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The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan

by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe



HOW and when did the story of Pope Joan arise, and was it a deliberate fabrication? If so, to what purpose? These are the obvious questions which remain to be answered if the woman pontiff did not actually exist.

The statue and the pierced seats can have little bearing on the problem since they only became widely linked with the tale one hundred years or more after its inception, and long after it had gained great popularity in its own right. Cesare D'Onofrio's claim that the story grew from a symbolic act of childbirth by each new pope (representing the Mother Church), while seated on the pierced chairs, can be dismissed for the same reason. His supposition that 'the father assumed the position of labour'(1) during the ceremony of the handing over of the keys is intriguing, especially in view of John Burchard's use of the phrase 'as though lying down' in this context, but it is not relevant to Pope Joan.

There are many other theories to choose from, but a number make the unnecessary and false assumption that a mysterious event in the ninth century must have provoked the legend. These can be discounted by some of the same arguments as we have advanced for the rejection of Pope Joan herself: in particular the lack of contemporary sources and the fact that the myth did not appear until four hundred years later. A representative example is the belief of Professor N.C. Kist,(2) in the last century, that the female pope was the widow of her predecessor, Leo IV, and ruled in conjunction with his successor Benedict III. Thus did Kist ingeniously fit her in where there was in reality no room.

The basic idea that a married man could become the supreme pontiff is not in the least unreasonable. Only a few years after Leo IV, the septuagenarian Hadrian II (867-72) actually had his wife and daughter living with him in the Lateran Palace, until they were kidnapped and then killed by Eleutherius, a relative of Anastasius the Librarian. At that time the Fourth Lateran Council and the enforcement of clerical celibacy were more than 300 years in the future. In the case of Leo, though, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that he ever married, and Kist's remarkable hypothesis is not even hinted at in any of the medieval chronicles.

Cardinal Baronius, the Vatican librarian at the beginning of the seventeenth century, thought that the real John VIII (872-82) might have been maliciously called a 'woman' because of his supposedly 'easy and pliable nature',(3) particularly in connection with his re-instatement of Photius as Patriarch of Constantinople. This view does not stand up if we examine the known facts about John, who was a ruthless opportunist and an aggressive personality to say the least. A similar theory concerning John VII (705-7) was put forward shortly after Baronius' time, but it would seem to be equally ill-founded. John VII is said to have been jeered at as a 'woman' for his lack of vigour in proscribing the canons of the Council of Trullo (692), which had been emphatically rejected by his predecessor, Sergius I.

Other suggestions about the legend can be discarded just as speedily. The prolific late Victorian author, Sabine Baring-Gould, was a man of many quaint notions, some of which are revealed in his Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. On the female pontiff, he has this to say:

I have little doubt myself that Pope Joan is an impersonification of the great whore of Revelation, seated on the seven hills, and is the popular expression of the idea prevalent from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, that the mystery of iniquity was somehow working in the papal court. The scandal of the Antipopes, the utter worldliness and pride of others along with the words of Revelation prophesying the advent of an adulterous woman who should rule over the imperial city, and her connexion with Antichrist, crystallized into this curious myth.(4)

There is a certain appeal to the thought, and it seems to be quite true that a few authors did equate Joan with the Scarlet Woman of Revelation. Petrarch, for one, was surely hinting at such a thing when he listed the horrors which followed her reign. Nevertheless, the tale was current for a long time before it started to take on such symbolic overtones, and they cannot have been involved in its beginnings. That the papacy was often, and from an early date, identified with the Great Whore of the Apocalypse in the polemic of its enemies is undeniable, but the image was considered as referring to the Bishops of Rome in general rather than to any specific one.

At first sight, a more acceptable theory is that which is advanced in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and in the part-work The Unexplained (5) among other places, tracing the origin of the female pope to the House of Theophylact. The Theophylact in question was a tenth-century Roman senator whose wife, Theodora, had a friend and supposed lover in Ravenna, where he held an ecclesiastical office. Under her protection he became the Bishop of Ravenna and then, in 914, ascended the papal throne as John X. Theodora died in about 924, and in a coup which her daughter Marozia organized some four years later, John X was imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo where he soon died in suspicious circumstances. His successors, Leo VI and Stephen VIII, were also quickly murdered, and in 931 John XI took office. This young man was the son of Marozia, and rumour had it that his father was Pope Sergius III, who ruled from 904 to 911.

