Pope Joan – Fact, fiction or something else?
Most people have heard the legend of Pope Joan, or a variation on the theme. At its most basic, the story goes that there was once a Pope who turned out to be a woman, generally held to have been discovered when she suddenly gave birth in the street. It’s often claimed that this incident led to subsequent Popes having to sit in a sort of privy chair with a hole in the seat, so that a cardinal could confirm their sex.
It’s an appealing story in many ways, depending on your inclinations. A woman who rose to the top by impersonating a man, in an age when women were rarely educated, is a common form of fable for good reasons. Add in the church’s foolishness being scandalously revealed in public and the delicious (if bizarre) mental image of the Vatican’s Groper-in-Chief fondling the papal scrotum before announcing “Testiculos habet et bene pendentes” (He has testicles, and they hang well), and I’d really like it to be true.
Unfortunately, facts don’t generally change to fit our personal preferences. What matters is hard evidence that this actually happened.
The story’s origins aren’t encouraging. It’s generally agreed that the earliest mention of a female Pope was written in Jean de Mailly’s chronicles in the 13th century (there are claims of earlier references, but these are based on unreliable later copies of manuscripts, which have almost certainly been subject to later amendments). This account by de Mailly dates the events to 1099, well over a century before he was writing, so if the story had any basis in fact, it had plenty of opportunity to become corrupted in transmission before he wrote it down.
However, the story gained much greater prominence when it was repeated in a different form by Martin of Opava. Martin dissents by dating the events to the 850s, between Leo IV and Benedict III. This is an appealing theory, filling a gap of more than three months between Leo’s death and Benedict’s consecration, which would leave plenty of room for a reign at least as long as John Paul I managed, but contemporary records leave no plausible room for such a thing, referring to Leo and Benedict as successive Popes, and providing good evidence of a much shorter interregnum than these three months.
After Martin of Opava’s tale became widely known, references to a female Pope became common. Often identified as Pope Agnes, she seems to have become a hot topic of conversation. Notably, during the Reformation there were pamphlets published which used the outrage of a female Pope as a reason to rail against the excesses of Rome, which makes it all the more curious that no enemy of the Catholic church, say in Constantinople, appears to have objected at the time (whatever time that was).
There are some reasons to hesitate before dismissing the story outright. When Jan Hus argued in his trial for heresy that the church didn’t need a Pope because it had managed during the reign of “Pope Agnes”, it appears the church did nothing to challenge his history. The privy chair, sede stercoraria, is a real thing with no known explanation. And a suppressed “Johannes/Johanna” between Leo IV and Benedict III, followed by subsequent renumbering could plausibly account for the mystery of the missing John XX.
In the end, there’s just about enough to cling to if you really want to believe, but the overwhelming weight of the evidence is against it. The timelines are muddled, sources disagree about basic details, and none of the claimed dates could easily accommodate the events as they’re described. The most detailed accounts date from long after Joan’s supposed reign, while the earlier ones appear to be crude forgeries. The strongest, most concrete claims come from people who clearly didn’t witness the events, but were relying on the accounts of others. And the people who believe the story to be true tend to be those who really want it to be true.
And that’s where I was going to leave this, except that I noticed an interesting parallel between Pope Joan and Jesus. Read that last paragraph back, and see if you agree that it could equally apply to the gospels with very minor amendments. But people who accept that standard of evidence in the case of the gospels usually reject it in this case, while the people who are most likely to cite Pope Joan as history are generally atheists with a grudge against the church. Same evidential basis, different conclusions.
It’s probably too much to expect everyone to consistently apply the same standards of evidence whether they want something to be true or not, but this makes for an interesting case study in how easily swayed we are by our preferences.