The Female Pope Home Page

The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan

by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe



IN 1982, Caryl Churchill's feminist play Top Girls was staged in London. Part of it took the form of a dinner party attended by a number of historical and pseudo-historical female characters, each of whom gave an account of herself. One of those characters was Pope Joan. Her appearance in drama is no novelty, however, for it goes back at least as far as the fifteenth century when Dietrich Schernberg, an Imperial notary at Mühlhausen, wrote Ein Schön Spiel von Frau Jutten, which was first published in 1565 but probably completed some seventy-five years earlier. Much of this well-known late medieval play takes place outside the usual confines of the tale of the female pope, who is here called 'Jutta', the German contraction of 'Joan' and one of the first uses of the name.

The play begins with a long scene showing the inhabitants of Hell about their daily business. A decision is made to employ Jutta to further the purposes of the infernal powers, and she is persuaded by the demons Spiegelglanz (looking-glass) and Sathanas to sign a pact with the Devil, on the promise of 'great glory'. After studying in male disguise at the University of Paris - a rather more sensible choice than Athens, incidentally, even though the various Church Schools in the city were not actually organized into a University until the end of the twelfth century - she graduates and travels to Rome with her male companion, Clericus. There, a short time afterwards, they are both made cardinals and, on the death of the incumbent pope, Jutta is elected as his successor; but her rule is destined to be a brief one. She is soon unmasked as a woman and killed, her soul sinking to the depths of Hell in acute despair. In a final scene of great dramatic power she is saved by the intercession of the Virgin Mary and reconciled with God.

Schernberg's 'Jutta' is quite unlike the legendary Pope Joan, whose powers are only occasionally attributed to demonic influence. She is, instead, firmly in the tradition of such popular medieval myths as those of Theophilus and Faust. Theophilus of Adana is said to have been a Christian, who signed away his soul to the Devil after being persecuted by his bishop. Eventually seeing the error of his ways, he was saved by the Virgin Mary who interceded on his behalf and recovered the written contract. The Virgin's role here is practically identical to that which she plays in Schernberg's drama. The image of the Mother of Christ as intercessor between her son and erring humanity had particular potency in the late Middle Ages.

There is a possibility that Goethe was familiar with Frau Jutten and had it in mind when he wrote some parts of his eighteenth-century version of the Faust legend. The juxtaposition of certain of his scenes echoes Schernberg, and it has been suggested that Goethe's 'Gretchen' was inspired by Jutta,(1) although definite proof of this has not been forthcoming.

The earliest known English play about Pope Joan was not new when it was performed by Lord Strange's Men at the Rose Theatre in London around March 1591/2, and recorded then (as 'poope Jone') in Philip Henslowe's Diary.(2) The Elizabethan custom was, of course, to have an all-male cast, and one wonders how effective a man could have been in the title role. It was not unusual at the time for a female character to adopt male clothing temporarily (Imogen in Cymbeline and Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona are notable examples), but to sustain the double deception for an entire performance must have put considerable strain both on the actor and on the audience's ability to suspend its disbelief. The drama of 'poope Jone' has been lost to posterity, but luckily Elkanah Settle's The Female Prelate, staged at the Theatre Royal in 1680, has not suffered the same fate. It contains a portrayal of the woman pontiff very different from Schernberg's, and totally unsympathetic; here she deserves no forgiveness from Heaven, nor does she get any. 'John, Lord Cardinal of Rhemes, originally a German Lady, named Joanna Anglica' is depicted as highly immoral and, indeed, positively murderous.

As the play opens she has already poisoned the old Duke of Saxony, ostensibly because of his Protestant leanings. His son, the current Duke, is in Rome and unsuccessfully accuses Cardinal John of committing the murder. Saxony is arrested for his pains, while Joanna becomes the new pope. A good deal of intrigue on both sides follows, during which Joanna disguises herself as Saxony's wife and shares his bed, only to be disturbed by the ghost of the old Duke. The pope then sends her page, Amiran, to poison the young Duke, but instead Amiran reveals the truth of Joanna's sex to him.

