Popess Joan – A Medieval Legend and its Afterlife

Giovanni Boccaccio, De Mulieribus Claris

Printed by Matthias Apiarius in Bern 1539

In the last issue of our Bookophile newsletter we introduced Boccaccio’s book about the famous women. Of course we cannot cover all the details in such a short introduction, but our Boccaccio edition contains the biography and the depiction of a figure so intriguing that we do not want to deprive you of the historical background. Chapter 99 is dedicated to Pope Joan. For this purpose, Jakob Kallenberg was commissioned by the editor Matthias Apiarius, who in 1539 published the edition now available at the MoneyMuseum, to create an illustration which is unlikely to be surpassed in terms of drastic dramatics.

Pope Joan giving birth to a child. Woodcut by Jakob Kallenberg as illustrated by Giovanni Boccaccio, De Mulieribus Claris

A Medieval Myth

We see a pope in full regalia. He wears the tiara on his head, the (red) shoes on his feet, is dressed in alb and cope. Above him, two cardinals and two bishops span the baldachin, which is spanned above the Pope carrying the monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament during processions. The scandal appears in the centre of the picture: While the cardinals are still tending to the collapsed pope, a child appears from under the alb, making it clear that the figure in the papal vestments is not a pope, but rather a woman who has committed the sacrilege of acting as pope.

Boccaccio had not made up the story of a woman on the papal throne. In his biography, he followed the accounts of an earlier historian named Martin von Troppau, who had constructed a coherent story from scattered notes about a pope named Joan or Agnes in a work written in 1277. In Boccaccio’s version, a young woman in Mainz is seduced by her Latin teacher. Dressed in men’s clothing, she elopes with him to England, where she studies at a university with her lover under the name of John. Even after his death, she continues her studies – still under the male name John –, gains great prestige in the academic world and relocates to Rome. There, after the death of Leo V, she is elected Pope because of her exemplary way of life and her extensive knowledge.

While we would applaud such a courageous woman, Boccaccio interpreted the events against the background of a world view that is alien to us today. He did not approve of her actions, on the contrary. As far as he was concerned, the devil himself had seduced Joan / John to commit this incredible sacrilege. And the Prince of Darkness had also ensured her punishment by sending her a lover who seduced and impregnated her. The entire people of Rome witnessed this incredible disgrace when Joan suffered a miscarriage during a procession between the Colosseum and San Clemente.

Did Pope Joan Exist? And If She Didn’t, Why Did Boccaccio Write About Her?

First, to make one thing clear: Despite all the efforts of feminist-oriented popular researchers, no conclusive proof has yet been found that there was a Pope Joan. At this point we cannot (and do not want to) quote the extensive literature on this subject, nor can we enumerate or refute all possible indications. Others have done this before us.

Let us instead ask ourselves why Boccaccio included this rather dubious medieval legend in his book about famous women. To understand this, we must first consider what purpose his work served.

Boccaccio created the work as a collection of exempla. Exemplum is the Latin word for example. Exempla were used to show people what could happen if they behaved one way or another in a certain situation.

This was based on the ancient notion that a person’s character is unchangeable. While today we know that every person possesses a wealth of character traits that can be shaped by different experiences in one direction or another and changed by new models of interpretation, Boccaccio assumed that man chooses to be either good or bad, virtuous or sinful, arrogant or humble. God and his angels help to take the virtuous path, the devil leads the negligent to the broad path of sin. And of course, at any time – after confession and penance – a conversion to the path of virtue is possible.

In order to help people to decide on the right thing, they needed role models and deterrent examples. And it is precisely these examples that Boccaccio provides with his famous women. For him, Pope Joan was the perfect example of an arrogant woman who did not conform to the role assigned to her by God and was therefore punished for her iniquity for everyone to see.

Depiction of Pope Joan on a china plate, created after the French Revolution. Photo: Jatayou / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

And Why Do People Still Believe in Pope Joan Today?

Now, Pope Joan could have encountered the same fate as most ancient and medieval myths: At some point she would have ended up between Little Red Riding Hood and the Trojan War. But serious scientists discussed her existence for centuries, and for a reason that had nothing to do with overzealous historians but with a religious dispute.

For there was one fact that the Protestants could not get past in their chains of argument: a pope who attributed his investiture directly to Peter and thus to Christ could not be either the Whore of Babylon or the Antichrist. If the continuous succession of the popes was assured – the fact that today’s historians consider it anything but assured is yet another story – then Luther, Zwingli & Co. had to be mistaken. But if the Protestant historians were able to prove that there had been an interruption in the continuous succession with a Pope Joan, then the Pope was indeed the Antichrist. With Pope Joan, the devil had interfered with the series of Popes initiated by Christ.

So while for the first time Catholic historians systematically conducted basic research to prove that Pope Joan had never existed, Protestant and Reformed historians gathered all the evidence that a female Pope must have existed.

Again: Both denominations found the fact that a woman could have made it to the papal throne scandalous, except that the scandal was in the Protestants’ interest, while the Catholics had no use for it.

Do We Emancipated Women Need a History That Goes Back to the Middle Ages?

You find this illogical? Well, it is no more illogical than the modern efforts of popular historical works to find emancipated women as far back as in the Middle Ages. All those female popes, wandering harlots, pharmacists, midwives, hangmen’s daughters, castratists, witches and related figures are beautiful fiction that should only have their place in modern fictional literature. We must be aware that these stories have nothing to do with history, but project our ideals onto a past in which the idea of equality would not even have been comprehended.

God’s Kingdom was firmly established at that time and offered each person their allotted space. Whoever filled this space proved themselves, regardless of how high or how low their social status was. In other words, before the eyes of God it was of equal importance whether a garbage collector or a manager fulfilled their assigned role well.

But whoever left their position violated God’s plan. Pope Joan was thus a wonderful example to the people of the Middle Ages and early Modern Times of what terrible sanctions a woman had to face if she gave up her traditional position and dared to invade the domain of men.

Not that I would see it that way today. But I also do not live in the 14th century like Boccaccio.

Other Things You Might Be Interested In

If you want to see the book for yourself, you can access it at e-rara. If the server is ‘overloaded’, as it almost always is, try the same link another two or three times – it will usually work at some point after that.

You can find an introduction to the book on Bookophile.

We purchased this book in Auction 147 by Hartung & Hartung on 5 May 2020.