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The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan

by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe



THE popular acceptance of Pope Joan was increasingly enthusiastic, universal and uncritical, but as the Middle Ages drew to a close and the rationalistic humanism of the Renaissance gathered strength, dissenting voices began to be heard. Even in the middle of the fifteenth century there were a few, of whom the most distinguished was Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II (1458-64). Although he is famous today for his one great mistake, the attempt to raise the last Crusade, he was a knowledgeable and well-read man who made few such errors of judgement. In 1451, while Bishop of Siena, he wrote to Joannes Carvajalius and referred briefly to the story of the woman pontiff, adding 'nor is it certain history'.(1) Even so, Piccolomini's doubts about Pope Joan were not strong enough to compel him to remove her bust from the cathedral of which he was bishop for seven years.

Similarly in two minds was Bartolomeo Platina, the Prefect of the Vatican library, who expressed his feelings about the tale in 1479. After giving the details which we have quoted elsewhere, he continued:

These things that I have mentioned are popularly told, though by obscure and untrustworthy authors, and therefore I have related them briefly and plainly, so that I should not be thought obstinate and pertinaceous in omitting that which almost everyone asserts to be true.(2)

By the sixteenth century the myth was losing ground fast. The alteration of the bust of 'John VIII, A Woman from England' in Siena Cathedral to one of Pope Zachary, on the order of Clement VIII, is a good instance of this change of heart by the Catholic establishment and literati (if not by the ordinary people). What Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini could not do in the 1450s, Pope Clement felt perfectly at liberty to authorize 150 years later.

However, by this time the Protestant Reformation was in full swing, and it was not long before its polemicists, ever keen to blacken the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church, realized that the female pope offered an opportunity too good to be missed.

John Jewel, the Bishop of Salisbury (1560-71) under Elizabeth I, was among the first to see the possibilities of this propaganda weapon. In 1567 he wrote his Defence of the Apology of the Church of England, as part of a continuing exchange of arguments in print between himself and the Catholic Dr Thomas Harding, a former treasurer and canon-residentiary at Salisbury, who had left the country shortly after Queen Elizabeth's accession. Jewel defended the existence of the woman pope, which Harding had ridiculed previously in his Confutation (1565), and simultaneously attacked the papacy, in a diatribe filled with the beautiful rounded prose of the period:

And why might not pope Joan, being a woman, have as good right and interest unto the see of Rome, as afterward had pope John XIII, who, being pope, had wicked company with two of his own sisters; or others, whom for their horrible vices and wickedness Platina called monstra et portenta, 'monsters against kind, and ill-shapen creatures'? Luitprandus saith, as it is before reported: Lateranense palatium... nunc (est) prostibulum meretricum, 'The pope's palace of Lateran in Rome is now become a stew of whores'... Yet neither would so many chronicles have recorded, nor would the whole world so universally have believed these things of the pope more than of any other bishop, had there not been wonderful corruption of manners, and dissolution of life, and open horror, and filthiness in that only see above all others.(3)

Thus was Joan damned along with practisers of incest, libertines and other sinners, which seems rather unjust, but it was nothing new for her. Earlier Catholic writers such as Cardinal Torrecremata had often taken the same attitude, counting her as worse and less defensible than a heretic.

It was Harding who had the better of the argument on the reality or otherwise of the female pontiff, but as these extracts show, that was not the point. Jewel was not seriously interested in the historical facts of the matter except to the extent to which they would serve his polemical purpose. This subordination of fact to argument was general among the polemicists on both sides and, as a result, every statement made either for or against Pope Joan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has to be examined very carefully before it can be taken at face value. The dismissal of her story by Cardinal Baronius, shortly after 1600, as a tissue of 'fables without proofs, in every respect lying, mad, absurd, vain, frivolous, loose, contradictory...'(4) would, for instance, carry more weight if he had not credited a number of equally unlikely but less embarrassing tales, such as those of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and St Ursula's 11,000 Virgins.