Armed with this information, Saxony tries to turn the Roman populace against Pope Joan by proclaiming her secret publicly, but when he attempts to kill her he is prevented and taken away to be burned. Meanwhile Joanna, in the customary fashion, miscarries in procession and dies. The play ends with the cardinals agreeing to institute the ceremony of the pierced seat:

Thus then the Coronation Porphyry,
On which Romes installed Bishop, Heavens
Lieutenant takes his great Commission,
Shall thro' it have that subtle concave form'd
Thro' which a reverend Matrons hand...(3)

(This is a startling new twist to the story: the sexing of the pope-elect is to be done, not by the junior deacon present, but by a 'reverend matron'!)

Unfortunately a plan to reprint the play in an edition by Montague Summers, which was announced some years ago, never came to fruition. Although not a great work, The Female Prelate remains the most interesting of Elkanah Settle's prolific output (The Conquest of China, by the Tartars and Ibrahim the Illustrious Bassa are among many others), and it does not deserve its present obscurity.

A century after The Female Prelate, and across the English Channel in Paris, there seems to have been something of a fashion for vaudeville plays about the woman pontiff. One of these was the charming La Papesse Jeanne by C. Fauconpret, printed in 1793. Its introduction, 'Pope Joan to her readers. The story of my journeys', retails the author's efforts to have his work staged; efforts which were apparently doomed to failure even though 'other Popes Joan were appearing in two of the theatres of the capital' at the time.

La Papesse Jeanne is pure farce, related in a kind of doggerel which translates very readily into English. The action commences with a debate among the College of Cardinals as they meet to elect a new pope. Eventually Joan, a busy and ambitious lady whose lovers include Mafféo and Morini, the leaders of the two major factions of the Sacred College, is chosen when agreement cannot be reached on any other candidate. The cardinals soon regret their decision, however, and in the final scene of the play, news is brought to them of Joan's giving birth while in procession:

Attendant How the people will smirk and shout
When this story at last is out.
We approached Saint John's, we were nearly there,
When a horrid event threw us into despair.
The procession was halted; feet slid around;
Thud! the pope fell down to the ground.

The holy father groaned and shouted,
The fear in the crowd was quite undoubted;
Who could help him? Was there none?
Suddenly the pope... gave birth to a son.(4)

The cardinals are told that the indignation of the Roman mob is now directed towards themselves. Fearing for their lives, they flee via the window:

Attendant Ah! My Lords, there's more to it yet;
The people are wild, and coming to get
Revenge; so if you'll take my advice
You'll all of you leave; I'll be gone in a trice.
I'm not staying around; you'll be wise to go too.
Accepting their anger you'll not want to do.

Cardinals How can we go? What means do we need?

Attendant It's the window for me - so follow my lead.
(He jumps through the window.)

Cardinals Quickly! Quickly! Let's take his advice!

Mafféo I think in future we'd best not fail,
To avoid a repeat of this dreadful tale,
To seek clear proofs our pope is male.
(They all jump out of the window.)

It would be impossible to find a greater contrast to these delightfully silly verses than the 1972 film Pope Joan, directed by Michael Anderson, which treats the legend with an overwhelming seriousness quite unleavened by humour. The heavy-handed style is leaden and often tedious, despite a believable and intelligent performance by Liv Ullman in the title role. John Briley, the writer of the screenplay, was to win an Oscar eleven years later for his work on Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. Perhaps he would prefer to forget his earlier effort. For Pope Joan he invented most of the plot himself, ranging widely from the traditional story and incorporating some unpleasant additions including a gratuitous gang-rape of Joan by several monks, and outbreaks of a vicious kind of Wotan-worship. The one original twist of undeniable appeal is to make the father of the pope's child, not the monk who had travelled with her from Germany, but the Holy Roman Emperor (played by Franco Nero) himself.