The new pontiff's position depended entirely on the continuing authority of his mother, but when she made an unpopular marriage in 933 her other son, Alberic, took advantage of the situation and ousted her from power. She died, or was killed, shortly afterwards. John XI meanwhile was allowed to remain on the papal throne for just as long as it served his half-brother's purposes. In 935 he was deposed and Alberic, now in full temporal control of Rome, made sure that the succession of popes who followed were little more than his puppets. Eventually, a year or two after Alberic's death, his own son Octavius became supreme pontiff in 955, adopting the title of John XII. It was soon clear that this John had little regard for the religious implications of his office, and he became notorious for his immorality, even in that turbulent age. He had a number of mistresses whom he endowed with riches from the coffers of the Church, and one particular favourite he even set up as a feudal lord.

During his reign, John was faced with the military threat of King Berengar of Italy, and he called on Otto, King of the Saxons, to render assistance. Otto did as he was requested, but then took the Papal States as part of his own domain; an outcome not at all to the liking of the Pope, who was forced to turn for aid to his former enemy, Berengar. Otto returned to Rome and deposed John in 963, on the grounds of his gross immorality. Five months later he was murdered, apparently while on the way to visit his mistress.

But the Theophylact story did not quite end there. The family regained influence in the early part of the next century and produced three more popes, the progeny of John's brother, Gregory. Benedict VIII (1012-24) and John XIX (1024-1032) were both great-grandsons of Marozia, and Benedict IX (1032-48 with breaks) was her great-great-grandson.

Our main source of contemporary information on the tenth century Theophylacts is Liudprand of Cremona, the tone of whose account can be gathered from these introductory words:

A certain shameless strumpet called Theodora at one time was sole monarch of Rome and - shame upon us even to say the words! - exercised power in the most manly fashion. She had two daughters, Marotia and Theodora, and these damsels were not only her equals but could even surpass her in the exercises that Venus loves.(6)

Liudprand had an axe to grind, being a supporter of Otto of Saxony and therefore an enemy not only of John XII but of all his forbears as well. Nevertheless it is clear that Marozia undertook a considerable amount of political machination, and was unscrupulous in her quest for power, though no more so than many a man of her time. People have always been only too willing to believe ill of ambitious women, and one cannot help but wonder whether Liudprand's biased statements would have been uncritically accepted for so long if he had been discussing a less female-dominated family. Modern opinion (7) has tended to redeem the Theophylacts from the black picture which the older writers liked to paint of them. Theodora the Elder seems to have been a much more faithful and pious person than Liudprand would have us believe, and no one has ever discovered any lapse on the part of Marozia's sister, the other Theodora, who was a blameless character so far as we know.

A number of authors have claimed that the legend of Pope Joan grew out of a confused memory of this period when puppet pontiffs acted under the direction of the Theophylact women, who constituted a 'power behind the throne' and could, perhaps with some justice in the case of Marozia, be maligned as 'female popes' in rather the same manner as Mrs Proudie was regarded as the Bishop of Barchester. But if this were truly the origin of the story, then why did it not arise within a short time of the era concerned, instead of more than 300 years later? And why, when it did eventually see the light of day, was it not set correctly in the tenth century by a single one of its many chroniclers?