Not all Catholics were entirely happy to see Pope Joan removed from the catalogue of the popes after 300 years of acceptance. A few countered the Protestants by maintaining that, while she was real enough, she may not have been truly female. Perhaps, they said, she was a hermaphrodite or even a man whom God had miraculously transformed into a woman, just as Tiresias, the blind seer of Greek legend, was successively given the body of a man, a woman and then a man again. Why the Almighty should have played such a mean trick on a reigning pontiff they explained by pointing out that God moves in mysterious ways. Their chief motive was, of course, to give some kind of dubious validity to Joan's decisions and acts while Pope; a validity which they would not have had if taken by a mere woman. Naturally enough, Dr Jewel derided the notion, standing out for a completely female Joan as being more awkward for his opponents:

One of your Louvanians would seem handsomely to excuse and shift the matter by possibility of nature. For thus he saith in effect: What if the pope were hermaphroditus, an herkinalson, that is to say, a man and a woman both in one? Or, if this help will not serve, he seemeth further to say: What if the pope being first a man, were afterward changed into a woman? And thus, for want of better divinity, he forceth Ovid's Metamorphosis to serve the turn. If ye would have taken this man's advice, out of doubt with such a pretty 'what if' ye might soon have put us out of countenance. His words be these: 'I will here say nothing of such persons as be called hermaphroditi, and are both man and woman all in one; whereof in old writers we find much mention. But, not to go further than to the remembrance of our own time, I know it is written that a certain woman named Aemylia, married unto one Antonius Spensa, a citizen of Ebulum, twelve years after she had been married was turned into a man. I have likewise read of another woman that, when she had been brought a-bed, afterward became a man.' These notable stories he allegeth to answer the matter of pope Joan. Thus he thinketh it a great deal the safer way to make the pope an herkinalson, or by miracle to turn him from a man into a woman, than simply and plainly to confess that ever dame Joan was pope in Rome.(5)

The 'Louvanian' referred to by Jewel was Alan Cope, an English Catholic who fled, like Harding and many others of his kind, to the Anti-Reformation stronghold at the University of Louvain in Belgium when Queen Mary died in 1558. The idea that the female pontiff was an androgyne or hermaphrodite seems originally to have come from a book entitled Dialogi Sex Contra Summi Pontificatos, which was published at Antwerp in 1566.(6) Although Cope's name was attached to it, he was merely protecting the identity of the true author, his friend Dr Nicholas Harpsfield, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Harpsfield had been a Judge of the Court of Arches and prebendary of Canterbury Cathedral, but when Elizabeth I came to the throne he refused to acknowledge the ecclesiastical supremacy of the monarch and was incarcerated for the rest of his days.

Predictably, Harpsfield's quaint hermaphrodite theory became a popular matter for discussion among writers on both sides. The Protestant tract The Anatomie of Pope Ioane, published in 1624 with its authorship hidden behind the initials 'I.M.', begins mildly enough by identifying the popes with the Antichrist and the Abomination of Desolation, but after only a few pages it raises the favourite topic:

Certes, this is strange for a man to be turned into a woman: but all things considered, it is nothing strange at all. For the Pope hath all lawes and knowledge within his breast, and whatsoever he be, he is holy, and immaculate, and can worke no small wonders. May not he change himselfe into sundrie shapes, as well as Iupeter, Mercurie, Apollo and other of the Gods? May he not be changed into a woman as well as Tiresias was: or as well as Caietana and Aemilia into men? Yes doubtlesse, for he is farre above them, and can do so much more than ever they could. Therefore Maister Copes surmise, that the Pope may be changed into a woman, is verie Catholicke and substantiall, and fit for such a pregnant and illuminate doctor. But fie for shame, what a sottish excuse is this? What a vaine illusion and Maygame? Is there no better shift nor surer refuge than this? Is there no thicker cloud to spread over the matter with more likelihood? Then who seeth not the bondage of Egypt: who sees not the spirituall Babylon, and the madnesse of them that commit spirituall fornication with her? Better it had bene, and the safer way by a great deale, amplie and plainly to have confessed it, then by a myracle to turne the Pope from a man into a woman, and that which is worst of all, obstinately to defend it. For now everie one doth see, that you had leifer be filthie still, then leave off your filthienesse, and had rather (because you love your vices) excuse them, then forsake them: and as many as in spirit and truth do love the Lord, do mourne for griefe, to see men carried so headlong with such godlesse and retchlesse imaginations.(7)

Such strong language reflects the sheer spitefulness underlying much of the vehemence of Protestant writers in their fervent championing of the existence of the female pontiff. But some Catholics did, undoubtedly, play right into their enemies' hands by adopting the absurd hermaphrodite hypothesis. The History of Pope Joan and the Whores of Rome, printed in London in 1687, during the reign of James II when the Catholic cause was enjoying royal support, sensibly stays on safer ground with its refutation of the Protestant point of view. The author, however, is unable to resist lapsing into the occasional polemical passage:

