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The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan

by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe



SO FAR we have looked at the development and growth of Pope Joan's story during Middle Ages, without actually stopping to ask how much, if any, of it was based on truth. Did a female pope ever hold sway over Rome, and if so, at what period did her reign take place? In order to answer these questions we must examine the situation in Rome around the middle of the ninth century and at the end of the eleventh: the alternative dates given for her by the medieval chroniclers.

It may well be thought that the Catholic Church has every reason to draw a veil over some of the curious events which occurred in ninth century Rome. There was, for instance, the strange trial of Pope Formosus, who died of natural causes in 896 after a pontificate of four and a half years. His remains were left in peace for only nine months, after which they were exhumed and dressed in papal vestments. The people of the city were then treated to the remarkable spectacle of a trial in which the defendant, charged with unlawful usurpation of the papal throne, was a decaying corpse. The affair was, of course, more for the benefit of the incumbent pope, Stephen VII, than for the humiliation of his predecessor who was presumably a little too far gone to care. Formosus was duly and predictably found guilty, and his body disposed of in the Tiber, from where it was later recovered, and finally interred in St Peter's Basilica by Pope Theodore II, during his twenty-day reign at the end of 897. Stephen VII himself profited nothing by the trial. He was thrown into prison shortly afterwards, and eventually strangled there. The details of the proceedings, which he had placed in the Lateran archives, were destroyed by the supporters of Formosus, but it is significant that even this powerful body of people was quite unable to remove all knowledge of the trial from the historical record. Modern authors, who suggest that there was a highly successful campaign to delete every reference to Pope Joan from all the documents written in the centuries following her death, may care to ponder upon this point.

In the sort of climate where dead popes could be exhumed for political reasons and living popes could be summarily despatched (at least six were killed while in office during the last half of the ninth century and the first half of the tenth), it would not be particularly surprising to find a woman on the throne of St Peter, between Leo IV and Benedict III. But if there was such a woman it should be easy to find some evidence of her, for the history of the papacy at this time is tolerably well documented, with a number of reliable contemporary sources and verbatim copies available for study.

It is known that the saintly Leo IV died on 17 July 855, and that on 29 September of the same year Benedict III was consecrated as his successor. Only a few days later, on 7 October (the nones of October), the new pontiff sent a decretal to the Monastery of Corbie, confirming its privileges.(1) This leaves a gap of some two and a half months, and on the face of it there is no room for the two years or more that Joan is said to have spent as pope. However, the situation is not entirely clear-cut.

On the death of Leo there were two main candidates for nomination as his replacement. One of these was Benedict himself, and the other was Anastasius, whom we have already encountered as the author of the Liber Pontificalis. It was Anastasius who had the vital support of the ailing Emperor Lothair and his son Louis II. Thus when a group of Roman nobles put forward Benedict instead, their choice did not receive Imperial ratification and Anastasius was able to impose himself on the papal seat for a few weeks, as a result of which he is nowadays recorded by the Catholic Church as an antipope.

Some eighteen months before Leo died, Anastasius had provoked his wrath by the way in which he was neglecting his duties as Priest of S. Marcello, a position to which Leo had appointed him in 847-8. Anastasius was anathematized in December 853,(2) and Leo caused a fresco to be put up in St Peter's to mark the event. Naturally, once on the papal throne, the antipope used his authority to have the annoying fresco destroyed. This action, together with his imprisonment of Benedict, hardly endeared him to the clergy of Rome, and in the face of growing hostility, the Imperial envoy prudently decided to withdraw his official support. Anastasius was then quickly overthrown in favour of Benedict.(3)

Despite the obvious differences between their respective reigns, is it possible that Anastasius might have been Pope Joan? He certainly ruled, albeit briefly, at the correct time, but there is little else to be said in favour of the idea, even if we disregard the female pope's pregnancy as a later fiction. We know that after losing the struggle with Benedict for the papacy, he became Abbot of the monastery of S. Maria in Trastavere. Later, as cardinal secretary and papal librarian, he wielded a great deal of political influence under Nicholas I (858-67) and Hadrian II (867-72). He was implicated in the kidnapping and murder of some of Pope Hadrian's relatives, but survived his trial for that offence and characteristically bounced back from disgrace into power. If the resilient Anastasius had been revealed as a woman during his days as an antipope, it is surely inconceivable that he could have gone on to enjoy such a long and illustrious career within the Church. Had there been even the slightest rumour about his sex, the issue would undoubtedly have been raised during his trial, so it is perfectly safe to rule out any connection between this unusual man and Pope Joan.


Pope Leo IV and Anastasius the Librarian,
from Hartmannus Schedel's Liber Chronicarum (The Nuremberg Chronicle), 1493.

