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The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan

by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe


FROM the middle of the thirteenth century right down to the present day, interest in the Pope Joan legend has never really flagged, although it has been seen in various different lights through the years. The long life of the story must in part reflect its political value to those who wished to malign the papacy, starting with disgruntled members of the mendicant orders within the Catholic Church, and continuing with the Protestants. Nevertheless, we believe it would have survived even without this. There is a universal fascination with tales of women who, for one reason or another, disguise themselves as men. Male transvestism seems inevitably to carry with it the taint of deviant sexuality, whereas females who adopt men's clothing are usually seen as being motivated by nothing more unhealthy than a desire to improve their status in this world or the next. If their imposture is complete and successful then they are treated with respect and sometimes admiration. Thus the cult of St Hildegund, who lived for many months as a Cistercian novice, was very popular in the Middle Ages; as were the histories of legendary female monks such as St Eugenia. Yet an unfortunate eunuch who entered a nunnery in the sixth century, according to Gregory of Tours, was accused of immorality with the nuns and, despite his proven innocence, has come down to us as a far from heroic figure.(1)

More recently the life of the eighteenth century male transvestite, the Chevalier D'Eon, has provoked both ridicule and pity; while much less extreme emotions are roused by the equally odd James Barry, the Scottish army surgeon whose remarkable career spanned four continents and fifty years, and who proved on her death in 1865 to be a woman.

The sin of Joan of Arc appears to have been not so much that she dressed in male attire, as that she maintained a firm female identity while doing so. Similarly, almost all the old writers on Pope Joan agree that her downfall was not caused by her original deception, but by her final lapse into feminine weakness when she became pregnant. To attack the papacy with maximum effect it was not sufficient to invent a woman pope; she also had to be shown as a failed pseudo-man.

We have found some authors who scoff at the whole idea of a female pontiff, for no better reason than that they cannot conceive of a member of the 'second sex' having the wit to reach the supreme position in the Catholic Church unrecognized. For C.A. Patrides, whose recent study adds little new to the subject, the medieval belief in Pope Joan is enough to make him 'suspect that judgment had fled to brutish beasts, and men had lost their reason'.(2) We do not share this extreme view. St Hildegund seems to have entered the monastery at Schönau because it was the easiest and most convenient thing for her to do at the time, but the fact remains that she lived and worked among monks without her secret being revealed. Another woman could well have taken the same step out of unwillingness to accept the traditional supportive, nurturing role which was the only one then available to her within the Church or, indeed, outside it. If she had sufficient determination, what might she not have achieved? It is certainly not impossible that she might finally have gained the ultimate accolade of election to the Papal Chair.

Possible it may be, but as far as we can tell, it never happened; unless of course she was one of the known historical popes, and so perfect was her disguise that she went to her grave undiscovered. That is a wholly different question, and one which may never be answered conclusively.

Notes & References:

(1) Vern L. Bullough, 'Transvestites in the Middle Ages'; American Journal of Sociology LXXIX pt 6, p.1384.

(2) C.A.Patrides, Premises and Motifs in Renaissance Thought and Literature (1982), p.152.




[For St Hildegund's story, see Chapter Four]

THE earliest source for the story of the woman monk, St Hildegund, is in a manuscript from the monastery of Ebrach,(1) less than one hundred miles north-east of her own abbey at Schönau. There is little reason to doubt the statement in the text that it was written late in the very year of Hildegund's death: 1188. On internal stylistic evidence it has been attributed to a Cistercian abbot, Engelhard, whose informant is given as an eyewitness 'who was present at the death and burial of the girl and has passed on to us what he heard and saw of her'. Engelhard records that the Abbot of Schönau had commissioned his own investigation and account of the miraculous novice, and that the present 'little study' was intended to suffice only until that one was published. It is not known whether the Abbot's official report was ever completed. None of the sources in existence today would appear to fit its description, though one or more may have been adapted from it.

Nearly as old as the Ebrach manuscript is a Metrical Life of Hildegund which is part of a codex from Windberg,(2) a Premonstratensian monastery near Regensburg (about 170 miles south-east of Schönau). The story it tells is almost identical to Engelhard's, but the use of different language throughout indicates that it is not simply a copy. It is, at any rate, very early, having been written for Abbot Gebehard of Windberg, who died in 1191.

Neither of these earliest accounts gives Hildegund's name. Instead they call her Joseph throughout, stating that her own name had not yet been discovered and that, in consequence, she was entered into the monastery's Calendar as 'A hand-maiden of Christ in Schönau'. The first version to provide this missing piece of information comes from a manuscript formerly owned by the College of the Society of Jesus at Paderborn (140 miles north of Schönau).(3) It states that:

When several days had passed after her most holy death, the brothers, wishing to know her name, sent into the area around Cologne where, as she had revealed, she was born. After zealous enquiry, they found a certain old woman who was related to the blessed maid, and from whom they discovered that her name was Hildegund.