There seems to be no way around these difficulties, and we believe that Pope Joan's origin has to be sought in a totally different direction. In fact we have already touched upon the letter which contains our first positive clue. It was written by Pope Leo IX to Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, in 1054:

God forbid that we wish to believe what public opinion does not hesitate to claim has happened to the Church of Constantinople; namely that in promoting eunuchs indiscriminately against the First Law of the Council of Nicaea, it once raised a woman on to the seat of its pontiff. We regard this crime as so abominable and horrible that although outrage and horror of it and brotherly goodwill do not allow us to believe it; nevertheless, reflecting upon your carelessness towards the judgement of Holy Law, we consider that it could have happened because even now you indifferently and repeatedly promote eunuchs and those who are weak in some part of their body not only into clerical office, but also to the position of pontiff.(8)

This attack on the patriarchate is important for two reasons. To begin with it confirms, by implication, our conclusion that the tale of the female pope was unknown in the eleventh century. In 1054 the final schism between the Eastern and Western Churches occurred, and there was no love lost between their respective leaders. Leo IX would scarcely have risked raising the subject of a woman patriarch of Constantinople if he had been aware of a similar stain on the Church of Rome, a stain which Michael Cerularius would not have hesitated to throw straight back in his face if it had existed.

Even more interesting, and demanding of further investigation, is the information that rumours of another female religious leader were rife when the letter was sent. If there were no corroboration from other sources this could, no doubt, be dismissed as a fiction invented by Pope Leo in order to support his argument, but the evidence shows that the story to which he was referring dated back over 150 years. The Chronicon Salernitanum, of around 980, tells it thus:

At that time [during the reign of Charlemagne] a certain patriarch ruled over Constantinople, a good and just man but undoubtedly defiled by carnal love, so much so that he kept his niece in his house as though she were a eunuch, and wrapped her all around in beautiful apparel. This patriarch, when close to death, commended his nephew, as she seemed to be, to the favour of all. Upon his demise they all, being in complete ignorance, chose with one voice she who was a woman, as their bishop. She presided over them for almost a year and a half. But in the night time, when weary limbs are subdued by sleep, an evil spirit appeared before the bed where Arichis was sleeping, and it spoke aloud, proclaiming, 'What are you doing, Arichis?' While he was making sense of the unusual clamour in his ears, the devil spoke again: 'I will disclose to you what I have done. The people of Constantinople have certainly elected a woman, and therefore it is engaging the wrath of the redeemer of that land.' And saying this he departed. At once the same prince sent envoys to Constantinople, and they ascertained that all which the devil had revealed to him was true, and then this abomination was put an end to.(9)

Erchempert, monk and poet of Monte Cassino, also mentions Arichis' dream and its consequences, in his history of the Lombards of Southern Italy, which was written as early as the last decade of the ninth century.(10) His version adds that after her overthrow the false patriarch was imprisoned in a nunnery, while the plague which God had unleashed on the city as punishment for her impropriety swiftly died out.

Although no precise date is given for these events, a fair approximation can be made. Prince Arichis, the surprised recipient of the visitation from a denizen of Hell, was the Duke of Benevento, near Naples, until his death in 787. We also know, from the context of the account in the Chronicon Salernitanum, that it was set in the time of Charlemagne (742-814) when a Pope Stephen was on the throne of St Peter. There is actually a choice of three, but Stephen II (752) and Stephen III (752-7) are probably a little too early. On the other hand, the reign of Stephen IV (768-72) fits the bill perfectly. Unfortunately no patriarch of Constantinople was deposed in mysterious circumstances throughout the whole of the latter half of the eighth century, and the briefest reign during the period, that of the Cypriot, Paul IV, was still more than twice the year and a half given for the female patriarch. It seems highly unlikely that she ever existed, but none the less she may have originated in a historical figure, for one of the accusations made by Pope Leo IX in his letter was well-founded.

From 766 to 780, including the years when Stephen IV was Pope, a certain Nicetas held the patriarchate.(11) He was ordained with the approval of the Emperor, even though he was a eunuch and therefore perhaps ineligible for the office, under the first canon of the Council of Nicaea in 325. The case is not entirely clear-cut, however, for the law only barred self-mutilators from the priesthood, and not eunuchs in general as Leo IX claimed. Whether Nicetas' castration was self-inflicted or not, and at what age it took place, is not known.

