By Valerie Hotchkiss
Acta Conventus Neo-Latini Hafniensis : proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of neo-Latin studies : Copenhagen, 12 August to 17 August 1991 (1994)
For reasons which remain unclear, a titillating legend arose among thirteenth-century monastic chroniclers that a woman had once ascended to the papacy. This papa mulier not only became an established figure in papal lists, but also found notoriety in art, literature, theological disputes, and historical writing. According to most accounts, she was a young woman of English or German descent (variously named Johanna, Agnes, Glancia, Gilberta, or Jutta), who assumed male identity in order to attend a university with her lover. Her scholarly diligence led to rapid advancement through the clerical ranks until she reached the pinnacle of the ecclesiastical hierarchy by being unanimously elected pope. After a two-and-a-half-year reign under the name Johannes, the pope’s true nature was made manifest when, during a ceremonial procession, she fell to the ground and gave birth to a child. The outcome of this revelation varies in the numerous accounts. Some say an angry mob killed the impostor, others that she was imprisoned or simply deposed and exiled; the majority, however, claims she died in childbirth. Although the legend was conclusively debunked in the seventeenth century by David Blondel, the authenticity of the papess remained largely undisputed throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The female pope is generally said to have lived in the mid-ninth century, but this is attested in no documents dating from before the thirteenth century. Nonetheless, defenders of the historicity of the account, such as the sixteenth-century Protestant historian Johannes Wolf (1537-1600), who compiled a bibliography of literature on the papess, frequently claimed earlier sources. Indeed accounts of the papess do appear in manuscripts of earlier texts, including the important ninth-century Liber Pontificalis attributed to Anastasius Bibliothecarus, but this and other such references to the female pope all have been proven to be later insertions. Most of the early chroniclers report the story more as a curiosity than as a negative reflection on the papacy or women. They often use the story to explain origins of papal ceremonies and traditions. For example, it was maintained that papal processions avoided a certain narrow street in Rome because the female pope had given birth and died there. Furthermore, the use of an ancient commode-shaped marble throne in papal investitures was sometimes attributed to the deception of the papess. Such a throne, it was said, allowed the cardinals to inspect the genitals of a papal candidate before his installation. One author even explained the under-representation of Germans among the popes by pointing to this German woman whose scandalous deed made Rome suspicious of all her countrymen.
More importantly, however, the legend of the female pope became a topical, but powerful argument in polemics against ecclesiastical irregularities. William of Ockham (ca. 1349), for example, deduced from the legend that the cardinals could err in their choice of pope. A half century later another proponent of the movement, concilior Jean Gerson (1393-1429), cited the affair as evidence of ecclesiastical error in the past and urged the divided church to put aside questions of right or wrong and strive for reconciliation: “sed etiam in talibus Ecclesia fallere dicitur et falli, sicut dum multo tempore feminam pro papa coluit.” [But, indeed, in great matters the church has erred and has been deceived: as when, in that turbulent time, it chose a woman as pope.] These critical voices grew louder as calls for reform in the church became more frequent.
See also: Pope Joan: a recognizable syndrome