Pope Joan - Legend or Truth?
Pope Joan is a fascinating "mystery of history"-- a story, like King Arthur's, lost in the shrouds of time. Did a woman actually sit on the Throne of St. Peter in the ninth century? It is impossible to prove or refute her existence more than a millennium later. But we can examine some of the evidence for and against her historical existence.
Pope Joan - A legend with longevity
Most people have never heard of Joan the Pope--and those who do believe her story to be legend. Yet her papacy is recorded in over 500 ancient chronicles, including those of such well-known writers as Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Platina, the famed papal librarian. Joan's story was included in the Mirabilia Urbis--the official church guidebook used by every pilgrim who visited Rome for hundreds of years. Her statue stood undisputed alongside those of the other Popes in the Cathedral of Siena until 1601, when it was removed by command of Pope Clement VIII.
In the year 1276, after ordering a thorough search of the papal archives (records now said to be "lost to antiquity"), Pope John XX changed his title to John XXI in official recognition of Joan's reign as Pope John Anglicus VIII.
So why the controversy? Here's some evidence both for and against Joan's existence: CON: The primary argument of those opposing Joan's story starts with the question of when she is supposed to have been Pope. Donna Woolfolk Cross puts Joan's term of office, in accordance with the most widespread assumption, at the time between Popes Sergius II, Leo IV (these two have been merged into the character of Sergius in the film) and Benedict III.
Leo IV is said to have died in 855; his successor Benedict was anointed on 29 September of the same year. So instead of the two and a half years that Johanna is said to have ruled, there is only a period of two and a half months between the death of the old Pope and the election of the new one. There is hardly any doubt about these dates: the date of Benedict's assumption of office is proved by a document in which he grants a monastery its privileges on October 7. Emperor Lothar dies on the day he assumes office, but by the time the information finally reaches Rome, several weeks later, coins have already been minted that refer to both Benedict and Lothar.
PRO: The Liber Pontificalis ("Book of the Popes") is notoriously inaccurate with regard to the time of papal accessions and deaths in the Dark Ages; many of the dates cited are known to be wholly invented.
The date of Pope Leo IV's death is given as July 17th--but the oldest copies do not mention a year. In a time before printed books, when parchment copies could be scraped off and written over, it would have been very easy to move the date of Leo's death forward from 853 to 855-- through the time of Joan's reported two-year reign--to make it appear that Pope Leo IV was immediately succeeded by Pope Benedict III.
This is the timeline Donna Woolfolk Cross uses in her novel, following the work of scholars who examined original manuscripts of the Liber Pontificalis.
CON: The second main argument brought forward by opponents is that the story of the female Pope only became significantly widespread centuries after the event.
The name of Johannes Anglicus is mentioned for the first time in 1265 by the Dominican Martin von Troppau, who also moves the female Pope's time in office to the 9th century and makes her the successor to Leo IV. His "Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum" ("Chronicle of Popes and Emperors") appeared in 500 copies, an incredible number for the time that made this chronicle a standard work. Martin von Troppau tells that Johanna, who came from Mainz or England, gave birth to a child during a procession to the Lateran, died while giving birth and was buried immediately afterwards.
There are no contemporary sources, either from the ninth or the beginning of the twelfth centuries - which does not exactly speak for the authenticity of the story. Furthermore, the most important sources on Johanna come from chronicles from Benedictine and Franciscan monks, whose orders were more critical of the official Roman church. The story gained more popularity during the reformation, during which Pope Joan was most welcome as further proof of the moral decay of the official church in many of the Reformers' writings.
PRO: There is one contemporary document with an account of Joan's papacy--a copy of the Liber Pontificalis. There is some question about whether the account of Pope Joan that appears in this manuscript is a later interpolation. Even if it is, that does not necessarily render the account untrue; a subsequent chronicler, aware of Joan's papacy, might have chosen to correct the omission and set the record straight. This idea, and this manuscript, figure importantly in Cross' novel and in the movie.
After the Liber Pontificalis, Joan's story first appears in 1082 in the work of Marianus Scotus, a monk fiercely devoted to the papacy. Then, in quick succession, in the work of Sigebert of Gembloux, Otto of Friesing, Godfrey of Viterbo, Gervase of Tilbury-- all writing in the 12th century, long before Jean de Mailly or Martin of Troppau.
The problem with these manuscripts? They are not originals, and Joan's story appears in some copies but not in others. Was it added to the copies in which it appears, or expunged from those in which it doesn't? We may never know.