By the end of September 855, Anastasius was no longer a threat and the consecration of Benedict III duly went ahead on 29 September. A few days previously the Emperor Lothair, knowing himself to be gravely ill, had renounced his position in favour of his sons, Louis and Charles, and retired to the monastery at Prum in the Ardennes. He died there within hours of Benedict's inauguration, but news of his decease took some weeks to reach Rome, and during this period the first two denarii of the new pontiff's reign were minted. They both bore the names of 'Benedict Papa' and St Peter on one side, with 'Hlotharius Imp. Pius' on the reverse.(4) Subsequent issues, of course, replaced Lothair's name with that of Louis, but it is the existence of the two early coins, together with the Corbie decretal, which provides the final and irrefutable proof that Benedict could not have ascended to the papacy any later than the year 855.

Further evidence that no Pope John ruled between Leo IV and Benedict III appears in contemporary and near-contemporary documents, including correspondence between the main officials of Church and State. In a letter to Pope Nicholas I (858-67), for instance, the controversial Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims describes how, in 855, he sent his representatives to Rome with church documents addressed to Leo IV. On the road they were met by messengers bringing the news of Leo's death, and when they reached Rome they found a new pope occupying St Peter's throne. It was Benedict III.(5) Even the most scenic route to the city can hardly have taken the deputation more than two years to traverse, so there is no possibility of squeezing the reign of the female pope in here.

Nicholas I himself mentions 'my predecessors, Leo and Benedict of Blessed Memory' in a number of letters; and in a communication with the bishops of the Third Synod of Soissons, held in 866, he says: 'Pope Leo of the Apostolic See, who had been familiar with Brother Hincmar's purpose, died; and Benedict of Blessed Memory succeeded him.'(6) Similarly, the chronicle of Ado, Bishop of Vienna, which was written some time between 867 and 872, details the papal succession without a word about Pope Joan: 'The Roman Pontiff Gregory died, and in his place Sergius was appointed. When he died, Leo succeeded: on whose death Benedict was put in his place in the Apostolic See.'(7)

But perhaps Nicholas I and his bishops had good cause to remain quiet about such an embarrassing interlude in the history of the Church of Rome. The same cannot be said of Photius, who was made Patriarch of Constantinople in 858 and deposed seven years later, after an enquiry by Nicholas I into his election. Photius had every reason to dislike the Western Church, or at least its central establishment in Rome, and if the story of the woman pontiff had been known at that time, he would certainly have had no qualms at all about using it to show the papacy in a bad light. Yet in none of his works does he mention Pope Joan, and in one, where he lists the popes of his own era, he specifically describes 'Leo and Benedict, successively great priests of the Roman Church'.(8) The silence of someone like Photius, who had a grudge against Rome, is even more revealing than that of its supporters.

So all the evidence points in one direction: that no female pope could have reigned in the 850s. There is, however, another possibility to consider before we leave the ninth century altogether. According to several writers, from Tolomeo of Lucca in 1312 onwards, Pope Joan took the title 'John VIII' when she began her pontificate. Could the real John VIII then have been a woman? It seems highly unlikely. This John sat on the papal throne for ten years, from 872-82. He was a 'warrior pope' and a ruthless man with many equally ruthless enemies, including the ill-fated future pope Formosus, whose post-mortem clash with the ecclesiastical courts has already been mentioned. John died violently; he seems to have been beaten to death after an attempt to poison him had failed. His life bears no resemblance at all to that of Joan, and if John had been revealed as a woman, those who opposed him would not have needed to resort to such drastic means to remove him from power.

The alternative title of 'John VII', which a few authors preferred for the female pope, was probably the result of a miscalculation, as they all - with one exception - persist in placing her pontificate in the ninth century, even though the real John VII ruled far earlier than that: from 705 to 707. The exception is the copyist of Otto of Frisingen's chronicle, who added the word foemina after the name of the historical John VII. But as we saw in the first chapter, he did not produce his edition until the reign of Leo X (1513-21) at the earliest, and his mistake seems to have been due to the omission of all dates from Otto's papal catalogue, In truth, the Greek man who became John VII, and whose body was buried in St Peter's Basilica upon his perfectly natural death in 707, had but one thing in common with Pope Joan: he also ruled for two years and some months.

A letter which was sent in 1054 to Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, from the Supreme Pontiff Leo IX (1049-54), proves conclusively that the story of the female pope had not yet arisen, or at least that it was still unknown in Rome even though the main events were supposed to have taken place there. This document is important for other reasons and will be discussed fully in the next chapter.