Can any ingenious Person ever believe that such a wise Nation, as the Romans are, and always have been, could be so greatly impos'd upon; or that they should be so Sottish or Stupid, as not one of them to know a Woman from a Man; neither by her Voice, Countenance, nor Costume? And is it not very unlikely, that she should be got with Child now in her declining Age, at which time the Popes are ordinarily Chose? And that she should be ignorant of her being so near her Time, as to venture to go in procession so far on Foot? All very probable, or rather ridiculous Romances.(8)

Unfortunately for the anonymous writer, all of the ideas at which he scoffs so earnestly are perfectly feasible. There are examples from many different eras and places of women who passed themselves off very effectively as men in order to become soldiers, doctors and in at least one case, of course, a monk. There are also numerous incidents of women giving birth unexpectedly; something which seems to be particularly common among the middle-aged, who attribute the cessation of their periods to the menopause (and their weight-gain to over-indulgence). Not that Pope Joan need necessarily have been middle-aged or elderly when she rose to the papacy. John XI was in his teens or early twenties when his mother, Marozia, obtained the throne of St Peter for him in 931, and John XII was a mere eighteen years old on his ascendency in 955. Yet it would be unfair to judge Pope Joan and the Whores of Rome in its entirety from this one misguided section alone, for much of it is well-argued and quite sensible, but it does illustrate the tendency of the polemicists to overstate their case, even when they happened to have right on their side.

Soon after the book appeared, James II was forced to abdicate and flee to France. In the far more Protestant climate of 1689, under William III and Mary, the inevitable counterblast was published, signed by one 'R.W.'. Couched in rather more restrained language than its predecessors, this Pope Joan itemizes no less than thirty-eight 'witnesses' prior to the time of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, together with some of a later date, to support its argument for Pope Joan's existence. The booklet is naturally most suspect when dealing with the earliest 'witnesses', the first of whom 'R.W.' claims to have been Liudprand of Cremona, writing in about 937. Would that this were so, but regrettablv Liudprand knew nothing whatever about a female pontiff. It would be charitable to assume that 'R.W.' was simply confused by Liudprand's accounts of those other powerful women of Rome; the Theophylacts, Marozia and Theodora.

'R.W.', in common with all the other Protestant polemicists, could find no reference to Pope Joan interpolated into the works of any of her supposed contemporaries. Even the insertions in a couple of late editions of Anastasius' Liber Pontificalis are never mentioned.

Another polemical tract from the Protestant side was Pope Joane. A Dialogue Between a Protestant and A Papist, a highly popular work first issued in 1610 with the author's name, Alexander Cooke, for once given in full. A slightly different version, A Present for a Papist by 'A Lover of Truth', was fairly constantly in print from 1675 to 1785. The edition of 1675 has a particularly delightful frontispiece showing a jolly looking Pope Joan giving birth to a chubby, surprised baby, who is peeking out from under her robes. There is a rather cruder mirror-image of this picture in the 1785 revision. The accompanying rhyme says it all:

A Woman Pope (as History doth tell)
In High Procession once in Labour fell,
And was Deliver'd of a Bastard Son;
Whence Rome some call The Whore of Babylon.(9)

The Protestant's side of the 'dialogue', as given by Alexander Cooke, is bolstered with all the familiar interpolations in the old chronicles. The poor papist. meanwhile, is given little in the way of solid evidence to support his viewpoint, and his weak theories connecting various Theophylact popes with Joan are easily disposed of by his opponent, who naturally gets the better of the argument. This sort of heavily weighted 'dialogue' was a favourite technique with the pamphlet writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it was by no means limited to the subject of the female pope. M.R. James, in Abbeys, quotes a good example in the form of an Elizabethan ballad which revolves around a disputation between 'Plain Truth' and 'Blind Ignorance' on the subject of monasteries. 'Truth', taking the Protestant part, inevitably succeeds in converting 'Ignorance' to his opinion.(10)

Although we have confined ourselves to examining only the British tracts of this period, it should not be thought that the appearance of Pope Joan in such polemical literature was in any way a phenomenon unique to these islands. As befits the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, it was Germany which produced the greatest quantity of propaganda in favour of the female pope, including a highly successful, vitriolic tract by 'H.S.' (perhaps Hermann Witekind, Rector of Heidelberg University) in 1588, which was later translated into English as Historia De Donne Famose or The Romaine Iubile which happened in the yeare 855 (1599). Almost all the countries of Europe became involved in the controversy to some degree.

