Perils of the Popess

Pope Joan is one of the most tenacious myths of the Middle Ages, told and retold by Catholics and anti-Catholics alike since the 13th century. It is said that beautiful young Joan, an Englishwoman born in Mainz, Germany, disguised herself as a man to gain higher education beside her scholarly lover. Her brilliance won her election as pope under the name John in 855 (some say 1100). After reigning less than three years, she bore a child during a papal procession and died immediately, either from childbirth or stoning. Subsequent popes are supposed to have avoided this shameful place and had their maleness verified during their coronation ceremonies, during which an inscription was read as a commemoration of Joan: “Peter, Father of Fathers, Publish the Parturition of the Popess.”

Though long disproved by historians, this scandalous legend still requires an occasional rebuttal by Catholic apologists. But its relevance has been renewed by the clamor for women’s ordination and contemporary enthusiasm for gender-bending. Among recent novels, Donna Woolfolkcross’s Pope Joan has been re-issued as a movie tie-in, and the ex-nun posing as a priest in Louise Edrich’s Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is a Joan-clone among the Ojibwe Indians.

So Alain Boureau’s 1988 La Papesse Jeanne has earned a timely English edition as The Myth of Pope Joan, following his admired study of a pseudo-medieval myth, The Lord’s First Night (1999).


Although readily admitting that Joan never existed, Boureau does not attempt to demolish the tale or provide new ammunition for apologetics. He analyzes Joan as a “symbolic object” and a device to gain access to past systems of belief. The imaginary works as well as the real for his investigations of sexuality, ecclesiology, and anticlericalism.

Boureau opens with a survey of papal coronation rituals and ribald spoofs of them, demonstrating the fallibility of eyewitnesses along the way. We learn how medieval popes were perched on potty chairs during installation and despoiled by the Roman mob after both election and death. This slow and discursive section establishes a growing fear of female pollution during the Middle Ages. Clerical reform, the investiture struggle, and tighter rules for marriage provided a context for Joan.

Boureau’s pace quickens when Joan finally comes on stage. He quotes essential texts from the first mention of Joan in a Metz chronicle of 1255. He traces how the story spread in histories and sermon exempla, initially by way of the Dominican Order. Boureau asks how medieval Catholics “believed” in Joan and shows how energetically they used her story in their controversies. Joan served apocalyptic Joachimites expecting a new age of the Holy Spirit,         Spiritual Franciscans denouncing pseudo-popes, rival claimants to the Holy See during the Great Western Schism, and proto-Protestants Ockham and Wycliffe impugning papal authority and the efficacy of the sacraments.

Joan even found her way into the Tarot as the Popess trump, thanks to the example of the Gugliemites, an Italian sect suppressed in 1300 that worshiped a female incarnation of the Holy Spirit led by a popess and cardinalettes.

Boureau compares Joan with seeress and witch views of Joan of Arc and with prophetic women including the mythical sibyls of antiquity and medieval Hildegard of Bingen. He notes Joan’s entrance into literature with Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris (1362) and Fraw Jutta (1480), the first tragic drama in German.

But the Protestant Reformation made Joan intolerable among Catholics. The Great Whore of Babylon wearing a papal tiara was one of the milder references to Joan in Lutheran propaganda, where she was used to depict Rome as a place of corruption and deviance. Early Calvinists were apparently too high-minded to bother with Joan.

Catholics countered in 1562 with the first systematic historical attack on the myth, written by the Augustinian Onoforio Panvinio. Panvinio argued that there was no trace of Joan in contemporary records and no interval to allow her reign. An even more magisterial refutation by the excommunicated Catholic scholar Ignaz von Döllinger in 1863 should have put the matter beyond dispute for any reasonable person, although of course this has not been the case.

Boureau gleefully describes the shift from Protestant to Enlightenment polemics about Joan. Revolutionary and liberal writers in France, Italy, and Germany used her to mock Catholicism without even trying to claim historicity. Nevertheless, the great German Romantic Achim von Arnim made Joan sympathetic and heroic in his fantasy novel Die Päpstin Johanna, published posthumously in 1846. Twentieth-century treatments of the story included plays by Alfred Jarry and Bertholt Brecht, as well as the wretched film Pope Joan (1972).

By shifting from religion to literature after the 16th century, Boureau cuts off the debate too soon (although later disputes over Pope Joan are included in his chronological checklist). It is disappointing not to hear how Pope Joan reached Anglo-American opponents of the Church, who still trot her out on occasion.

Boureau suspects that Joan’s story existed orally before its first written appearance in 1255, but he carefully refrains from speculating how the myth came together. While emphatically denying anonymous “popular” authorship, he does point out some possible contributing factors: mockery of the papacy by the Roman populace, misunderstood ancient monuments, resentment of the Hildebrandine reforms, suspicion of females, jealousy toward Hildegard of Bingen, or hostility against the English pope Adrian IV, who feuded with Barbarossa.

Writing with Gallic eyebrow firmly raised, Boureau pays close postmodernist attention to nuances of discourse and plainly enjoys the sinuous interplay of his disparate data.

Readers with a taste for sophisticated history will find The Myth of Pope Joan a fine diversion.

Sandra Miesel


Sandra Miesel is a medievalist and author. She has written hundreds of articles for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and hagiography, and has spoken at religious and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews. She is co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code with Carl E. Olson and The Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy with Catholic journalist and canon lawyer Pete Vere. She holds master's degrees in biochemistry and medieval history from the University of Illinois.

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