Since we are forced to accept that there is no place for Pope Joan in the ninth century, then what of the eleventh? The earliest sources which we have discovered locate her at the very end of that century, and logically this older tradition should be the more authentic, especially as the gap between her rule and its first chroniclers would thus be only about 150 years. Jean de Mailly, writing around 1250 in his Chronica Universalis, states that there was a woman pope in 1099. His compatriot, Stephen of Bourbon, places her at approximately 1100 even though he copies most of his other details directly from Jean de Mailly, whom he acknowledges by name in the course of his treatise. Such a minor disagreement indicates a certain vagueness on the part of the authors, but it is not of any significance. Nevertheless, we would be well advised not to confine ourselves strictly to those two years when searching for a female pontiff at this time.

A significant feature of the years around 1100 was the number of antipopes who appeared in quick succession on the ecclesiastical stage. Their unusual profusion was due to power struggles between a variety of factions both inside and outside the Church, and in particular to the intervention of the Emperor Henry IV (1056-1106) throughout the period. The famous Pope Gregory VII, who had the knack of making influential enemies on several fronts at once, died in 1085 and by the end of his rule he had lost the support of almost all the Roman clergy. They had, in the main, given their allegiance to the Emperor's antipope, Clement III. In the year 1084, Rome was occupied by Henry's army, and Henry had himself crowned as Emperor by Clement. Gregory meanwhile was under siege in the papal fortress of Castel Sant'Angelo. He appealed for help to the Normans, but they proved to be a bad choice as, by the time they arrived, Henry had already retreated northwards, and the Normans contented themselves with sacking the city. They then returned to Sicily, taking Gregory with them. He died at Salerno on 25 May, 1085, and for exactly a year there was no official pontiff in Rome, although Clement III continued in his unofficial position.

On 24 May, 1086, Victor III reluctantly assumed the papal throne, but he lived for less than a year and a half, after which there was an interregnum of only six months before he was succeeded by Odo, Bishop of Ostia, who took the name Urban II. Clement was still in Rome, and the Emperor controlled a great deal of Italy, so Urban's installation as pope took place in Terracina, one hundred kilometres south-east of the city. He was unable to establish his presence in Rome until 1097, although he had in the meantime secured a prominent place for himself in medieval history by proclaiming the First Crusade from the steps of the Cathedral at Clermont-Ferrand.

Just two weeks after the death of Urban at the end of July 1099, the new pope, Paschal II, was consecrated; but it was some time before his authority became undisputed. In addition to Clement III (1080-1100), the antipopes Theodoric (1100-2), Albert (1102) and Sylvester IV (1105-11) all enjoyed the support of one faction or another within Rome, and as a result gained a brief ascendancy to the discomfiture of Paschal. Even so he survived them all, and his reign of nearly nineteen years was the longest since Leo III (795-816). The contention of Jean de Mailly that Paschal II did not ascend the throne of St Peter until 1106, thus leaving room for Pope Joan, collapses in the face of the established facts.

If the two early chroniclers had a particular reason for placing the story of the female pontiff in the years around 1100, then no doubt it had something to do with the confusion of popes and antipopes which existed at the time. It is too great a leap of logic, however, to assume that one of these rival popes was a woman in disguise. There are no similarities between their lives and that of our subject to justify us in doing so.

We may have been completely unsuccessful in our attempts to find Pope Joan, but the lack of contemporary written evidence does not in itself rule out the possibility of her existence. After all, references to Jesus Christ only started to appear some two decades after his supposed crucifixion, and even then the Christ whom we encounter in St Paul's letters is in no way a fleshed-out human being. When the first of the Gospels, that of St Mark, was compiled, Jesus had been dead for forty years. Yet most people, rightly or wrongly, accept him as a historical figure. A minor first century religious leader, though, is rather more easily missed by his contemporaries than a ninth or eleventh century Supreme Pontiff of the Western Church. The great problem in the case of the female pope is that the papal lists for the times when she is said to have ruled contain no suspicious or unexplained gaps, into which she might be fitted. On the contrary there is a considerable amount of positive evidence proving that other well-authenticated popes reigned throughout both periods.

Before coming to any firm conclusions about the reality or otherwise of Pope Joan, there are four matters associated with her story which need to be looked at more closely. They include the avoidance of a certain street by the popes when in procession, a memorial inscription, a statue of a mother and child, and a pierced seat used in papal ceremonial.