For some reason the film was called The Devil's Imposter in the United States: a more dramatic title admittedly, but hardly an accurate one, for Liv Ullman's Joan gains her power entirely without the intervention of demonic forces. Indeed, Pope Joan would have benefited considerably from the introduction of an occasional supernatural interlude to break up its desperate and tenuous facade of authenticity. Originally the intention was to intersperse the historical scenes with modern ones, featuring a young woman suffering from the delusion that she is Pope Joan. The extra material was shot but not used in the final film, and it is difficult to say whether it would have made any improvement in practice. It could hardly have made the film worse, at any rate.

Visual interpretations of the female pope's life go back a long way, but it was not until the late nineteenth century that biographical novelists recognized her potential as a subject. One of the earliest, and certainly the one with the most lasting influence, was the Greek writer Emmanuel Rhöides, who was born in 1835. His novel, Pope Joan: A Romantic Biography, first appeared in print (as Papissa Joanna) in 1886, and there was an immediate furore, caused as much by the author's biting satire on the Church in general as by his portrayal of the woman pontiff. The book was banned in Greece and Rhöides was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church. The success of the story was thereby assured, and the first French edition sold several hundred thousand copies. It has twice been translated into English, most recently by Lawrence Durrell in 1954. Durrell's stylish version has even found its way quite recently into paperback; firm evidence of the book's durability.

Rhöides was an avowed believer in the existence of the woman pope, but fortunately his novel is much more than mere propaganda. It is an entertaining and skilfully written work, based on the traditional legend and incorporating all the stories told about Joan in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as well as a number of details completely original to Rhöides but now frequently and quite mistakenly assumed to be older. Some incidents previously attached to other people are also included. As a tiny baby in 818, for instance, 'Joanna' reveals her miraculous nature in Rhöides' account by refusing the teat on fast-days; and before cutting her first teeth she manages to learn by heart the Lord's Prayer in three languages. Then, as a teenager and prior to her adoption of male clothing, she emulates St Uncumber and other hirsute saints, in no uncertain manner, by growing a bushy beard when three monks try to force their attentions on her:

Blessing the Virgin from her very heart for so timely an intervention, Joanna sprang up and wagged her long beard like the head of Medusa until the terrified monks ran from the room.(5)

Luckily for Joanna, the beard disappears as quickly as it came, once the danger has passed. John Briley may have got the idea for the rape scene in the film Pope Joan from this episode, but how differently he treats it, and how much less impressive is his heroine in consequence.

There is an abundance of wit and racy humour throughout Rhöides' book. After spending seven years as a monk in the Monastery at Fulda, Joanna, accompanied by her lover Frumentius, travels widely and has several dubious encounters along the way, before arriving in Athens. No believer in keeping herself to herself, she numbers 'one abbot, two bishops, and the eparch of Attica' among her indiscretions while there, but soon she grows bored with the settled life and moves on.

Finally reaching Rome, Joanna becomes renowned for her eloquence, speaking 'only of pleasing and useful things - like the great virtue of the Supreme Pontiff'. Naturally such an approach makes her a favourite with Pope Leo IV, and the refreshingly accessible nature of her discourses quickly results in her universal acclaim. In secret, however, she is praying to the Devil for Leo's death, and even sticking pins in a wax doll made in his likeness. When he does die, it is no surprise that Joanna is elected his successor as John VIII, but the celebrations are marked by omens which bode ill for the future. The papal slippers fall off her feet when she tries to put them on, snow falls on Rome in the middle of summer, earthquakes shake Germany, and dead locusts fall on Normandy - this last detail being lifted directly from Petrarch's apocalyptic view of the events.

Nevertheless, Joanna makes an adequate job of ruling the Papal See for two years, providing much 'bread and circuses' and not losing any of her popularity. But the 'old desires' return before too long and, giving way to temptation, she takes a lover. Here Rhöides follows the fifteenth century writers who misinterpreted Martin Polonus and believed that the father of Pope Joan's child was not the companion of her youth. Frumentius having been left in Athens, the new inamorato is a beautiful young cardinal named Florus, who is the son, or so-called 'nephew', of Leo IV The inevitable happens and Joanna discovers herself to be pregnant; at which point the author turns to Stephan Blanck's version of the fable (c.1500) for the angel who appears to her and offers a choice between disgrace on earth and eternal hell-fire. Choosing the former, the pope dies at the hands of the Roman mob after the birth of her son, and to the accompaniment of another plague of Petrarch's locusts. Her soul is taken off by the angel of her vision, either to Heaven or more likely to Purgatory, but not before the denizens of Hell have put up a spirited, though ultimately unsuccessful, fight in defence of their claim to it.