He was, at any rate, probably unable to grow a beard, and in the Eastern Church where the clergy were forbidden to shave, this would have marked him out as something of an oddity. In consequence he may well have been mocked from time to time as a 'woman'. The belief might also have begun that if a eunuch could become patriarch then so could a member of the female sex. From this it is easy to understand how the story in Erchempert's Historia Langobardorum and the Chronicon Salernitanum arose.

As we have seen, the fable of the woman patriarch was current by about 890 at the latest. Thus it pre-dates Pope Joan by nearly 400 years. Could it have been transferred from one Church Head to another in the thirteenth century? Despite the fact that it is rather different in the telling, there are some important similarities which would tend to support the possibility. Most noteworthy is the resemblance between the demonic betrayer of the patriarch and the evil spirit in two of the earliest versions of Pope Joan's story, in the Chronica Minor and the Flores Temporum. Although the devil in these works appears in a different context, its role is otherwise almost identical to that of Arichis' vision.

But why should a tale about a female patriarch, which had been told since the ninth century, suddenly be adapted for the vilification of the Roman pontiff in the thirteenth? The rumours about a woman pope may have spread by word of mouth for a few years before they were written down by Jean de Mailly, so we cannot assume automatically that they began with him. It does seem certain, however, that they originated in eastern France (where Jean de Mailly lived, and Stephen of Bourbon is known to have visited in his official capacity) or Germany, and not in Rome. At this time the papacy had numerous enemies, any of whom could have seen the opportunities offered by the Greek fable and made full use of them, but when the earliest known history of the Pope Joan legend is studied, little doubt remains that the culprits responsible were Franciscan and Dominican friars.

St Francis of Assisi had founded his Order at the start of the century, obtaining papal approval from Innocent III in 1209, just before the Fourth Lateran Council's ban on the formation of new religious orders in 1215. Originally, the Franciscans followed a very strict Rule of poverty, but it was inevitable that as the Order became more of an established institution within the Church, the restrictions on the behaviour and possessions of the friars should be eased with the passage of time. A split occurred between those Franciscans who adapted themselves to conform to a more normal type of organization, and those who still wished for the strict observance of their founder's Rule. The popes, on the whole, favoured the former group, and the friars who remained true to their origins were treated with increasing harshness. This was the more so because many of them were attracted to the dangerous teachings of Joachim of Fiore. Joachim (1145-1202) had taught that the world would go through three cycles, those of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the 1250s a book called the Eternal Gospel began to circulate. It contained the works of Joachim, together with a prophetic introduction claiming that the Era of the Holy Spirit would be inaugurated in the year 1260, involving a complete collapse of the current ecclesiastical hierarchy. When this did not happen on time, a brisk revision of the dates ensured that Joachim's supporters stayed faithful to the cause, but so blatant a threat to the papacy could not be allowed to continue indefinitely. It was eventually dealt with by John XXII (1316-34), who was promptly branded as the Antichrist for his pains.

The undercurrent of discontent among these groups within the Franciscan brotherhood affected its relationship with the Church in Rome throughout the whole of the latter half of the thirteenth century. The other main order of friars, the Dominicans, founded by the Spaniard Dominic de Guzman at about the same date as the Franciscans, also had their reasons for complaint against the papacy from time to time. In 1254, for instance, Innocent IV upheld the restrictions on their scholastic activities which the University of Paris had imposed when it realized that they were claiming too many privileges and gaining too much power within the system. He also issued the Bull Etsi animarum, which deprived them of other freedoms. Soon afterwards Innocent died, and it was widely reported that his death was the direct result of the prayers of the Dominicans, who profited considerably from the accession of his more sympathetic successor.

It must be significant that the first chroniclers of Pope Joan were all friars. Jean de Mailly and Stephen of Bourbon were French Dominicans, while the Flores Temporum and the Chronica Minor both came from Franciscan friaries in Germany. The tale of the woman pontiff was most probably devised and then perpetuated by individuals within the mendicant orders, as an amusing way of getting their own back for what they saw as their continued unreasonable treatment at the hands of particular popes. As a serious attempt to undermine the authority of the papacy it was doomed to failure, but taken in the spirit in which it was intended - as a scurrilous joke - its durability has been everything its authors could have hoped for.