(1) The Shunned Street

The Lateran Palace came into the hands of the Church in the fourth century as a gift from the Emperor Constantine. It had previously been an imperial palace, but immediately became the main residence of the Pope in Rome. The basilica which Constantine raised alongside, on the site of a cavalry barracks, was regarded as the episcopal cathedral of the Pope as Bishop of Rome. Now largely reconstructed in the Baroque style, St John Lateran continues to serve the same purpose today. The Lateran is on the opposite side of Rome to the other main focus of papal activity, the Vatican and St Peter's; and so throughout the Middle Ages, whenever a pope was resident in the city, there was a frequent passing and re-passing of pontifical processions from the one location to the other. The route between them includes both the Colosseum and the great Basilica of St Clement, built on the site of a third century Mithraeum. These two ancient buildings are linked by the Via S. Giovanni in Laterano, but in the later Middle Ages this direct road - which, it appears, contained some kind of statue - was avoided, supposedly out of abhorrence of Pope Joan who was believed to have given birth and died there while on her way from St Peter's.

We know for certain that the detour was made almost as a matter of course during the fifteenth century. In 1486, John Burchard, Bishop of Strasbourg and papa1 Master of Ceremonies under Innocent VIII (1484-92), Alexander VI (1492-1503), Plus III (1503) and Julius II (1503-13), organized a procession for Innocent VIII which broke with tradition by passing along the shunned street. His Liber Notarum records the heavy criticism to which he was subjected as a result:

In going as in returning, he [the pope] came by way of the Colisseum, and that straight road where the statue of the female pope [imago papissae] is located, in token, it is said, that John VII Anglicus gave birth there to a child. For that reason, many say the popes are never allowed to ride on horseback there. Therefore the Lord Archbishop of Florence, the Bishop of Massano, and Hugo de Bencii the Apostolic Subdeacon, delivered a reprimand to me. However, I had words on this subject with the Lord Bishop of Pienza, who told me that it is foolishness and heresy to think that the popes are prohibited from travelling by this street, no authentic document or custom being known which would prevent them.(9)

Although Burchard seems to have doubted the link between the female pope's death and this particular stretch of road, it will be noticed that he was not necessarily questioning her existence as such. His concern was more with challenging the necessity of protecting the reigning pontiff from a sight of the image of his notorious predecessor.

The standard and oft-repeated modern explanation for the diversion away from the most direct route, is that the roadway at this point was too narrow for a procession to pass in comfort, at least until the rebuilding and road-widening works carried out by Sixtus V (1585-90) improved the situation. If this were so, Burchard would surely have remarked on the fact, whereas in reality his procession appears to have found no difficulty at all in using the street.

The true solution to the mystery probably lies in the fact that there were no popes in Rome between 1308 and 1367, and indeed the curia did not officially return from Avignon until 1377. Thus it was that at the precise time when Pope Joan's story, as given by the interpolator of Martin Polonus, was becoming popular, there was no possibility of verifying his claims concerning the papal detour. We only have his word, and that of those authors who copied from him, for its existence prior to the Avignon Captivity. Certainly no one before Martin makes any mention of the diversion, let alone specifying the point at which it occurred. It seems likely that Martin's copyist invented the whole idea, perhaps to add further spice (if such were needed) or verisimilitude to his tale. Thereafter it was picked up and repeated so many times that when the popes returned to the city they adopted the practice on the assumption that it was a genuine tradition, little realizing its recent origins.

Hypothesis this may be but it accords with all the available information, which is more than can be said for the assertion that the female pontiff met her end in the shunned street, or that the road there was simply too narrow for processions.

(2) The Memorial Stone

The two earliest accounts of Pope Joan, which date from the middle of the thirteenth century, refer to this memorial stone with its alliterative inscription, while three other writers place the words from the stone into the mouth of a demon. There is some disagreement among these sources, however, on the exact details of the wording, all of the following being given as alternatives: Petre Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodito Partum (Jean de Mailly); Parce, Pater Patrum, Papisse Prodere Partum (Stephen of Bourbon); and Papa, Pater Patrum, Papiss(a)e Pandito Partum (Chronica Minor, Flores Temporum and, somewhat later, Theodoric Engelhusius).

If the stone ever existed, and it is quite possible that it did, then we have no way of knowing where it was located. The authors who mention it say no more than that the memorial was set up at the place where the woman pontiff died. Stephen of Bourbon alone adds that it was 'outside the city'. Her death, according to this version of events, was the result of a standard form of Roman execution, and it happened at a point at least half a league distant from her confinement. Neither of the two dramas was in any way associated with the street between St Clement's Church and the Colosseum, which became a part of the story only after the Chronicon of Martin Polonus started to circulate some thirty years later.