The text of this codex probably dates from the first or second decade of the thirteenth century. It was undoubtedly known to Caesar of Heisterbach when he gave his version of events in the Dialogus Miraculorum, written in the 1220s and 1230s.(4) That he took the main part of Hildegund's story from the Paderborn manuscript, or at least from a near identical one, is clear since he copied some slight variations which appeared there for the first time. For instance, the two earliest accounts tell how, when Hildegund was hanging from the gibbet, an angel predicted her death exactly three years hence. The Paderborn version gives the period as two years and, sure enough, so does Caesar. However, the fact that Caesar used other written material when telling his story does not necessarily give the lie to his claim that his source was Hermannus, a monk who, at the age of fourteen, had been a fellow novice of Hildegund. Although the narrative of her life, as given in her confession, is copied from elsewhere, the anecdotes of her time in the monastery are completely original to Caesar, and it may have been these alone which he obtained from Hermannus.

Rather later than all of these, though probably still belonging to the first half of the thirteenth century, is a Life of St Hildegund included by the Bollandists in the Acta Sanctorum.(5) It is a long and laboured text, filled with biblical quotations, and where it varies from the earlier versions it almost always tends towards the miraculous or the historically inaccurate. For an example of the former we need look no further than Hildegund's birth. There is nothing miraculous about this in the other manuscripts, but the Acta Sanctorum insists that she (and her sister Agnes, who here becomes her twin for the first time) was born only as a result of her aged parents' dedication of themselves and their longed-for offspring to God. The wondrous birth of a child to an aged and despairing mother through prayer has, of course, many precedents, the most famous being the story of Samuel; but it is also told of one of the legendary women monks, St Euphrosyne.

The most striking inaccuracy of the Acta Sanctorum Life comes when it deals with Hildegund's employment as a letter carrier. In 1183, an election for a new archbishop of Trèves (Trier) took place, but two different candidates were elected to the post, and controversy raged as to whether Rudolf of Wied, former provost of the Cathedral, or Archdeacon Folmar was the rightful new occupant of the bishop's throne. The Emperor and his son took Rudolf's side while Folmar was championed by the Pope and also by Philip, Archbishop of Cologne. The situation lasted for over five years, during which time the Emperor threatened with flogging, or even death, anyone found carrying letters concerning the matter to the Pope.(6) Thus when, in 1185 (or 1186 in the later accounts), Hildegund was commissioned to take letters to the Pope, it was because a young 'man' on foot and disguised as a pilgrim (with the letters hidden in her staff) would be less suspect on the road, and more likely to pass through the Emperor's road-blocks, than an emissary on horseback.

Now, all the accounts from Engelhard's to Caesar's describe how Hildegund went to Verona to see the Pope, whereas the Acta Sanctorum states that she only stopped briefly in Verona to meet up with the envoy who had employed her, before going on immediately to Rome where she found the Pope. Here are all the signs of late work, for the Pope was indeed based in Verona throughout the period we are considering. Lucius III arrived in that city on 22 July, 1184, and died there on 25 November, 1185. His successor Urban III was crowned in Verona on 1 December, 1185, and did not leave until a month or so before his death in October 1187.(7) The Papacy was then based in Ferrara and Pisa for a short while before returning to Rome in February 1188, by which time Hildegund had long since completed her mission and become a novice at Schönau.

The Acta Sanctorum account is obviously the only one of these five which was written sufficiently long enough after the event for the details of the Papacy's residence in Verona to have been forgotten. Its writer asserts that he was a friend and confidant of Hildegund at Schönau, and adds melodramatically that a vision of the maid two years after her death cured him of a serious illness. While it would be wrong to disregard these claims as certain fiction, the over-dramatic and highly derivative nature of this particular Life rules out an early date and casts grave doubts on it as authentic eye-witness testimony.

Notes & References:
(For a key to abbreviations, see Bibliography)

(1) Neues Archiv, VI, pp.515-23.

(2) 'Vita Hildegundis Metrica'; Neues Archiv, VI, pp.533-6. For the dedication of this manuscript to Abbot Gebehard, see MGH:SS, XVII, p.559 note 5.

(3) 'De Sancta Hildegunde Virgine'; Analecta Bollandiana, VI (1887), Appendix - Catalogue of Brussels Manuscripts pt ii, pp.92-5.

(4) Caesar of Heisterbach, Dialogue of Miracles, trans. G.G. Coulton and Eileen Power (1929), I, pp.51-7; and Dialogus Miraculorum, ed. Joseph Strange (1851), pp.47-53.

(5) 'De S. Hildegunde Virgine', Acta Sanctorum (1865 reprint), April (ii), pp.778-88.

(6) Cambridge Medieval History, V (1926), pp.407-9; and Horace K. Mann, The Lives of the Popes in the Middle Ages (1925), X, pp.249-53.

(7) Philipp Jaffé, Regesta Pontificum Romanorum (1851), pp.846-65.

Copyright (c) 1988 Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe

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