After the end of the seventeenth century, the rise of antiquarian research for its own sake coincided with a more reasoned approach to the study of the woman pontiff, and her consequent fading from the realms of religious argument. Nevertheless, a few anti-Catholic authors, right up to the present century, have chosen to introduce her into their discourses in a strictly traditional manner. From August through to November 1876, for example, the Spalding Free Press published an exchange of letters between the Revd John Fairfax Francklin and Mr William Clement, which was reminiscent at times of the debate between John Jewel and Thomas Harding 300 years earlier. Francklin was the vicar of Whaplode in Lincolnshire, while Clement, a recent convert to Catholicism, was a former Master of Whaplode Chapel School. Their mutual enmity, which is quite clear to the reader, frequently made them lose sight of the facts in the emotion of their outbursts, and if Clement, in denying the historical reality of Pope Joan, comes out slightly on top, there is little credit in his victory. The letters were collected together into a pamphlet, printed in 1876 under the charmingly obvious title of The Vicar of Whaplode and 'Pope Joan'.

More recent still is The End of the Papacy. Its times completed in the year 1870. Never to rise again into political power over the nations of the Earth. With an Appendix including the History of The Woman Popess Joan. Such an archaic heading suggests a seventeenth century tract, but in fact this booklet, by Edward Poulson, was provoked by the Vatican Council's declaration of papal infallibility in July 1870, and dates only from 1901. It is surprising to find such vitriolic polemic in favour of the existence of the (tautologically named) 'Woman Popess' cropping up so recently, especially as the evidence for and against her was quite well established at the time. A quotation from the five-page appendix will give the flavour of the work:

The real motive of the Roman Catholics and the Anglican Ritualists in their attempts to obliterate the plain historical records relating to the Popess Joan, is the palpable flaw she makes in the papal succession. The repeated interruptions and breakages in the alleged papal succession by the many schisms of the Popes, when two or three Popes were reigning at one time, would render it impossible to trace any regular succession, but a Woman Popess in the papal chair equals the profligacy of the women whose "gallants" occupied the papal chair in the tenth century, as recorded by Cardinal Baronius.
I have omitted or passed over some of the revolting details and practices relative to the elevation of this Woman to the pontifical chair; but there can be no doubt that the Woman Popess consecrated and ordained many Cardinals, who also in their turn consecrated many Bishops, so that the alleged succession has become seriously complicated.(11)

Clearly Poulson's main purpose was to dispute the Apostolic Succession, and by extension the authority and validity of the entire Catholic Church. He was aware that a real Joan would threaten the succession only if she had herself consecrated bishops, and therefore he took it for granted that this must have occurred, even though the surmise is not directly supported by any of the medieval chronicles which mention her. Had a female pope ruled in Rome, that fact alone would not have endangered the - admittedly shaky - Apostolic line any more than the existence of other pontiffs who, for one reason or another, were not worthy of their position. According to William of Ockham, by the early fourteenth century there had already been twenty-six of these men, excluding Joan, who had 'assumed the papacy but afterwards committed wicked and embarrassing crimes such as idolatry, usurpation, simony, nepotism, heretical perversity, blasphemy, fornication and many other enormities'.(12) William, as a Franciscan, was not one of the pope's greatest supporters so we must allow for a certain exaggeration here, but even so, if the worst of these twenty-six were not removed from the records, then there would seem to be no reason why Pope Joan alone should have been obliterated from history in order to protect the Apostolic Succession.

Nowhere does Poulson enlarge upon his reference to the 'plain historical records' of the female pontiff, and in this he is a typical polemicist. Throughout the years in which religious polemic prospered, it can safely be said that it added little or nothing to the serious investigation of our subject.

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

(1) OC, III, col 446.

(2) Eugène Müntz, 'La Légende de la Papesse Jeanne…'; La Bibliofilia, (1900) pt 2, p.331.

(3) John Jewel, Defence of the Apology; The Works of John Jewel, IV (1850), pp.651, 655.

(4) Emmanuel D. Rhöides, Pope Joan - A Historical Study (1886), p.51.

(5) Jewel, op. cit., p.656.

(6) Alan Cope, Dialogi Sex Contra Summi Pontificatos (1566), p.47.

(7) I.M., The Anatomie of Pope Ioane (1624), chap.3.

(8) The History of Pope Joan and the Whores of Rome (1687), chap.1, pt.4.

(9) Graham Fuller and Ian Knight, 'The Lady is a Pope?'; The Unexplained, XIII, no.151 (1983), p.3015, and A Present for a Papist (1785).

(10) M.R. James, Abbeys (1926), pp.14-16.

(11) Edward Poulson, The End of the Papacy (1901), p.62.

(12) William of Ockham, Opera Politica (1963), II, p.854.

Copyright (c) 1988 Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe

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