As for Martin of Troppau (more commonly known as Martin Polonus), he was a Dominican monk and an avid promoter of the papacy--a man with a reputation for serious scholarship and double-checking of sources. His work Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum forms the bedrock of papal history, a "quasi-official" history of the Popes. There is no doubt about Joan's inclusion in his chronicle, for it appears in all copies.
The Forbidden Street
PRO: In medieval times, papal processions took the shortest and most direct road between the Lateran palace (where Popes resided until the 14th century) and St. Peter's Cathedral. It is on this road (then called the Via Sacra, now called Via San Giovanni) that Joan is said to have died during a papal procession, giving birth to a child.
Soon afterward, papal processions deliberately turned aside from the Via Sacra, making a long detour around the spot "in abhorrence of the event."
It was not until 1486 that Adam Burchard, Bishop of Strasbourg and Master of Ceremonies to Pope Innocence VIII, ordered the direct route to be taken again. At the end of the procession, the Pope was angrily denounced by the Archbishop of Florence, the Bishop of Massano, and the Apostolic Sub deacon for having traversed that spot where "John Anglicus gave birth to a child."
CON: The detour around the Via Sacra was taken not because of Pope Joan but simply because the Via Sacra had become too narrow for papal processions to safely pass down. A plausible explanation, for medieval Rome was in a state of decay, with fallen columns, statuary, and other debris often blocking the roads.
This argument does not, however, explain why the Pope was denounced by some of the highest officials of the Papal court--nor why the 1486 procession does not report encountering any physical obstacles passing down the Via Sacra.
The Chair Exam
CON: For more than four centuries during the Middle Ages, two chairs with a recess in the seat played a central role in the inauguration of a new Pope. During the ceremony, the Pope received a staff and the keys to the Lateran Palace on the first chair; he would then put them down on the second chair. The chairs still exist - one in the Vatican, one in the Louvre - and the remarkable holes in the seats led to the assumption that these chairs were used to test the new Popes' manhood so that a mishap like the one with Joan would not happen again and neither eunuchs nor women would be able to mount the papal throne. These two chairs were mentioned in the description of the enthronement of Paschalis II in 1099 but not by the later chroniclers, who date Johanna's term of office at exactly this year. Not until the rule of Hadrian VI, from 1522 onwards, was this part of the ritual abolished; and clerics had long before been denying his interpretation as an anatomy test. But the legend that there was always a test for male sexual organs with a new Pope continued long after Hadrian's time in office and was particularly widespread in Protestant writings, whose motives are of course questionable.
PRO: There are actually three chairs in question, only one of which is the "sella stercoraria"--the "dung seat", so-called because it looks like a toilet. This is the chair on which it is said that every newly-elected Pope after Joan sat for an examination of his genitals, to prove that he was a man. After the examiner (usually a deacon), solemnly announced to the gathered people, "Mas nobis dominus est": "Our Lord is a man". Only then was the Pope handed the keys of St. Peter's.
There are several eyewitness accounts of a papal coronation including the chair exam, most notable those of Adam of Usk (1404), Bernard of Coreo (1492), and others, all of whom describe viewing the „testing of the Pope's manhood". It is also mentioned in innumerable popular jests and songs from this time period.
An odd custom if there was never a female pope.
Pious legend? Protestant propaganda? Catholic conspiracy? It can no longer be said with any certainty whether the adventures of Joan are based on actual facts, and we may never find out.
However, even if we take Joan's story merely as legend, the comparison with King Arthur is useful. People all over the world believe in Arthur's story--in the round table, the sword in the stone, in Lancelot and Guinevere. Yet this story of Arthur first appeared over 600 years later in an account by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who bases his story of Arthur on "an ancient book in the British language that told in orderly fashion the deeds of all the kings of Britain".
No one has ever seen the book that Monmouth refers to. Modern scholars are in agreement with William of Newburgh, who wrote in 1190 that "it is quite clear that everything Monmouth wrote about was made up, either from an inordinate love of lying, or for the sake of pleasing the Britons."
What if Joan's story was based on such flimsy evidence? Why is Arthur's story so well known while Joan's has been lost and forgotten? Whether you believe Joan's story to be legend or truth, these are interesting questions to consider.
One possible answer lies in the words of the 17th century philosopher Francis Bacon: "People believe what they prefer to be true."