Two things soon become clear to the sympathetic reader of Rhöides' book: firstly that he researched his subject with more thoroughness than a good many non-fiction writers, and secondly that he was totally besotted with Pope Joan. It is not difficult to share his affection, at least for the image of her which he creates. His characterization of a woman who enjoys in equal measure the search for knowledge and the sins of the flesh is beautifully drawn.

Rhöides cannot possibly have realized how popular his work would become, and what an effect it would have on future novelists who chose Pope Joan as their subject. It directly inspired two more books based on the legend and influenced several others, the most obvious imitation being The Book of Joanna (1947) by George Borodin (the pen-name of a surgeon, George Sava), which takes the form of an autobiography by Joanna herself, written in 'the darkest corner of the ninety-ninth grotto of Hell' at the request of God in 1472. His conclave of saints, it seems, had one of their occasional meetings in that year to 'see that the fires of Hell burn not with injustice, but rather that only wickedness is punished', and apparently Joanna was a particular problem to them. In her case, the questions they were required to answer centred not merely on whether she deserved her place in Hell, but also on whether she had ever actually existed.

After the main narrative the scene moves to the Heavenly Court, where a number of witnesses are called before the conclave, including John Hus who offers a very good argument in favour of the ordination of women, and Hippocrates, the tribunal's medical expert, who deals with Joanna's mental and physical state. Eventually, against all the evidence presented to the court, the decision is taken that Joanna never lived at all, and her soul is set free into eternity. The judgement, however, seems to be based less on the facts - which are given in a very mangled and slanted fashion - than on the conclave's inability to accept that a woman could ever have achieved such power. God, on the other hand, is surprisingly approving of Joanna, making remarks like: 'I do not know in what part of my Holy Scriptures it is ordained that the Pope shall be a man, and none but a man.'

All of this is quite original and rather quaint, but the narrative section of the book owes a great deal to Rhöides, even copying the invented names of some of his characters such as Frumentius (who becomes Frumence) and Florus. It follows the earlier version closely until near the end when, instead of succumbing to Cardinal Florus' undoubted charms and becoming pregnant, Joanna is struck down by an illness which causes her stomach to swell, and which is later diagnosed by Hippocrates as a tumour of the uterus. While blessing the crowd in front of St John Lateran, she falls to the ground, haemorrhaging badly, and her sex is discovered by those who rush to minister aid. Why Borodin should have so amended the final part of the tale, going against all the earliest accounts, is hard to understand unless it was that he could not resist bringing his medical knowledge to bear on the matter. There is even less excuse for his toning down of Rhöides' more bawdy scenes, which lose much of their snappy humour in the process.

One or two episodes in The Book of Joanna have their origins in a different source; a pleasant novel by Richard Ince entitled When Joan Was Pope (1931). This is partly a less racy adaptation of Rhöides, but it has many attractive features and new twists of plot of its own. Joan is portrayed sympathetically as a serious-minded and determined seeker after truth, who enters a monastery to find 'the meaning of life and of death', little realizing that she will also find a lover there. The account presents itself as deriving from a manuscript called Disquisitio historica de Johanna, Papa Foemins docta Graecis Literis by 'Nicephorus, monk and mystic of Monte Cassino'. Of course this work, which was supposedly found 'amongst mouldering piles of wallpaper and pots of hardened paint flung aside by the builders' in the cellar of a library on Barra in the Outer Hebrides, is purely imaginary.

Ince's story is distinctive in having some decidedly and delightfully pagan elements. At one point Joan and her lover Brother Escobard, while travelling from Fulda to Athens, stay near Nicomedia at a ruined villa which was formerly the property of the Emperor Julian the Apostate. This provides the setting for a lengthy interlude during which our heroine encounters the Great God Pan, who teaches her much about life and the Old Religion, in such a manner that the book almost turns into a paean to paganism as we see its purity contrasted with the decadence of the Church.