The stone has long since disappeared, no doubt lost during restoration work or street-widening operations. Nevertheless the origin of the inscription is not difficult to trace, for many others which resemble it are recorded in J.C. Von Orelli's Inscriptionum Latinarum. The lack of consensus on the exact wording suggests that the final three words at least were either partially illegible or represented simply by their initial letters, 'P.P.P.'. In Classical Rome such abbreviations were very common on memorial stones. Von Orelli lists one which features no less than five consecutive initials, 'V.P.P.P.R.', probably for Vice-Praefectus Praetorio Provinciae Raetiarum'.(10) 'P.P.P.' can be interpreted in several ways, but by far the most likely in the context we are considering is Pecunia Propria Posuit or '(he) placed this with his own money'.

The first word of the inscription, variously given in the sources as Petre, Parce and Papa, is too diversely described to be identified today, although it was doubtless the name of the person who paid for the memorial, perhaps shortened to Pap. or Pet.. The one thing on which all the chroniclers agree is the phrase Pater Patrum (Father of Fathers); in actuality a title of some antiquity. Nearly 2000 years ago a large number of Roman men, especially within the army and imperial service, were worshippers of Mithras. Members of the cult passed through seven degrees of initiation: Raven, Occult, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Runner of the Sun and finally Father (Pater). The most distinguished priests of the order, at the summit of the seventh degree, were styled Pater Patrum, and Von Orelli quotes several examples from memorials which either include the straightforward Pater Patrum or elaborate it to Pater Patrum Dei Solis Invicti Mithrae (Father of Fathers of the Invincible Sun God Mithras).(11)

Thus we can be reasonably certain that Pope Joan's monument, if it did indeed exist, was actually erected by an important Mithraic priest of the second or third century AD, many hundreds of years before Joan is said to have lived.

This type of misinterpretation or deliberate misreading of a Classical inscription has occurred in Rome on more than one occasion. Around AD150, for instance, Justin Martyr stated that the notorious magician Simon Magus had preached and been worshipped in Rome some time during the previous century, and as proof of this he adduced a Roman statue which he had heard about, but not personally seen. This figure, he said, was dedicated 'To Simon, the Holy God' (Simoni Deo Sancto). Unfortunately the likelihood is that Justin was fooled by a representation of the old Sabine god Semo Sancus, who was commemorated with the not dissimilar phrase Semoni Sanco Deo Fidio on a stone re-discovered in the sixteenth century. There is no other evidence that Simon Magus ever even visited Rome, although the idea was taken up with enthusiasm by the writer of the Golden Legend among others.

Such myths have often arisen out of attempts to understand obscure inscriptions, with the application of large doses of wishful thinking and imagination. This fact has led some modern authors to the rather implausible conclusion that the entire history of Pope Joan was devised in an effort to make sense of the seemingly incomprehensible Pater Patrum memorial. They mistakenly assume that it was connected with, or perhaps even on the pedestal of, the Roman statue of the woman pontiff which was recorded by various writers from 1375 onwards. However, the inscription is never mentioned by these later witnesses, and there can be little doubt that it was a completely separate and unrelated object, probably even situated in another part of the city altogether. Since it was ignored by Martin Polonus' interpolator, and by all the chroniclers who followed him, the stone can never have been widely associated with the female pope, and any central role for it in the genesis of her story can be ruled out.

(3) The Statue

While the reality of the inscribed stone must remain uncertain, there is no such problem with the statue, believed to represent Pope Joan and her child, which stood somewhere in the narrow street between the Colosseum and St Clement's Basilica. On its exact position the old writers do not quite agree. Some, like the Mirabilia Urbis Romae, say that it was 'nigh unto the Colosseum', but others accord more closely with Adam of Usk's description of it as 'near St Clement's'. If Adam was correct then the object may have been located at the point by St Clement's where the road towards the Church of SS Quattro Incoronati branches from the Via S. Giovanni in Laterano. Alternatively it might have been much closer to the Colosseum, perhaps right at that end of the street. In Lafrery's map of 1557 a small building is drawn at the appropriate spot between the ends of the Via S. Giovanni and the Via Labicana. Possibly the figure was within a niche in one of its exterior walls. It is worth noting, in this connection, that a few late authors refer to a 'House of Pope Joan' near the statue. However, there would seem to be some confusion here with the 'House of Pope John' (domus Iohannis papae), which was recorded in the area between the Colosseum and St Clement's as early as the twelfth century, and which had no connection with the woman pontiff.

After the statue's first appearance in the Mirabilia of around 1375, it was mentioned by many commentators including, as we have seen, the papal Master of Ceremonies, John Burchard, in 1486. When Martin Luther visited Rome, probably late in the year 1510, he also remarked upon it and expressed his surprise that the popes should allow so embarrassing an object to remain in a public place. The image which Luther saw was that of a woman wearing a papal cloak, and holding a child and a sceptre.(12) Vague as this is it is actually the best description available to us. No other writer gives as much detail and, indeed, only one or two go so far as to note that the main figure was accompanied by a baby or child.