The bare framework of the initial idea was quickly fleshed out by imaginative embroidery, with background details of a kind familiar from other tales of the Middle Ages. The medieval mind was fascinated by the thought of a woman passing herself off successfully as a man, and thereby enhancing her status in the eyes of God. Any story which included such an imposture was guaranteed instant popularity, and the theme regularly turned up in accounts of the lives of female saints.(12) St Eugenia, for example, was probably a third century Roman martyr, but virtually nothing authentic is known about her. The later legend says that she fled from her Alexandrian household in the guise of a man, accompanied by two servants, SS Protus and Hyacinth, and entered a nearby monastery. There she eventually rose to the office of abbot, but was forced to reveal her sex when a woman whom she had cured of sickness became angry at having her advances refused, and accused the saint of misconduct. Unable to remain in the monastery, Eugenia, together with her newly converted mother and family, travelled to Rome where she was finally beheaded for her faith.

The stories of St Marina, St Theodora, St Margaret Reparata, St Euphrosyne, St Apollinaria (also known as St Hilaria) and St Anastasia Patricia all closely resemble that of Eugenia, but we have no evidence whatever that any of them existed outside the fertile imaginations of the monks who invented them. Marina is said to have lived in a monastery in Bithynia from a very early age. Her father, who was a monk, had taken her there clothed as a boy, and when he died she stayed on, with her sex quite unknown to all, until an innkeeper's daughter claimed that Marina had fathered her child. Unlike Eugenia, she did not immediately prove her innocence by the obvious means, and her feminine sex was discovered only after her decease.

The same predicament faced St Theodora, the wife of Gregory, Prefect of Alexandria. Having taken a lover, she fled in contrition to a monastery, where she lived among the monks for many years in male disguise, till at last a young girl, whom she had rebuffed, spitefully named her as the father of her baby. Choosing not to confess her womanhood, Theodora was expelled and, like Marina, actually adopted the child, bringing it up for some years before returning to the monastery where she was vindicated upon her death. Later her adopted son became the abbot there.

St Anastasia Patricia dressed as a man and willingly withstood the rigours of life as a hermit monk in preference to the amorous attentions of the Emperor Justinian, while St Euphrosyne and St Margaret Reparata had the same motives for their drastic actions although their suitors were rather humbler. This detail aside, St Margaret's history is very similar to that of Eugenia and the others. Accused of immoral conduct, this time with a nun of the convent where she had become 'prior', the truth about her only came to light on her death-bed.

The purity of St Anastasia and St Euphrosyne, on the other hand, was never questioned. It is claimed that for thirty-eight years Euphrosyne lived a blameless life in a monastery near Alexandria, during which time she even heard her own father's confession regularly without being recognized. Anastasia took no such risks, hiding for twenty-eight years in an anchorite's cave and seeing no one.

Euphrosyne, Anastasia and Margaret belong with that large group of female saints who took vows of virginity and suffered martyrdom rather than submit to an undesired marriage with a pagan, as in the popular legend of St Margaret of Antioch who preferred decapitation to matrimony. The most startling of these martyrs to chastity was undoubtedly the imaginary Portuguese princess, St Uncumber (or Wilgefortis), who, on being faced with a future husband selected by her father, prayed to God for help and was rewarded with a profuse growth of beard. Not unnaturally her father was somewhat put out by this unusual occurrence and had her crucified. The fates of the female monks, who renounced their sex rather less spectacularly, were mild by comparison.

