liber Pontificalis' (1886), p.95. A facsimile of the page in question appears in H. Perrodo-Le Moyne, Un Pape Nommé Jeanne (1972).

(3) Anastasius, Lib. Pont., quoted in OC, III, col.394.

(4) Alexander Cooke, Pope Joane (1610).

(5) Marianus Scotus, Hist. sui temp. clar.; RGSS, I, p.639.

(6) Pistorius' notes on Marianus; RGSS, I, p.794.

(7) Hist. sui temp. clar.; MGH:SS, VIII, p.550.

(8) Sigebert of Gemblours, Chron.; RGSS, I, p.794.

(9) Gotfrid of Viterbo, Pantheon; RGSS, II, p.372.

(10) Gotfrid, Speculum Regum; MGH:SS, XXII, pp.29-30.

(11) Jean de Mailly, Chron. Univ. Mett.; MGH:SS, XXIV, p.514. In the original Latin, Joan is referred to in the masculine gender, but we have altered this for ease of reading.

(12) Stephen of Bourbon, De Div. Mat. Praed.; Scriptores Ordinis Praedicatorum, I (1719), p.367.

(13) John J.I. Von Döllinger, Fables Respecting the Popes of the Middle Ages (1871), p.44.

(14) Chron. Minor; MGH:SS, XXIV, p.184.

(15) Flores Temp.; MGH:SS, XXIV, p.243.

(16) Felix Haemerlein, De Nobil. et Rust. Dial. (c.1490), f.99.

(17) Giovanni Boccaccio, De Mulieribus Claris (1539), f.63.

(18) Döllinger, op. cit., p.64.

(19) Theodoric Engelhusius, Chron.; SBI, II, p.1065.

(20) OC, III, co1.386.

(21) Flores Hist.; Rolls Series I (1890), p.425.

(22) OC, III, co1.381.

(23) Werner Rolevinck, Fasc. Temp.; RGSS, II, p.528.

(24) Hist. Erphesford.; RGSS, I, p.1302.

Copyright (c) 1988 Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe

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