This lack of contemporary data makes it impossible for us to come to any definite conclusions as to the nature of the statue, which was removed in the latter half of the sixteenth century, perhaps during renovation work under Sixtus V (1585-90). It could have been an image of Pope Joan exactly as claimed, and in that case it must have been erected on the traditional site of her death some time around the middle of the fourteenth century, when her story was beginning to be widely accepted as true. This would tie in well with the fact that the statue seems to have been completely unknown until about 1375, but not so well with Theodoric of Niem's statement that it was 'erected by Pope Benedict (III), in order to inspire a horror of the scandal which took place on that spot'.(13) Theodoric was writing around 1414 and, if the figure was little more than fifty years old at the time, he would surely not have made such a mistake in dating it. There is another, perhaps more likely, explanation. A pre-existing carving of a mother and her child, probably from the Classical period, could have come to be connected with the female pope for no other reason than it happened to stand in or near the street which Martin Polonus' interpolator associated with her downfall. It is vital to remember that rumours about the avoidance of this street by the popes began to appear nearly one hundred years before the stone image became a part of the standard story.

If the statue was of a Classical date then the theory set out by G. Tomassetti in his article, 'La Statua Della Papessa Giovanna',(14) looks extremely promising. He believes that a certain figure which still survives in the Chiaramonti Gallery of the Vatican Museum is the very one which we have been discussing. It is a charming portrayal of a serene and dignified young woman suckling a child. She is heavily and modestly robed and wears a diadem upon her head, while the baby which she holds on her lap is quite naked. Such groupings were surprisingly rare in ancient Rome. According to Tomassetti the only other one to have survived is of Ino suckling Bacchus, a rather less decorous depiction of motherhood, which was formerly in the courtyard of the Lante Palace.

The sculpture now in the Vatican probably represents Juno suckling the infant Heracles, as she was supposedly tricked into doing in order to ensure his immortality. Or perhaps it is an abstract personification of fertility, although this seems less likely. If it is to be identified, however tentatively, with the famous image of Pope Joan, then obviously a link must be established between it and the shunned street. Tomassetti's efforts to prove the existence of such a link depend upon the premise that Joan's statue was removed by Sixtus V. It is known that the present Vatican figure came from the Quirinal Gardens, which were created by Sixtus in the late 1580s, and decorated with ancient marbles. These he obtained readily enough from various areas of Rome during a massive re-building programme, which he undertook throughout the city. It was at this time that he widened and improved the narrow street between St Clement's and the Colosseum. The financial accounts of the establishment of the Quirinal Gardens survive, but unfortunately the transport of the marbles was sub-contracted, and is recorded only as a lump sum without itemization. Thus there is no way of telling whether any of the works of art were taken from that particular roadway. Without such a vital piece of evidence the identification of the female pope's statue with the Classical sculpture from the Quirinal can only be considered as an attractive but unproven possibility.

Moreover it poses its own set of problems, which Tomassetti ignores. Where, for instance, is the sceptre which Martin Luther saw in 1510? The existing figure carries nothing apart from the baby, and although Tomassetti points out that the woman's shoulder and right arm have been restored, it seems aesthetically unlikely that she could ever have held any additional object. The proposed date of the old statue's disappearance is not entirely borne out by other sources either. St Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), the celebrated Jesuit cardinal, composed his De Summo Pontifice in 1577, a few years before Sixtus V ascended the papal throne. Yet in its pages he persistently refers to Pope Joan's image in the past tense, with the clear implication that it had already been pulled down. His description of it is remarkably odd too, for he maintains that it did not depict a woman with an infant on her lap at all. Instead, the larger figure was male and the smaller was 'a fairly large child, several years old, preceding like a servant'.(15) He therefore conjectures that the group was of 'some pagan priest prepared for a sacrifice and preceded by his attendant'. Meagre as the eye-witness accounts of the statue are, they cannot be made to accord with this. The obvious deduction is that Bellarmine never saw it for himself, and this being the case perhaps we should accept the testimony of Elias Hasenmuller who, in the last decade of the sixteenth century, was told on good authority that the image had been thrown into the Tiber by Pius V (1566-72).(16)

But what are we to make of the statue of Pope Joan which the Englishman Thomas Harding saw some time prior to 1565, 'graven in a stone, after the manner of a tombstone, pitched upright not far from the Colosseo'?(17) This object, he declared, no more resembled a figure than do the rough-hewn stones at Stonehenge and Great Rollright or the natural rock formation known as the Witch of Wookey Hole.