Most of these stories probably derived, at least in part, from the early legend of St Pelagia the Penitent. The connection in the cases of St Margaret and St Marina is certain, for Margaret was called 'Pelagius' by her brothers in Christ, and 'Marina' is no more than the Latin rendering of the Greek 'Pelagia' (of the sea). According to the narrative of 'James the Deacon', Pelagia was a beautiful dancing girl in Antioch, who repented her dissolute life after hearing the preaching of Nonnus, the historical Bishop of Edessa in the middle of the fifth century. She clothed herself in male attire and travelled to the Mount of Olives, where she lived in a cell for the rest of her days, becoming known locally as 'Pelagius, monk and eunuch'. Her secret was only discovered by those who came to bury her body. In amazement they all cried, 'Glory to Thee, Lord Christ, who hast many treasures hidden on the earth, and not men only, but women also'.(13)

Myths of Christian women adopting masculine disguise are almost as old as Christianity itself. Earlier even than St Pelagia was St Thecla, perhaps the most famous of them all. She was reputedly a companion of St Paul, but she is not mentioned in either the Acts of the Apostles or any of St Paul's letters. It is the apocryphal second century Acts of Paul which tells how she fled from her betrothed in Iconium in order to follow the apostle, and at one stage, after many adventures, temporarily dressed herself as a boy, sewing 'her mantle into a cloak after the fashion of a man'.

Of all these women only St Eugenia may reasonably be supposed to have existed, and even in her case few details of her legend have any historical accuracy. St Hildegund, however, is rather different.(14) Her existence seems well established, for immediately after she died in 1188 an account of her life was written by a Cistercian Abbot named Engelhard. His source was a monk of Schönau Abbey, near Heidelberg, where the dying Hildegund had confessed her story, omitting only to disclose her sex which was revealed later, and her real name which came to light after posthumous enquiries in the place of her birth. Calling herself 'Joseph', she had entered the monastery as a novice many months previously, having led a remarkably eventful life from early adolescence.

Apparently she was the daughter of a noble couple from Neuss, on the Rhine near Cologne, and always a weakly child. As a thanksgiving for her birth, and perhaps for that of a twin sister, Agnes, her parents vowed to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but the mother died before she could leave, and Hildegund had to take her place. Realizing the dangers of taking a young girl on such a trip, her father sensibly dressed her in the clothing of a boy. They reached Jerusalem safely, but on their way back the father died, and Hildegund, by then known as 'Joseph', was left to cope as best she could. After a number of mishaps she did manage to get back to Germany, but her adventures were far from over. In the employ of an envoy of Archbishop Philip of Cologne, Hildegund was commissioned to carry letters to the Pope, but on the road she was mistaken for a thief and condemned to death, submitted to trial by ordeal, freed and finally hanged by relatives of the real thief. She survived her three days on the gibbet through the intervention of an angel who held her up by the waist and also, presumably by way of passing the time, correctly forecast the date of her death three (or two) years hence. It was some short while after her rescue that she entered the monastery at Schönau, perhaps having become so used to being treated as a man by then that she found it inconceivable to change.

The more miraculous episodes of this account are obviously to be taken with a pinch of salt. Hildegund herself may have invented them, but it is equally likely that the community at Schönau made them up. As Herbert Thurston has pointed out, it was in the monks' best interests to exaggerate such matters in order to show that they had been fooled by a saint rather than an ordinary woman - an ordinary woman, moreover, who had broken the Old Testament law which forbade transvestism as an 'abomination' (Deuteronomy 22:5).

We are on safer ground with her life after she became a novice. There are several early sources which corroborate Engelhard's version of the affair, without actually copying it (see the Appendix for full details). Undoubtedly the most influential of these was Caesar of Heisterbach's Dialogus Miraculorum. Compiled between 1220 and 1235, this popular collection of gossip and more-or-less moral tales contains a lengthy section on Hildegund, which the author claims to have based on the recollections of one Brother Hermannus, a young fellow-novice of the saint's at Schönau.

The fact that 'Joseph' was female remained unknown until her death, but Caesar reports a certain initial puzzlement on the part of the monastery's abbot: 'When he heard the gentle feminine voice in which she spoke, [he] said to her, "Brother Joseph, has your voice not yet broken?" and she answered: "Sir, I do not think it will ever break".' She seems to have been ailing for most of the time, but 'she slept among men, with men she ate and drank, with men she bared her back to the scourge' without being detected. However, if Caesar is to be believed, her presence did trouble a few of the monks, one of whom is described as saying, 'This brother of ours is either a woman or a devil, because I have never been able to look at him without temptation'.

