The Legend of Pope Joan, article in The Nation 1873
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No tale ever established a better prima-facie case to be counted historical than the story of Pope Joan. About 850, so ran the tale, a woman came to Rome disguised as a man, and gained a high reputation as a professor. This teacher, on account of her irreproachable character and immense attainments, was, without any one even suspecting her sex, elevated to the Papacy. The Popess, to use Mr. Plummer's convenient term, reigned for rather more than two years. In the midst of a procession she gave birth to a child and expired. Her strange career left permanent traces on the ceremonies attending the installation of subsequent Popes, and was commemorated for all time by the fact that Papal processions always avoid the street in which she expired.
The story sounds to modern ears incredible enough, and a suspicion suggests itself that the tale owes its origin to Protestant malignity. But the legend, whatever its worth, is long anterior to the days of the Reformation. The history was apparently at least recorded in 1278 by Martinus Polonus, who lived at the Papal Court, and whose annals of the popes have some title to be considered an official history issuing from the Curia itself.
"Quite at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the bust of Pope Joan was placed in the Cathedral at Sienna along with the busts of the other popes, and no one took any offence at it."
Not one of the three popes whom that city produced thought of having the bust removed. At the Council of Constance, Huss supported his argument by appealing to the case of Pope Joan, and Chancellor Gerson proved from the history of the woman-pope that the church could err in matters of fact. No one dreamt of denying the fact on which the Reformer and Gerson relied. It will further be found that the history of Pope Joan was spread far and wide by the Dominican order, and was, in short, for ages looked upon as on historical fact as certain as the martyrdom of St. Thomas of Canterbury. If it is urged that the tale bears its own falsehood on its face, the strangeness of the story cuts two ways, and it might well be argued that a legend so improbable could never be invented, but must at any rate have been suggested by some real event. Who, it may be said, could believe that from Rome itself, from the very mouth, so to speak, of the popes, would issue a lie which covers the whole Papacy with discredit? This is precisely the argument on which the German writer, Ludeu, relies:
"It is inconceivable," he says, "how it could ever enter into any man's head to invent such an insane falsehood. He must either have invented the lie out of sheer wantonness, in order to scoff at the Papacy, or he must have intended to gain some other object by means of it. But of all the dozens of writers who mention Pope Joan and her mishap, there is not a single one who can be called an enemy of the Papacy. . . . Moreover," he adds, "it is inconceivable how people in general could have believed in the story, and that without the slightest doubt, for nearly five hundred years from the eleventh century onwards, if it had not been true."
Dr. Hoefer, in a French work published in 1858, treats the belief in Pope Joan as one which had "reigned in the Christian world from the ninth century to the Renaissance"; and Mosheim has added his weighty authority to the support of this astounding tale. After narrating the history of the Popess, he remarks:
"During the five subsequent centuries the witnesses to this extraordinary event are without number; nor did anyone prior to the Reformation by Luther regard the thing as either incredible or disgraceful to the church. But in the seventeenth century learned men, not only among the Roman Catholics, but others also, exerted all the powers of their ingenuity both to invalidate the testimony on which the story rests, and to confute it by an accurate computation of dates. . . . Something must necessarily have taken place at Rome to give rise to this most uniform report of so many ages; but even yet it is not clear what that something was."
In short, every a priori argument which can be urged in favor of the credibility of a myth has been urged, and that by men of undoubted ability and learning, in support of the legend of the woman-pope. The prevalence of the belief, the existence of ceremonies supposed to have their rise in the facts handed down by the tradition, the improbability of error, the absence of any temptation to fraud on the part of those who propagated the report of this papal scandal, the very improbability of the tale, have all been urged with prodigious force to prove it true, and are exactly the considerations which suggest themselves to every one unacquainted with early history when attempting to estimate the value of mythical narratives. Yet we venture to say that no intelligent man can read Dr. Dollinger's essay without coming to the conclusion that there is no more reason to believe in the existence of Pope Joan than the existence of a centaur or a chimera.
Our space does not allow us to trace out minutely the course of Dr. Dollinger's argument. The lines of reasoning by which he assaults the credibility of the tradition are, speaking generally, as follows: He shows, in the first place, and this point he may be said absolutely to demonstrate, that the tale, despite a prima-facie appearance to the contrary, cannot be traced to any date earlier than 1278, and that there is every reason for supposing that it did not circulate even as a popular tradition till three or four centuries after the date assigned to Pope Joan's death. He again shows that, as is the way with legendary tales, the tradition becomes more and more circumstantial the further it removes from the time of the events to which it refers. He lastly takes the ceremonies aud other circumstances which are supposed to bear witness to Pope Joan's death, and shows that each of them has in reality no reference to her, but that, collectively they probably afford the basis, slender as it is, on which popular imagination built up the legend. The avoidance by the Papal cortege of a particular street because it was too narrow for a procession to pass through it; the existence of a strange statue which seemed to the populace to resemble a woman; the fact that a pope at his installation seated himself on an oddly-shaped seat, seem to have been the materials which suggested to the fancy of the ignorant and imaginative inhabitants of Rome the marvellous legend which was created by the people, caught up by annalists and preachers, and at last intruded into the records of history.
As Dr. Dollinger treats the legend of Pope Joan so he treats the Donation of Constantine and the myths which have grown up round Sylvester II., and turned a pope held in great honor by his contemporaries into a necromancer who entered into a league with the devil, aud exercised his pontifical office in the devil's service. The tales he deals with are of various degrees of interest, but his mode of treatment is unvarying, and the result of his careful analysis is always the same. Be invariably establishes the one great and important result, that in certain stages of civilization, and under certain conditions, myths spring up with the rapidity and exuberance with which weeds arise in a rich but uncultivated soil. It is of course perfectly true that to prove one tradition false or uncertain, is very far from proving, what no competent critic would maintain, that traditions never embody popular reminiscences of real transactions. The immediate effect of such speculations as Dr. Dollinger's is merely negative. They show that the mere fact that narratives have been for ages received as history does not of itself afford any strong presumption that they are historical. But if once this be granted, the groundwork of the argument in favor of the credibility of, e.g., the early history of Rome is knockod away, and the person who makes the concession is prepared to commence historical investigations at the right end, by asking not why should we disbelieve, but why should we believe, the facts of so-called mythical history? This enquiry suggests the further aud most interesting question. Is it possible to lay down any rules or canons by which to discriminate the mythical aud historical elements of tradition? This is an enquiry to which we may at some future day return, but which is not directly proposed or answered in Dr. Dollinger's beautiful analysis of 'Papal Fables.'
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