In truth, we can be sure of almost nothing concerning the statue apart from the bare fact that it existed, and was closely connected with the female pontiff for at least 150 years.

(4) The Pierced Seat

The consecration of each new pope took place in the Basilica of St John Lateran, the papal cathedral. For approximately four centuries, during the late Middle Ages, not just one but two pierced seats were used in the ceremony. They were known as the sedia curules, a phrase which in ancient Rome denoted the thrones on which the Consuls sat. At a certain point in the consecration service the new pontiff proceeded to the Chapel of St Sylvester where the chairs were situated, and sat first on one, then on the other, while a ritual was enacted. The exact nature of this ritual is revealed by papal Master of Ceremonies, John Burchard, in his detailed and reliable description of the coronation of Innocent VIII on 12 September, 1484:

...the pope was led to the door of St Svlvester's chapel, near which were placed two plain porphvry seats, in the first of which, from the right of the door, the pope sat, as though lying down: and when he was thus seated, the prior of the Lateran gave into the pope's hand a rod in token of ruling and correction and the keys of the Basilica and the Lateran Palace, in token of the power of closing and opening, of binding and loosing. (18)

The pontiff then moved to the second chair in order to hand back the rod and keys.

No one, least of all the Church authorities, can reasonably question the existence of the seats, nor the fact that they were pierced, for one survives in Rome to this day. Pius VI had them both removed from St John's to the Vatican Museum in the late eighteenth century, and one still remains there, in the Museo Pio Clementino. The other found its way to Paris as part of the loot from Napoleon's invasion of Italy - loot which contained many works of art as well as a large part of the Vatican archives. Although the archives were eventually returned to Rome, the seat was not, and it is now in the Louvre Museum. Cesare D'Onofrio includes photographs of the two chairs in his La Papessa Giovanna (1979),(19) but when we enquired after the one in the Louvre we were told by a representative that the Museum 'ne conserve pas de trône pontifical.' There are some who will choose to see this as yet another manifestation of a long-running conspiracy to hide and obscure the truth of the Pope Joan story!

To judge from D'Onofrio's pictures, the chairs have survived the passage of time very well. They are still handsome objects; both carved in red marble and practically identical in design. It is said that they were discovered in an old Roman bath and, whether or not this is true, there is no doubt that they date back to Classical times. Presumably they were used in the consecration purely because of their undeniably impressive appearance, for the holes in their seats would seem to have been irrelevant to the ceremonial itself. They may originally have been made as commodes, but D'Onofrio has argued in favour of a different explanation for their perforation. He asserts that the thrones were intended as obstetric chairs; indeed this is quite a tenable theory in view of their close resemblance to others, such as one in blue stone in the British Museum, which served that purpose. D'Onofrio goes one step further and speculates that they were used by the Catholic authorities to symbolize the position of St John Lateran as the Mother Church. Undoubtedly this distinction was claimed, and from the twelfth century it was emphasized by an inscription, Mater et Caput Omnium Ecclesiarum (Mother and Head of All the Churches), which was carved on the Cathedral's façade. However, the connection between this title and the pierced seats is not convincing. Using the principles of Occam's Razor, there is no need to look any further than their obvious beauty and splendour to explain their employment in the papal consecration.

As we have already seen, it was commonly reported during the late Middle Ages that the seats were perforated so that a deacon could check the sex of the newly-appointed pope and make sure that he was not a eunuch or a woman in disguise. Nevertheless, there was no shortage of contemporary writers who cast doubts on these rumours. One thing which contributed to the general confusion and disagreement was the existence of a third chair, which was not one of the sedia curules. This sedes stercoraria also played a part in the enthronement ritual. In 1479 the Prefect of the Vatican Library, Bartolomeo Platina, referred to it when discounting the popular story:

[This]... we feel arises from the seat having been equipped in order that the person enthroned should know themselves not divine but human, and subject to the necessities of nature, whereby the seat is called the sedes stercoraria.(20)

This third chair was of white marble, placed at the entrance to the Basilica, and - contrary to Platina's hints - it was not pierced like the others. It never left St John Lateran and remains there, though rather the worse for wear, to this day. The name given to it derives solely from its use at a certain point in the ceremony, when the words 'Suscitat de pulvere egenum et de stercore erigit pauperem,ut sedeat cum principibus et solium glorie teneat' were chanted while the new pope reclined upon it. The quotation, 'He raises up the poor out of the dust and lifts the needy out of the dunghill; That he may sit with princes and hold the throne with glory' (Psalm 113: 7-8), was supposed to remind the pontiff that he was but a humble man, despite his exalted status.