Hildegund's illness may have helped protect her from discovery for, in the situation in which she found herself, the hardest thing to disguise would not have been her feminine form, but her periods. If she was sick and ill-nourished when she arrived at the monastery, she may have ceased menstruating altogether, and never returned to her natural rhythm in her final months. It is even possible to theorize further that, in an unconscious effort to avoid maturing into a woman, she had become a victim of anorexia nervosa and never had any periods at all. Perhaps, like St Hilaria, one of the legendary female monks, she was 'shrunken with ascetic practices nor was she subject to the curse of women; since God Almighty ordained for her the thing appointed'.(15)

She must, at any rate, have been very confused and disturbed when she came to Schönau. Having been made to act as a boy at such a formative stage in her childhood, the effect on her would have been profound, especially since she did not originally assume the role from choice. The stress of years of concealment may well have contributed to her early death, whether from anorexia nervosa or some other psychologically based disease.

There is admittedly no exact parallel to the story of Pope Joan in St Hildegund's history, nor in the fables of the other women we have discussed. The female pope is always portrayed as a far stronger character who is not forced to adopt men's clothing by circumstance, but deliberately chooses to do so in order to gain power and knowledge. Most of the others are obvious victims, usually of male oppression in some shape or form. Nowhere is this more evident than in the very late (and probably historical) case of the Blessed Hugolina, who seems to have lived for forty-seven years as Hugo the hermit, in a cell near Vercelli, in the second half of the thirteenth century. She was only fourteen years old when forced to flee from her family home after her father attempted to commit incest with her.(16)

Pope Joan did not become a victim until the very end of her life. Nevertheless, such tales must undoubtedly have helped in the development of her legend. In particular, the revelations about Hildegund, occurring as they did at the end of the twelfth century and being popularized almost immediately by Caesar of Heisterbach, will have ensured that the idea of a woman passing as a male cleric was less than novel. Small wonder then that Pope Joan, a product of the Rhineland just like Hildegund, was readily accepted when she made her first appearance a few decades later.

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

(1) Cesare D'Onofrio, La Papessa Giovanna: Roma E Papato Tra Storia E Leggenda (1979), p.206.

(2) See John J.I. Von Döllinger, Fables Respecting the Popes of the Middle Ages (1871), p.3.

(3) Eugène Müntz, 'La Légende de la Papesse Jeanne…'; La Bibliofilia, (1900) pt 2, p.330.

(4) Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1877), p.187.

(5) Graham Fuller and Ian Knight, 'The Lady is a Pope?'; The Unexplained, XIII, no.151 (1983), p.3017.

(6) The Works of Liudprand of Cremona, trans. F.A. Wright (1930), p.92.

(7) See, for instance, Peter Llewellyn, Rome in the Dark Ages (1970).

(8) OC, III, cols.430-31.

(9) Chron. Salernitanum; MGH:SS, III, p.481.

(10) Erchempert, Hist. Langobard. Bene. deg.; RISS, V, p.32.

(11) OC, I, cols.238-9.

(12) Much of the basic information about the legendary female monks has been taken from Agnes B.C. Dunbar, A Dictionary of Saintly Women, I (1904); and John Anson, 'The Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism: The Origin and Development of a Motif'; Viator, V (1974), pp.1-32.

(13) Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers (1936), pp.173-88.

(14) The quotations concerning St Hildegund are from Caesar of Heisterbach, Dialogue of Miracles, trans. G.G. Coulton and Eileen Power (1929), I, pp.51-7. See also Herbert Thurston, 'The Story of St Hildegund, Maiden and Monk'; The Month, February 1916, pp.145-56.

(15) Three Coptic Legends: Hilaria, Archellites, The Seven Sleepers, ed. & trans. James Drescher, Supplément aux Annales Du Service des Antiquités de L'Egypte, IV (1947), p.75.

(16) 'De B. Hugolina Virgine', Acta Sanctorum (1867 reprint), August (ii), pp.395-8.

Copyright (c) 1988 Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe

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