In Rome, Joan is sickened by the sale of saints' bones which she observes in the streets, and by the barbarism and narrow-mindedness of the clergy, so she makes it her object to 'convince the barbarians of her day that wisdom had walked the earth long ere the coming of Christianity'. Her lectures on the early Greek philosophers and writers become very fashionable, but her attacks on corruption within the Church naturally make her some influential enemies, who spread rumours that she is a heretic, a black magician, the Antichrist or even a woman. They do not, of course, realize the truth of this last accusation at the time, and are therefore unable to prevent her from becoming pope when Leo IV dies. In fact, Ince's Joan has no real desire for the position and power, which are offered to her solely for political reasons, but she decides to accept the pontificate in order to initiate some long-needed reforms within the Church. Perhaps she sets about her task a little too zealously though, for she continues to make enemies, including a certain Demetria, 'Countess of Trebbia and Senatrix of the City of Rome'; the most formidable secular woman in the city, who cannot understand why Joan so easily resists her feminine wiles.

In the end, Cardinal Lambert of Salerno, a close friend of the pope, is kidnapped by the enemy faction led by the Lady Demetria and the unpleasant Cardinal Malcolm. While Joan's troops are occupied in rescuing him, she herself is killed by a mob which has been stirred up against her. Immediately the malicious slander of her death in childbirth is invented, and gossips spread the story that 'She was overcome with the pains of childbirth... and gave birth to a boy. Fortunately he died, for he must have been Antichrist... it had the number 666 branded in white on either palm.'(6) No doubt Ince had been reading Sabine Baring-Gould!

The book's witty but slightly inaccurate introduction makes it clear that Ince's sympathies lay with Joan, whom he saw as a real woman unjustly treated: 'Many a Pope became a father... and nothing was said, but immediately that Joan becomes a mother the voice of scandal cries to heaven.'

Similar sentiments are expressed more vehemently in Clement Wood's The Woman Who Was Pope, which was published in the same year as Ince's fantasy. The non-fiction introduction is an intensely anti-Catholic diatribe distinguished only by its use of the most startlingly labyrinthine logic, but most of the work is devoted to a fictional portrayal of the female pope, which does make marginally better reading. The author calls it an 'interpretative' biography, meaning in practice that it is as much a product of the imagination as all the other modern novels about Pope Joan. This is so despite a forlorn attempt to create an authentic historical background.

Wood appears to have taken the bare outline of his narrative from earlier novelists, but his version is very different from theirs in the telling. The obligatory journey from Fulda to Rome in the company of her first lover (here called Cenwuif) is undertaken, but it brings Joan to England and Paris as well as to Athens. Curiously, when she reaches Rome, her new lover and the father of her child proves to be the humble young Father Adrian, who goes on to become the unquestionably historical Pope Hadrian II (867-72), famous for the extreme reluctance with which he accepted the papal crown. At this point, and not for the first time, the book's much-vaunted accuracy collapses, for the real Hadrian was about sixty years old in 855, and already had a wife and daughter, who were later to meet a sorry end at the hands of a relative of Anastasius the Librarian.

Clement Wood's biggest error of judgement is his decision to exclude almost all supernatural episodes from Joan's biography. His story only comes to life at one point towards the end, when the betraying demon from the thirteenth century Flores Temporum puts in an appearance in the body of a demoniac. Shortly afterwards, Stephan Blanck's angel offers the usual means to salvation, and the inevitable choice is made. Aside from these paranormal events we are mostly treated to a procession of detailed descriptions of the various disputations and discourses for which Joan becomes famous in the course of her travels. Sometimes they are humorously told, but on the whole they make a poor substitute for the zest and vigour of Rhöides and Ince.