Afterwards, before leaving the white chair, the pope was given three handfuls of coins, which he threw to the people, saying 'Gold and silver are not mine, but that which I have I give to you'.(21)

It is easy to understand how the confusion between the three seats could have arisen among those who were not intimately involved with the workings of the Lateran. Having heard about one or more pierced chairs, they would naturally have assumed that the sedes stercoraria or 'dung seat' was the most likely candidate. They little realized that its title implied nothing about its nature. Even Vatican officials like Platina were capable of making this error, and the misunderstanding has had a very long life. Some modern guidebooks to Rome still persist in repeating it.(22)

All three thrones were first mentioned in descriptions of the consecration of Pope Paschal II in August 1099. Strangely enough, Jean de Mailly and Stephen of Bourbon both chose to place the ascendancy of Pope Joan at around 1099 or 1100, but it is hard to see how this coincidence of dates can be anything more than chance, curious though it is. Tales of the sexing of the pope had not yet started to appear when they were writing, and neither author remarks on the new ritual in the context of the woman pontiff, or anywhere else for that matter.

The chairs played their part in subsequent ceremonies for several hundred years, ending with the reign of Leo X, whose enthronement in 1513 was the last to feature them. His successor, the saintly Hadrian VI (1522-3), abolished their use in the course of his reforms. Perhaps his decision was prompted by the foolish and unpleasant rumours about them, which were at the height of their popularity by then, and showed no signs of fading.

The story of the examination of each new pope to prove that he was really a man was certainly a favourite one, but it was undoubtedly pure invention. In the official sources throughout the period, such as the Ordo Romanus which contains the directions for the consecration ceremonial, it is conspicuous only by its absence. And witnesses to events in Rome well before the time of John Burchard call the tale a 'senseless popular fable', to use the words of Jacobo d'Agnola di Scarperia, written after the inauguration of Gregory XII in 1406.(23)

However, juicy scandal of this sort takes a long time to lose its appeal. The fact that the chairs ceased to fulfil even their completely innocent function after 1513 did not deter later writers, like the Swede Lawrence Banck, from claiming that the pope's sex was still being ascertained in the 'traditional' manner. In Banck's case, the enthronement in question was that of Innocent X in 1644. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Pius VI took the final step of removing the pierced seats from the Lateran in the following century.

We have explored all the avenues of enquiry which might have led us to a historical female pontiff, and on investigation the evidence has come to very little. It has also been quite impossible to find any suspicious lacunae in the papal lists for the appropriate periods. The obvious conclusion, albeit a reluctant one, must be that the legend of Pope Joan is just that and nothing more.

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

(1) J.D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum Amplissima Collectio (1759), XV, cols.113-19.

(2) ibid, XIV, cols.1017-21.

(3) OC, III, cols 394-5; and Peter Llewellyn, Rome in the Dark Ages (1970), p.270.

(4) Horace K. Mann, The Lives of the Popes in the Middle Ages (1925), II, pp.327-8.

(5) OC, III, cols.405-6.

(6) ibid, III, cols.411-12.

(7) ibid, III, co1.413.

(8) ibid, III, co1.423.

(9) John Burchard, Liber Notarum; RISS, XXXII pt 1, vol.1, p.176.

(10) J.C. Von Orelli, Inscriptionum Latinarum Selectarum Amplissima Collectio et Illustrandam Romanae Antiquitatis (1828), I, pp.407-8.

(11) ibid, I, p.409.

(12) Eugène Müntz, 'La Légende de la Papesse Jeanne'; La Bibliofilia, (1900) pt 2, p.333.

(13) Emmanuel D. Rhöides, Pope Joan - A Historical Study (1886), p.82.

(14) G. Tomassetti, 'La Statua Della Papessa Giovanna'; Bullettino Della Commissione Archeologica Comunale de Roma, XXXV (1907), pp.82-95.

(15) Robert Bellarmine, Opera Omnia (1872), I, pp.474-5.

(16) Elias Hasenmuller, Historia Iesuitici Ordinis (1593), p.315.

(17) Thomas Harding, A Confutation of a Booke Intituled An Apologie of the Church of England (1565, facsimile reprint 1976), p.167a.

(18) Burchard, op. cit., p.83.

(19) Cesare D'Onofrio, La Papessa Giovanna: Roma E Papato Tra Storia E Leggenda (1979), figs 85, 86.

(20) Müntz, op. cit., pp.330-31.

(21) Burchard, op. cit., p.83.

(22) Georgina Masson, The Companion Guide to Rome (1980), pp.274-5.

(23) John J.I. Von Döllinger, Fables Respecting the Popes of the Middle Ages (1871), p.50.

Copyright (c) 1988 Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe

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