Although sharing the same, unoriginal title as Rhöides' masterpiece, Renée Dunan's Pope Joan, the English translation of which was published in 1930, is definitely not to be confused with it. Indeed, Dunan's account of 'Joanna, child of chance, monk, soldier, beggar, brigand, prostitute, wife of pashas, camel-woman, philosopher, evangelist and Pope' has very little in common with any other version of the legend. The list of Joanna's successive occupations makes the book sound extremely exciting, but the reader who expects something for all tastes is doomed to disappointment. The tale fails throughout, because of the tediously melodramatic way in which it is related. The almost compulsory non-fiction introduction is no better, resting as it does on the assumption that the woman pontiff did exist, but that all the contemporary documents which might have provided the necessary evidence were deliberately destroyed. We have already discussed this tiresomely paranoid theory and found it wanting.

'In the large room of a house in a certain quiet city in Flanders, a man was gilding a devil': such is the atmospheric opening of a novel about a female pope who, for a change, is definitely not Pope Joan. Black Magic, subtitled 'A Tale of the Rise and Fall of the Antichrist', was written by the popular author Marjorie Bowen, and first appeared in print in 1909. Freed from the constraints of the traditional story, Bowen was able to produce a thoroughly original work. It revolves around a nun, Ursula of Rooselaare, who takes on the disguise of a man and becomes a scholar of some distinction, specializing in the magical arts. After being forced to flee first from Basle University and then from Frankfurt when her sorceries and intrigues are discovered, she adopts the identity of a saintly, recently dead youth named Blaise. Aided by her occult skills and a little blackmail, her rise to power is meteoric, and soon she ascends the papal throne as Michael II, thus becoming not only a female pope but also, for some reason, the Antichrist.

At the peak of her success, and when it seems that nothing can stop her, she loses everything for the love of her long-time (and ever unsuspecting) friend Theirry. 'Pope Michael' almost succeeds in securing the Imperial Crown for him, but his weakness alone brings about her downfall. It is a tribute to Marjorie Bowen's talents that she makes the reader identify totally with Ursula, in spite of her cruelty and heartlessness.

The period in which the tale is set is nowhere explicitly stated, but it would be a mistake to assign it to the usual era of Pope Joan, in the ninth century, even though this is asserted by the anonymous writer of the book's Foreword.(7) In fact the events seem to occur some time around 1200. They can certainly be placed no more than fifty years earlier than that, for Peter Abelard (1079-1142) is mentioned as a great scholar of the past. Needless to say, there has never been a Pope Michael II, nor even a Michael I.

Ursula of Rooselaare's life-story owes nothing to that of the legendary female pope, but this very originality adds to its interest. Black Magic is unquestionably a classic of its kind and all the more impressive because Marjorie Bowen was little more than a teenager when she wrote it. Later she went on to produce an enormous range of books and stories; some of which, like the truly memorable ghostly tale 'The Crown Derby Plate', again reached the high standard set by Black Magic.

The myth of the woman pontiff has fascinated and intrigued authors and playwrights for almost 500 years, and it still retains its interest today. Apart from the feminist play Top Girls - in which Pope Joan does not take a central role - probably her most recent appearance was in a BBC radio play of the late 1970s, where her case was investigated by a modern young woman who found her enquiries unaccountably blocked on all sides. The single remaining medium which has not yet featured Joan is television, but her debut there can only be a matter of time.

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

(1) Edward Schröder, 'Goethe's Faust und "Das Spiel Von Frau Jutten"'; Vierteljahrschrift für Litteraturgeschichte (1891) pt.4, pp.336-39.

(2) Henslowe's Diary, ed. Walter W. Greg (1908); I, p.13.

(3) Elkanah Settle, The Female Prelate (1680), Act 5, Scene 4.

(4) C. Fauconpret, La Papesse Jeanne (1793), Act 3, Scene 4.

(5) Emmanuel D. Rhöides, Pope Joan: A Romantic Biography (1960), p.44.

(6) Richard Ince, When Joan was Pope (1931), p.261.

(7) Marjorie Bowen, Black Magic (1974), p.9.

Copyright (c) 1988 Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe

back to top

back to The Female Pope Home Page

back to Chapter Six

on to Chapter Eight